So, Charlie Brooker has returned, to slap us in our complacent faces once more.
Once was the time, we tell ourselves, that our television was the envy of the world. My university lecturers told me. The critics I used to rub shoulders with at press-showings and festivals told me. The text books I recommend to my students tell me. Look at "Prime Suspect", they all say, or "Cracker" and before that "Edge of Darkness". Look at Dennis Potter and Alan Bleasdale! No argument from me about any of that. But that's all very, very old!
When you try and find something comparable from the last ten years ... That's where opinions are less unanimous. There's no shortage of excellence these days, but I fear that the moulds have been broken and the writings of your Tony Jordans, Paul Abbotts, Russell T. Davieses and even the (in my opinion) vastly over-valued Stephen Poliakoffs, pale in comparison to the 'greats' of the 'golden age' of the eighties. We’ve been impressed by literate, impassioned, artistic telly … Now we need to be more impressed!
Of course, part of that will be the break-up of the traditional viewing habits. it's rare now for ten million people to be watching the same programme on the same day. But the programmes that do command a huge audience, a loyal audience that tune in week after interminable week, an audience which feels so invested in the show they will Twitter about it, Facebook about it and even pay cash money to be involved in its outcome ... Are the reality shows and the soaps.
These don’t ennoble us. They do not aspire to be literature.
These are the factories out of which churn the new breed of 'celebrities' ... The business of show needs a steady stream of affordable celebrities as commodities to sell at a profit. And we accommodatingly worship these celebrities in an empty, envious and ultimately short-lived way. Our relationships with them go through a few fairly familiar stages ... Indifference, which becomes Mild Interest, then Fascination ... but, the relationship becomes abusive when we turn on them and develop a taste for their Pain. Only when that Pain is not of their own devising (such as in the case of Jade Goody's Cervical Cancer) does our sense of Guilt disguise itself as Sympathy.
At the moment, we are watching the Leveson Inquiry into tabloid journalists' invasion of people's privacy in search of the mud their front pages sling. We tut and mutter about the failure of standards and shameful immorality and try to ignore the creeping knowledge that they would have stopped doing it if we had stopped buying the papers.
There are several reasons I don't buy (or read) tabloids. Personal ethics is one of them.
There are several reasons I generally try to avoid 'reality shows'. Their cruelty is one of them.
The audience has become cruel. Of course, there's nothing new in this ... At least we're not standing in town squares to watch poor people getting hung anymore. Not literally.
I suspect that this cruelty has to do with the marching infantalisation of society. Education no longer prepares people for adulthood, it insulates them against failure. The welfare and tax systems punish those who act like responsible adults and attempt to pay their way rather than scraping by on handouts, meanwhile the popular media is obsessed with undemanding, familiar spectacle at the cost of analysis, insight and originality. It is not unusual now to age without growing.
Children laugh at others' misfortune without the conscience of an adult; they don't pause to think "There but for the grace of God ... " Well, that's okay, they're children, they're allowed. It's when those children are fully grown, with children of their own, that this unformed, uncivilised, bullying mind-set becomes an issue.
Which is where Charlie Brooker comes in. He's had the better part of a decade of watching and writing about the appalling brain-softening bilge that swells and bubbles flatulently between the ad breaks on our nation's most-watched channels. His loathing is detailing in a characteristic mix of eloquent insight and scatological spite. And, yes, he’s cruel. He sometimes feigns shock at his own levels of cruelty, then continues to unrepentantly re-demonstrate them every time he or his words appear.
But, of course, he is merely reflecting, satirically, the cruelty of the medium on which he comments.
He is also a major adopter of and leading contributor to social media (well, Twitter) with which the traditional media are attempting to maintain a clumsy symbiotic relationship. Social media has proven itself, time and again, to be a viral breeding ground of childish knee-jerk reaction. With no pause for reflection, people react and share their displeasure, even if the thing to which they are reacting is actually nothing (such as the regular ‘scares’ over Facebook starting to charge).
I have no idea how tasteless jokes used to circulate like wild-fire in the days before text and Twitter, but there’s no doubting how it happens now!
It was, therefore, only a matter of time before someone wrote a satire about both the old and new media egging each other on; and it is no great shock that Brooker thought of it first.
So, finally, I get round to what I intended to be writing about 800-odd words ago … Black Mirror. This is a triptych (though I doubt the author would call them that) of thematically linked films (though I think British TV still likes to think of them as ‘plays’) and the first is called ‘The National Anthem’.
The name, ‘Black Mirror’ suggests that the reflection of ourselves we see in the TV screen is a darker, crueller version of our actual selves. Things of which we disapprove in reality, we willingly, enthusiastically watch on screen. Morally, we are darker there. The title alone, then, is a telling metaphor of our relationship with our screens.
And what do we watch, in this black mirror? Programmes about the worst aspects of ourselves. It was inevitable, then, that this programme would be cruel. Cruel in the way that South Park and Family Guy are cruel. Cruel in the way Frankie Boyle is cruel. Full of merciless, insightful, intelligent, judgemental cruelty. But, unlike all these other peddlers of illusory human suffering, Brooker implicates the audience.
We have an appetite for televised cruelty but - partly in-hand with that childish sense of humour we now have and partly nurtured by a decade of I’m A Celebrity – this appetite is sated as much by embarrassment as it is by pain.
And so Brooker posits a situation where a member of the Royal family is kidnapped and held to ransom. The price being that the Prime Minster must fuck a pig on live television. You know this already, because you’ve heard/read about the programme in the flurry of prurient coverage it has received.
That, right there, was Brooker’s brainstorm: Criticise our addiction to sensationalising others’ embarrassment and suffering by creating exactly the kind of sensation he is targeting.
In the show, the whole country revels in the anticipation of the misery to be inflicted on their Prime Minister, much as we waited in eager anticipation to see this, Brooker’s latest diatribe. Then the British people in the film actually watch ‘the event’ and their appetite withers. That’s the thing with appetites … They’re all about anticipation. But, however distasteful people find it, they keep watching. We are shown empty street after empty street. The entire country is indoors, watching the degradation of their leader.
I thought the idea was loathsome. I was genuinely frightened that they would actually show ‘the event’. But I kept watching.
Brooker’s targets are many: Politicians who will literally do anything to hang on to power, simply because an opinion poll tells them to (the saving of a life is only ever a secondary motivation here); Journalists who will use any manipulative technique to get a lead on a story (here, the ambitious journalist in question rather satisfyingly gets shot); but, mostly you and me for our unwillingness to turn away from the car-wreck. It is what Joseph Conrad called ‘the fascination of the abomination’.
If this programme is offending you, he challenges, then simply turn it off. Such are the depths that TV has plunged to that this scenario – something from a sick joke told by a drunkard – is where Brooker has to take us in order to make his point. This is how low you have to go to be shocking these days. Of course, in doing so, he has simply lowered the bar even further.
This isn’t the first TV programme to challenge the audience for its unwillingness to avert its gaze. I am put in mind of the excellent 1983 movie Special Bulletin which takes the form of a news broadcast beaming live from a boat anti-nuclear protestors are about to destroy with a nuclear weapon. In that, the protestors repeatedly challenge the networks carrying their feed to pull the plug if they disapprove of the ‘terrorism’. Of course, no one does.
|Special Bulletin ... And this news just in ... You're all fucked. Now Tammy with the weather.|
All this grumbling about lowering standards probably makes me sound like someone who promotes censorship. Nah. Censorship never works and usually succeeds in creating the opposite response to the one desired (cf the ‘Video Nasties Banned List’ which immediately became a collectors’ wants list). No, what I would like is some self-restraint. We should have the freedom create and consume whatever (legal) images we please. But just because we can doesn’t mean we should. And, even if we must, surely it would be better if we did so as a statement of independence, of defiance, and not simply so some impossibly wealthy tycoon can increase their market share by pandering to our basest desires?
Brooker has realised that the only way to really throttle the life out of the spineless TV monster he loathes (whilst it is making him a wealthy man), is to get down there in the gutter with it.
It is a satire. This is why no one thinks to print the finger. That’s why the people clustered around their TVs mutter about the ‘Dogma 95’ aesthetic. Sadly, like most good satire, that point will, in the fullness of time, be lost and all that will remain will be the memory of something shocking that people quite enjoyed.
The look on Rory Kinnear’s face as he is going through with his public humiliation will live me for a while … It's just as well he's got his Hamlet out of the way already, because I wonder if I will ever be able to look at his face in any role he plays from now on, without remembered the grimace, the sobbing, the drool … Because the idea at the heart of this pieces is so entirely loathsome. Far less loathsome – but far more troubling – is the Prime Minister’s willingness to go through with it.
Thing is, we know no one would in the real world … But it serves as a commentary on the ambitions of those in Power and how they will, in order to hang on to that power, abandon any ethical and moral stand they ever took. New Labour did it. The new Lib Dens did it. The Tories haven’t, but that’s only because they only ever pay lip-service to ethics and morals, they don’t actually believe in any of it.
Brooker’s final master-stroke is the revelation of who the kidnapper is and why they did it. If you haven’t seen it, I won’t spoil it. But it’s a whole new target for Brooker’s withering scorn!
So, will this show be held up a glowing example of the new golden age of TV writing? Will it enshrine Brooker’s name on the same monuments as Potter’s and Bleasdale’s? Well, only if its story ceases to feel so extreme and distasteful; only if our culture continues on its downward spiral to infantile, puerile, docile oblivion. So, yes, then; very probably.