BACK IN BLACK
Charlie Brooker’s dreaming of a dark Christmas… Stephen Kelly enters the twisted realm of Black Mirror
Of course there’s tinsel,” grins Charlie Brooker, gesturing to a portion of it hanging above a door. “It’s Christmas!” The bit of tinsel in question is a sad looking thing, a golden strand that decorates the wall of a wood cabin – the sort that you’d associate with desolation, of post- apocalyptic survival, rather than chestnuts roasting on an open fire. Dotted around are attempts at festive cheer: a dying Christmas tree, a half- eaten turkey dinner, Santa grinning out from a garish Toby Jug. All blackly funny against the bleak backdrop, all typical of what you might expect from a Black Mirror Christmas special.
For those not acquainted with the twisted world of Black Mirror, it’s the dystopian anthology series of Charlie Brooker – Guardian columnist, sweary presenter of Screenwipe and writer of 2008’ s Big Brother zombie satire
Dead Set – that grimly ponders where the not- so- distant- future of technology is taking us. From 2011’ s first episode “The National Anthem”, in which the Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is forced to have sex with a pig on live television, it cut a figure like no other. It was dark, it was challenging, it was sci- fi with a point to prove: that if the drug of modern technology has us hooked, then there must be side effects. “One of our models was the original
Twilight Zone,” explains Brooker, on set today at Twickenham Studios. “It came out at a time of change and uncertainty and I wanted to do something similar for what’s affecting us now: technology. I kind of felt like this wasn’t being studied in other drama serials. It felt like an untapped resource for creepy, dark ‘ what if ?’ stories.”
Over the course of two series, those stories have varied in topic, theme and tone. Its opening three episodes, each an hour long, established the show’s ambition, “The National Anthem” tackling voyeurism and news in the Twitter age; “15 Million Merits”, co- written with Brooker’s wife Konnie Huq, envisioning a terrifying future of reality TV and Jesse Armstrong’s “The Entire History Of You”, which took the huge science fiction concept of a world able to record and play back memories and condensed it down to one paranoid, crumbling relationship. Series two, meanwhile, fully hit its stride with the thought- provoking “Be Right Back”, in which a widow clones her dead husband and has his personality extrapolated from his social media presence. Then there was the harrowing “White Bear”, whose twist revealed a rightwing nightmare; and “The Waldo Moment”, in which a sweary cartoon dog enters politics.
“The stories are more about the consequences rather than technology itself,” says Brooker. “The way we just spend a lot of our time, the way we communicate with other people, that’s changed massively in a short period of time and it keeps shifting again and again. We’ve not really had time to think through the consequences of it all. In fact, the biggest challenge is coming up with the fictional version of some nightmare future before it unfolds. Certainly with the first two seasons, things that we’ve put in there have sort of happened, like a website [ liveson. org] that would curate your tweets and assemble a version of you after you die. It’s terrifying.”
cracking the story
Wright fave Rafe Spall and Don Draper himself, Mad Men’s Jon Hamm.
“I heard he was a big fan of the show,” says Brooker. “Then he was in London and his agent got in touch with us, saying ‘ Jon wants to meet up as he’s a fan.’ So we met with him for a meal and it was just a social occasion. And then I went off and then I was like, ‘ Hang on a minute. He says he’s a big fan of the show...’ I was writing the script at the time, and the character [ that Jon Hamm would play] was quite different. Originally he was going to be this cheeky cockney guy and I thought, ‘ Something about that is a bit weird anyway,’ and then you think, ‘ Hang on a minute, if I change this and this, would he? No... surely not.’ Then I thought, ‘ If you don’t ask, you don’t get.’ He got back really quickly.”
The special takes the form of a featurelength hour and a half long episode, which centres around Hamm’s Matt and Spall’s Potter swapping stories of life before they ended up at this snowy, remote cabin.
“The structure of it is three interweaving stories that are being told by Jon and Rafe’s characters. Matt is the chattier of the two, while Potter has been extremely taciturn up until that point. And because it’s Christmas Day, Matt is making Christmas lunch to try and break the ice. And breaking the ice takes the form of, initially, Matt telling stories of his own life. So, he starts explaining what went wrong for them to have ended up there, as they do a real shitty job.”
Unlike what we’ve seen of Black Mirror so far, this will be the first time that the show’s different tales will be told in the same continuity.
“The stories are shorter, but they’re all in one and there’s an over- arching story that connects the whole thing together. So it’s longer and shorter, if you see what I mean. You’re getting a sort of compilation. If the
“things that we put in the first two seasons have SINCE happened”
inspiration for Black Mirror was The Twilight
Zone, for this it’s a hybrid of compendium films like [ Ealing ’s 1945] Dead Of Night, or the Amicus horror films of the ’ 70s, like Robert Powell visiting the lunatic asylum in Asylum. It’s like a short story collection.”
secrets and lies
The three stories themselves are shrouded in mystery, with Brooker reluctant to go into detail on concepts and plot. One he is quite open about, though, focuses on the idea of being able to block people – as you would do on Twitter – in real life.
“You use this particular type of technology where everyone has this computeristic vision,” he explains, “so if I was to block you, you’d be a silhouette to me, and I’d be a silhouette to you, and you’d be anonymised. I wouldn’t be able to hear you either, so you wouldn’t be able to communicate with me, and vice versa.
So it’s that notion of blocking people on social media, if you could do that in reality.
“I remember yonks ago having an idea on what would happen if people had magic goggles to airbrush out the homeless. That was years ago. Then you see Google Glass coming along, and you think, ‘ Hang on a minute, we’re not far away from that sort of thing happening.’ So, that’s an interesting question in itself: if people could do that, clean up the world by pushing a button by their eyes, would they bother fixing real social problems? If they didn’t have to step over someone on the way to the cashpoint because they couldn’t see or hear them, would they still care?”
The other two stories, however, are being kept vague at best.“There’s another story where Jon’s character is advising in an unusual form of romantic guidance to a naive young man. So he’s offering romantic guidance. It’s like coaching, mentoring. That has a technological aspect to it. And the other story... I can’t explain what it’s really about without blowing the whole premise. Let’s say... you see a woman going in for an operation. What if you had an operation in Black Mirror? Let’s put it that way. It’s really, really hard to explain the story without screwing them up. Channel 4 have asked for some clips for a promo and we were going, ‘ What the fuck can we actually give them?’ When you see it then hopefully you’ll know what I mean.” One thing ’s for sure, though: the Black
Mirror Christmas special, festive though it is, is certainly still Black Mirror. Is there something Brooker finds particularly dark about the holiday season?
“Have you seen EastEnders? I mean we’re not that fucking dark. That’s pretty much, you know, people tossing kittens into furnaces on Christmas Day…”
Black Mirror airs on Channel 4 on 6 December.
Eggnog always strikes twice.
“Listen, Egg. I like you, you like me, but this isn’t going to work.”