the cracked world of Charlie Brooker is coming to Netflix.
We Brits tend to have conflicted feelings about our countrymen having success overseas. It makes you feel like politely waving a small Union Jack on a stick. But there’s often an accompanying fear that will spoil things: that your favourite band might return from touring US arenas as coke-addled egomaniacs. So we’ll understand if you feel any trepidation about tech-nightmares anthology show Black Mirror leaving Channel 4 behind to go global, with the first of two six-episode orders for streaming giant Netflix.
It’s a move that’s come about in large part due to how well the show did when it debuted on Netflix US in December 2014, when the critical garlands included a tweet of praise from Stephen King – something which delighted creator Charlie Brooker.
“I’m a big Stephen King fan,” says Brooker. “Who wouldn’t be chuffed about that? When we were making the original series we weren’t thinking in terms of people around the world at all – we were just thinking, ‘Let’s not fuck this up!’ We figured it was a pretty British show.”
So does moving to a new home fundamentally change the approach? The fact that episode one of the new batch, “San Junipero”, opens in California in 1987 might cause you to wonder whether there’s a drive to internationalise the show.
“Well, we’re aware this is being launched globally, so people in Mumbai will be able to watch it at the same time as people in Kettering,” acknowledges Brooker. “So that’s in our head somewhere. And there’s more variance in setting. But we’ve still got some very British things going on throughout, and British settings for several episodes, so hopefully we’re marrying a global outlook with a British sensibility. We’re still flying the flag!”
American audiences assume I’m, like, the Unabomber
When it comes to the nostalgia-fest that’s “San Junipero” – centred on a nightclub where pretty young things dance to the likes of The Bangles and Belinda Carlisle – it’s a case of the story naturally suggesting the setting.
“I was thinking, ‘How could we do a period episode?’,” Brooker explains. “More than thinking, ‘We’re on Netflix now, so let’s give this one an American setting.’ It suited the story. Also, it was unexpected. When you put Black Mirror on you probably expect to see someone with a translucent phone frowning, going, ‘Argh, these machines are ruining my life!’ So I thought, ‘Well okay, we’ll open in 1987 California. We don’t want to just be the show where every week someone has their life ruined by a device. Which isn’t to say that we don’t have moments that are really horrible, because we do! But there’s slightly more variance in tone.”
That’s certainly true of “San Junipero”, which focuses on a touching romance, and has a conclusion Brooker describes as “the closest we get to a feelgood ending”. Yes, the series which brought us mass-participation punishment of a child-killer and the Prime Minister shagging a pig now has an episode you could legitimately describe as “heartwarming”. “It’s not always a complete and utter bleakfest,” Brooker adds. “We’ve got slightly more satirical episodes, as well as unfolding nightmares.”
Would he ever do an out-and-out comedy, like The Twilight Zone used to?
“Well, one is probably the closest to that that we’ve done. But there’s always little jokes in there. Because an American audience doesn’t have knowledge of me as a comedy writer they assume I’m, like, the Unabomber – some anti-technology zealot who’s trying to warn the world! But nine times out of ten the stories come about from an idea that makes me fucking piss myself! Then it’s interesting to play it out straight.”
As well as a greater range of setting and tone, season three has a little more visual variety.
“When we did the first season it started with the contemporary Britain of ‘The National Anthem’,” Brooker recalls, “Then went to ‘Fifteen Million Merits’, a completely fantastical world. We hadn’t done that in the second season – things were a little more normalised. So we’ve got weirder stuff going on in some of these episodes.”
If you’re fretting that transplanting Black Mirror to Netflix might somehow result in dilution or artistic compromise, rest assured: these moves to put a few more flavours in the chocolate box aren’t the result of the clouds parting as a Netflix exec delivers a directive in the booming tones of God.
“They’ve been very hands-off,” Brooker says. “Pretty much all they said was, ‘You’ve done seven episodes so far. We like those. Carry on doing that sort of thing.’”
But being involved with the streaming service has had an impact on the budget. “We were aware that there was a bigger canvas to play with,” Brooker acknowledges. Netflix’s profile, reach and reputation have also helped attract a different order of talent – including directors with the name recognition of Atonement’s Joe Wright and 10 Cloverfield Lane’s Dan Trachtenberg. Though Brooker’s had a hand in every script, he’s also welcomed new collaborators, including Parks And Recreation’s Rashida Jones (who played Ann) and Mike Schur (the show’s creator).
“People are aware that there’s quite a lot of creative freedom,” Brooker explains, “and that it’s an immediate global platform. We’re working to a large scale, with some very experienced directors. And the different directors each bring a different sensibility. Dan’s film plays to his strengths in terms of tension and claustrophobia, and has a delicious sense of fun. Joe Wright’s is extremely cinematic, has an idiosyncratic visual style and its own palette, and again is probably not what people are expecting from Black Mirror.”
With all six episodes due to go live simultaneously, Brooker says he’s fascinated to see how audiences will respond to the new delivery method.
“I think it’s the perfect format for anthology shows. The Twilight Zone was often on the verge of cancellation because it didn’t rate that well – because there’s no cliffhanger, there’s no reason to tune in next week. We’ve been approaching them – with our hifalutin’ ways – as little films. And because there’s a lot of variety throughout the six, it’ll be like having a little short film festival delivered to you.”
Just for a moment, he can savour the thought. Then he remembers.
“And then there’s another six a year down the line, which I’m already worrying about...”
Black Mirror comes to Netflix on 21 October.