Film and Television Features

Slack-Jawed and Square-Eyed #4

There's something both wonderful and problematic about Charlie Brooker's career trajectory. Having gone from game reviewer web-based satirist, to 'legitimate' critic (not that that's meant to be a disparaging comment on his previous work, rather that his being granted a platform in The Guardian and on the BBC instantly gave his scattershot bile an air of respectability), columnist and script-writer and presenter, he's been a much needed presence in the still Oxbridge-dominated media in Britain. On the other hand, his transition to programme-maker does add fuel to those arguments that critics are nothing more than frustrated artists.

There's also the suspicion that, being part of the critical fraternity, he might be getting something of an easy ride: his Big Brother-based zombie drama Dead Set was an original idea, well executed, but at the time there was a notable lack of comments about some dodgy lapses in the writing (that “cat's teeth” line still haunts me). So perhaps the pre-screening hype for Black Mirror (Sunday, Channel 4) was best taken with a pinch of salt.

Billed as something of a Twilight Zone take on the role of technology in our lives, and described equally as comedy, drama, sci-fi and horror, it probably shouldn't have come as much of a surprise that tonally the show's a bit all over the place. Having seen the first two episodes now, I'm still not quite sure what to make of it, it being in equal parts moving, thought-provoking, amusing and irritatingly facile in its apparent aiming at fairly soft targets. And to be honest a bit weirded out by the whole thing. Not because the first episode revolved around the Prime Minister (the most thinly veiled portrayal of Cameron you're ever likely to see) being blackmailed into having sex with a pig on live TV, or that the second foul-mouthed, porn-filled story was co-written by Brooker's wife, former children's TV presenter Konnie Huq (thus retrospectively giving Blue Peter, the cosiest TV show ever made, a bit of an edge), but rather because it's making me feel like I'm getting a bit too deep into Brooker's brain.

Over the years I've avidly consumed his columns, programmes and assorted rants on Twitter and so am well aware of what he thinks of David Cameron, The X Factor etc etc, although with the man being celebrated for his bile I could have probably made an accurate guess without reading the articles in the first place. But, what makes Black Mirror interesting, and slightly alarming is that with him being given the time and the space to work out his annoyances and concerns, what's emerged have been fairly even handed portraits; he spent most of the summer trying to convince the world that David Cameron was a lizard in ill-fitting human skin, then turned in an oddly sympathetic understanding of the pressures the man faces, and his X Factor/Britain's Got Talent spoof both savaged the show and everything it stood for, while also pointing out that that arguments for 'authenticity' that come from the opposing faction are ultimately just as flawed. The result is the feeling of being trapped inside one man's nervous breakdown. Perhaps if there's something to be learnt from this, it's that it's best to avoid reading anything about the thoughts and opinions of writers and filmmakers that you admire.

Not that I hope that that's the only thing that people take away from this. While the morals and messages have been a bit too simplistic to hit quite as hard as they should, there's still stuff to think about here: the first story, with much of its run-time devoted to shots of the nation watching events unfold on TV, as to our current very strange relationship with democracy; the second raising questions about the 'gamification' of everyday life. More importantly though, both episodes shown thus far show provide a wonderful reminder of the benefits of the British TV system. While we're all falling over ourselves to proclaim American (or Scandinavian) imports as “the greatest show of all time”, the often frustrating low-budget, irregular nature of the BBC and Channel 4 does in theory allow for the flourishing of writer-led drama such as this. Or the importance of getting in respected stage actors for a comedy about bestiality (what really made it work was Rory Kinnear and Lindsay Duncan managing to keep a very straight face throughout). Or that of well-thought out scheduling as, in addition to creating a sense of 'event television' with the heavily played, but rather enigmatic trailers that ran for weeks in advance, the show's timing has made it all the more effective – the first, with its (admittedly slightly reactionary for my tastes) Turner Prize-featuring subplot coming the day before the real thing's prize giving ceremony; the second shown straight after The X Factor final. (I did also start to wonder if the excessive amount of ad breaks during episode two had been an intentional ploy to make Brooker and Huq's consumerist dystopia hit home even harder)  

Needless to say, I felt duty bound because of that to attempt to sit through those shows and to review them too, and also needless to say that neither turned out quite as interesting as the version in Black Mirror. In fact I couldn't get through The X Factor (Sunday, ITV), not because I'm morally opposed to it, or view it as insultingly stupid (it is, but then I've been known to watch an episode, or several, of Strictly Come Dancing in my time, so apparently nothing's too stupid for me... other than Desperate Scousewives), but rather because it was so unbearably loud – the audience were screaming, the contestants were wailing and the presenters (and there seemed to be far more of them than was really necessary) were yelling, and that was about it, other than the alarming fact that I was actually sort of pleased to see Coldplay on there; albeit mostly because they looked like they felt as uncomfortable with Dermot O'Leary's presenting style as I did. Conversely, this year's Turner Prize show (Monday, C4) was quite spectacularly sedate; whereas most years you can rely on there to be some sort of a controversy about the nominees (and early reports suggested this year would be no different, if only for the installation largely assembled out of bath bombs), this time the artwork barely had a look in – presumably because the production team realised that people don't really watch the Turner Prize to educated about art – and the artists themselves were all boringly good sports. Instead what we got was Lauren Laverne interviewing the man whose job she stole Matthew Collings, who seemed to be slowly turning into the Cowardly Lion and Goldie, who was either becoming a tortoise or slowly being eaten by his scarf, all being annoyingly eloquent and well-mannered. Thank god there was a streaker – arguably another of Britain's most significant cultural exports – to add a frisson of danger, this being live TV and all. Shame that, as with the artworks, we didn't get to see much though.