George Orwell once wrote: “If you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever.”
Now we know that’s a GIF, endlessly looping.
I’ve heard about another guy cursed with visions of the future so I’ve come to a haunted house to find him. It looks like the one you probably had nightmares about as a kid: gothic architecture, vines creeping up the walls and floorboards that creak like escaping ghouls. Bad news, friend. That nightmare haunted house is real and it’s in Henley-on-Thames.
In the dimly lit hall is one of those eerily realistic paintings of the house itself that you keep peering at, half expecting to see yourself trapped in a window. Beneath it stands the man I’m looking for, supervising as one of his stories is brought to life. “I suppose you’re like a guide,” he says of his role here. “Like someone who’s seen these fabulous visions, and then the people from the village are asking: ‘What did you see beyond the mist?’ And you’re telling them.” Charlie Brooker pauses for a beat. “That’s the cuntiest way I could think of to describe it.”
In its five years on our screens Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror has given us a string of dead-on predictions. They range from the expected – people filming their entire lives in 2011 episode The Entire History of You two years before Google Glass – to the rather less expected. “Who would have thought,” asks Brooker, “That the [prime minister] pig-fucking episode would be the most accurate one?”
After two series and a Christmas special for Channel 4, Brooker and fellow producer Annabel Jones will premiere the third series of Black Mirror exclusively on Netflix tomorrow. It’s a move that granted the pair an increased budget, which Brooker says has all been put to good use. “There’s more things you can do with it,” he says. “We have episodes set in California, and a bit of CGI. The scale of it is different. The fact that the actors are clothed and have shoes. That it was written on a golden typewriter…”
Our supposed soothsayer is taking the absolute piss. What they’ve actually been spending the money on is stars like Bryce Dallas Howard and Kelly MacDonald and directors like Atonement’s Joe Wright and 10 Cloverfield Lane’s Dan Trachtenberg. In fact, Trachtenberg is hard at work right now upstairs in this haunted house. We can hear the echoing screams of Wyatt Russell – son of Kurt, last seen in Richard Linklater’s Everybody Wants Some – being dragged around unsure of what’s real and what’s not.
When the scene is over, Trachtenberg explains how Brooker has managed to become so attuned at bringing our fears to life. “You can see the show in his personality,” he points out. “He’s observational, and he’s always finding the irony in things. He’s a concerned guy but his worries are often very funny. They’re not funny to him! He’s really worried, but the way he expresses them are funny for us.”
Trachtenberg is directing an episode called Playtest, which sees Russell’s character thrown into a terrifyingly immersive computer game. It’s one of six new episodes and, as Brooker explains on-set, he’s relished the freedom the new format has afforded him:
Now that you’re off conventional TV, were you tempted to indulge yourself in sprawling episodes?
Brooker: “We could make it eight hours long! If I could come up with a story where someone is stuck in a short time-loop we could keep them there for eight hours.”
Like those LPs with a circular groove at the end?
“Exactly. You could do that with ‘White Bear’. You could loop that episode again and again and again and just change the date that he crosses off. I’ll have to do that sometime… a little art installation for someone…”
Have Netflix been hands on?
“They’re very supportive and they’ve been very involved in that they’ve got an opinion on everything. I would say 99% of the time I agree with what they say, but they don’t impose things or give you instructions, it’s more suggestions. Most of the time what they’re saying is irritatingly well thought out and cogent and clever. You can’t go: ‘Bloody execs coming in and tinkering with my art!'”
Having six episodes this time must’ve given you more scope to explore different genres?
“Yeah, you kind of have to. Over six you need a wider variance in tone, otherwise it just becomes predictable. We’re not always necessarily going to have bleak endings, which is historically what we have had.”
So are we in for happy endings?
“Well, this is Black Mirror so… we don’t want people getting up and showing shoes at the screen because…”
Because you’ve made them happy and they’re furious?
“…because they smiled. Well, hopefully they will smile, occasionally, through the anguish. It’s a weird one. What people think the show is slightly depends on which episodes they’ve seen, obviously. If you’ve watched ‘Entire History Of You’ it feels like its commentary on personal relationships and technology, if you’re looking at ’15 Million Merits’ it’s more a satirical, cheerful dystopia. That’s a sarcastic version of now.”
Was that episode autobiographical?
“It turned out that way. We did jokingly refer to it as ‘The Screenwipe Story’, just in that the guy is railing against stuff and then ends up on TV. The original ending was slightly different, and I thought it was quite neat. Because he was constantly having to look at how many merits they were generating, in the original ending he ended up looking at how many ratings his show was generating. It was difficult to shoehorn that in, although it’s implied. It’s all allegorical. I was thinking of weird old Plays for Today that used to be on in the 80s, which probably happened by accident and wouldn’t be on today anywhere. There was this thing called ‘The Year of the Sex Olympics’, which was by Nigel Kneale, who did ‘Quatermass’. It’s not what it sounds like!”
That’s on Channel 5 now, I think.
“It probably is! It’s from 1968 and it’s got Leonard Rossiter in it and Brian Cox, not the physicist the actor, obviously. It predicts reality TV with quite a bizarre degree of accuracy. I watched it with my wife and we were going: ‘This is… now?’ There’s a bit of it which sort of predicts TV execs looking at Twitter, in a weird way. The entire population is kept dull by watching shows called things like the Tittedy Bum Dance Hour, and The Sex Olympics, and Fat People Falling Down, and that sort of thing… or is that our world? I’m getting mixed up. Anyway, to gauge how the shows are going down the producers have a panel of viewers who are sitting there constantly with a camera on their face, there’s about nine people on this panel, and they look at their facial expressions and go: ‘Oh no, they’re not liking it!’ That’s people looking at Twitter! Then they basically invent Big Brother in it. They say: ‘What we need is a show that’s completely unscripted. We’ll just get some people and put them in a house.’ It’s a bit like Survivor because they say: ‘Let’s put them on an unihabitated island and just have cameras on them 24 hours a day.’ They do that within the show. Obviously, there are all sorts of elements that seem quite clunky or old and creaky by today’s standards, but it was really ahead if its time. At the time I saw it I was thinking that you don’t really get those weird, one-off Plays for Today anymore where it’s just set in a giant onion because someone’s had the notion of doing that. You don’t get that sort of weirdness happening so much anymore, certainly not for one episode. So it was a very deliberate attempt to make something set in a bizarre universe that doesn’t really make sense and is just sort of ‘allegory land’. It felt like a statement of intent to do that early on. Some of these new episodes are set in quite odd environments.”
Does having a bit more budget help with that?
“Generally you can although often restrictions are quite good. You still have to approach it practically. We don’t have $50 million, but there’s definitely more you can do. There’s an episode called ‘Hated In The Nation’, which is a 90 minuter… roughly, we haven’t seen the first cut yet. It might be six minutes! It won’t be six minutes… That’s got a relatively large cast and lots of locations, and is on a scale that we probably couldn’t have done before. It’s got a pain-in-the-arse driverless car in it. It’s about two female police officers, not Cagney and Lacey or Rosemary and Thyme. They’re played by Kelly Macdonald and Faye Marsay.”
Is that your crime procedural episode?
“Kind of. It’s might start off like that. It’s closer to Scandi-noir than it is to… Rosemary and Thyme, for instance. It’s Scandi-noir meets Black Mirror, set in Britain. It becomes apparent quite quickly that it’s a bit odd. All the new episodes are atypical, but that one in particular is very different to anything we’ve done before because doing a police procedural is different. It’s sort of plot-driven rather than character-driven. You’re not focusing so much on a protagonist, which I guess is where the ‘procedure’ comes in.”
Is it strange for you to be on set like this and just oversee the director?
“I’m not always on set, but when I am I often tend to be chipping in on a logic point. Sometimes I’ll notice something and think: ‘Oh shit, I should change that line.’ Sometimes I’ll watch something and think: ‘That’s not how I interpreted it’ so you’ll go and have a conversation with the director. Generally if I’m here and there’s an issue it’s to do with logic. ‘We can’t do that, because this is a world where no-one has a phone!’ or that sort of thing. In this episode there was a debate about the level of reality that was going on. It was to do with whether an object would break. Could that object break? We worked out that it couldn’t, then we decided that actually, given the wider logic, it could. I can’t really explain it better than that! It’s ‘Inception’ levels of… hang on, that wouldn’t happen because that person isn’t really there. It’s that sort of thing, which is always the case. It was the case on ‘White Bear’, and the Christmas special was a nightmare in terms of the fucking levels of reality going on in that. It was imperative in that episode that you could see the blocking when you jumped in to someone’s head to see their point of view. It quite quickly became a mindfuck. There are scenes where people are walking around as blurred out silhouettes, and to do that we had to get all the extras to wear replicas of the clothes they’d worn in the other scene but in chroma key blue.”
Chroma key blue replicas of everything they’re wearing?
“Yeah. There’s a guy in a turban so he had to get a blue one. They were all wearing blue masks and gloves. Then we also had to have John Hamm for the reverse, so we had a blue John Hamm wandering around. It was quite a headache, and that tends to happen a lot.”
I’m sure someone will be swiftly along on Twitter to point out any logic errors
“They quite often do. Sometimes they identify a plot hole and they genuinely have and you think: ‘Oh, shit’ but sometimes they’re identifing something that you knew but went: ‘Oh, fuck it. Most people won’t notice or care and if they do it won’t matter.’ That happened with ‘The National Anthem’ a lot. There are a few little plot holes, which I think are addressed within it, but that are kind of implausible. Broadly it works, but that’s probably the most divisive episode we’ve done, I’d say. That’s why we’re going to do a sequel where he has to make a pig cum. No, we’re not going to do that.”
Do you write with an audience in mind, particularly now that the show has become an international success?
“No, I don’t really know who they’re aimed at. Sometimes you sort of think… well, the cliche is that you aim it at yourself, because you can’t really second guess who’s going to watch it. I don’t know that people are different around the world. I always concentrate more when I’m watching a show with subtitles, so I think lots of foreign TV is brilliant. That’s just because you can’t get distracted and go on Twitter when you’re reading this book that just happens to have people and furniture behind it.”
How do you think this series will be received?
“I can’t work it out. It’s the same but different. You don’t want it to be ‘the same’ because that’s the same, but you don’t want it to be too different. I’m probably not the best judge of how different it is. We’ve got more playful episodes than we’ve done before, and we’ve got heavier episodes than we’ve done before as well. We haven’t seen the final cut yet, so God knows what they’ll be like!”
As a writer, do you feel like you’ve already seen the episodes?
“You see them when you’re writing them, weirdly. I always think of writing as a bit like programming, which is a really unromantic way of looking at it, but it’s similar, I think, not that I’ve ever programmed anything, in that I’ll sometimes notice bugs later and think: ‘Oh fuck!’ Quite often I’ll slightly overwrite it and then when I go back and edit it and start hacking away at the stage directions I’ll realise I forgot to mention something and I’ve broken the logic of something completely. When I’m writing things, when you get on a roll with it, you tend to be seeing it so you’re sort of describing what’s happening, in some way. Getting to that state is the tricky bit. I tend to write very quickly once I know what I’m doing, and generally speaking… one of them this time round was a real pig to do. I kept rewriting and rewriting it, but otherwise they’ve come out relatively easily. I tend to now plans things a bit more than I used to, because it saves you time in the long run. I’ll write up the treatment firstwhere I broadly outline what’s going to happen, kind of the bullet point version of it. Then I’ll plot it out and write the scenes. It always massively changes, but if you didn’t have that road map to start with you’d go mental. I tend to go nocturnal when I’m writing. I tend to write at night… standing up, now, which is probably the biggest change!”
Didn’t Donald Rumsfeld have a standing desk?
“I don’t have a standing desk, I just got a cheap thing off Amazon which is like a stand that you put a laptop on because I wasn’t sure if I wanted to commit to the whole standing desk thing. What’s good about it is you just waste less time. You don’t sit there and think: ‘I’ve got to write a scene with a helicopter in it’ and then go on Wikipedia and look up helicopters, and then before you know it you’re watching episodes of Airwolf on YouTube.”
So you’re tricking yourself into writing quickly because you want to sit down?
“Yeah, you’re slightly uncomfortable the whole time but nowhere near as uncomfortable as you’d think. You’re writing, and then you go and sit down for a little rest.”
Do you have to unplug the internet?
“I tried that for a while. Standing up is better. It’s when you’re sat there slouching that you end up going on the internet constantly. I tried it before. I had a bit of software called Freedom that cuts off your internet connection. I discovered that it would work but a bit, but what’s terrifying about it is how often you would forget. You’d go to check your email and it would say: ‘Connection Error’ and you’d think: ‘What? Oh yeah, of course, I switched the internet off’ and then later you’d go back to it again, like a lab rat. You’d keep going back looking for that little dopamine hit. So I was using it for a bit, and it just cuts off your internet connection, so then I’d just start using my phone. I’d be sitting there staring at my phone, so that didn’t work either. I was talking to the novelist Ned Beauman, who might be doing something with us for the second season. He locks his phone in a kitchen safe, which is a perspex box with a timer on it. He locks it in there for hours and then goes off and works, so he can’t get to it. I haven’t tried that because I worry there’ll be an emergency.”
Ned’s also an advocate of wearing ear plugs to help you work.
“That’s a bit much. I’ll play music, but I can’t listen to anything with lyrics. I suppose it’s a similar thing to going nocturnal. There’s just fewer distractions. During the day you slightly feel like you should be outside, or you feel that time is ticking away, whereas at night you should either be asleep or doing that. I plot things out using Scrivener. I’m evangelical about using Scrivener to start with, and then I somehow segue into using Final Draft at some point in the process. I don’t do any of those things like having a system… I scarcely know what the first, second and third acts are, but I guess when you look back you go: ‘Oh, that’s adhered to that structure.’ I can’t keep all that stuff in my head about the hero’s quest or whatever. I think it’s masturbation, basically, or it’s interesting but it’s like music theory. Being told why a song is catchy isn’t the same. You kind of intrinsically know when something has gelled. Where we are in the cycle at the moment is that after we’ve done the last few days of shooting I’m about to start getting back into the writing process.”
Have you written the next six episodes yet?
Not at all?
“I know what some of them are. I know what quite a few of them are. It’s partly balancing. There was one that I wanted to do in this series but there was a similarity with something we’d done in the second season. Now I think enough water has gone under the bridge that we can do it. There’s quite a few ideas that have got the same sort of technological underpinning, so I know I can’t do all of those unless I come up with something like the Christmas special which is a portmanteau. That was a clearing house for lots of ideas I’d had that weren’t long enough to sustain a full episode, but I realised they could fit together. I’ve got a clear idea of what quite a few of them are. As for the others, they often start from a germ of an idea that it would be good if there was something a bit like this… but I don’t know quite what it is. Here’s a thing I’ve noticed, and then extrapolate from that. That’s slightly terrifying, because if it doesn’t happen we’re fucked!”
You’re not tempted to bring in other writers?
“Well, I said about Ned. For this run of six, two of them were written with other writers. There’s a guy called Will Bridges, who’s been writing on one of the episodes, and Mike Schur and Rashida Jones writing on one of the other ones. We’ve done that, and we’ll do that again for the second batch. It’s a difficult one for people to come in and slot into, because it’s probably a more idiosyncratic show than I realised when I first set it up. They are all different, and you could have almost anything happen in it, and it does have technology, but it doesn’t tend to be… I find it hard to articulate what a Black Mirror story is, but I know it when I think of it. The thing that lets me know I’ve hit on a good idea is when I start getting worried that someone else is going to do it. We’ve been quite lucky that that hasn’t quite happened yet. I start getting a real panic that I’ll see a trailer for a film with the same premise. It’s all a very different muscle to doing comedy stuff. It’s a completely different mode of thinking.”
Have the episodes you’ve made before measured up to how you first imagined them?
“Generally they’re better. It’s weird because they’re often really similar, but better because along the way you work out all sorts of ways of doing things. Sometimes things happen which are not what you envisioned at all, but which turn out to work and be a better idea. Generally speaking, bits that don’t work are things that didn’t work on the page, I always find. It’s pretty close. We’re involved in every aspect, including the edit, dubbing, all the designs… I get very nerdy about the typeface used on the phones, and all that sort of stuff. We don’t tend to do too much of that stuff that you get in Hollywood movies, which is getting better, but it always used to be that if the hero received an email there’d be a giant animation of an envelope spinning around. We don’t tend to do those kind of histrionic computers. We want our technology to feel real, or basically magic. In that respect, because I’m chipping in at every stage, it’s close to what I envisioned. That’s really what you’re being asked about: is this what you pictured? It’s amazing what difference things can make. Even at the stage of the audio mix you can alter something which massively affects a scene, for better or worse. Continuing to be involved in that stage does make a difference. That’s the thing I always forget about how long the gestation period is. From the inception of the idea through pre-production, production, post-production there’s a constant barrage of questions and decisions. Then people watch it and go: ‘Huh!’ It’s very different to doing topical comedy shows. That’s very intense for a very short period of time, and then its done and nobody is ever going to watch it again. Who’s still watching 2013 Wipe now? No-one. It’s a very different discipline.”
Does that make a difference to how much pressure you feel?
“It’s the same amount of pressure compressed into less time. The pressure is about the same. When you’re doing topical stuff… the weirdest one was when I was doing the live thing. That was immense pressure in an afternoon. Terrifying, and then it would be over in three or five minutes, my chunk. Then there’d be another fifty minutes on air. It was always a bit surreal when it finished. I was done for the week. I didn’t know what to do with myself. With this, it’s a constant low-level pressure. It’s enjoyable. It’s problem solving, a lot of the time.”
Has Black Mirror become your main job now?
“Certainly at the moment. We’ve postponed doing Weekly Wipe and stuff like that because you can’t really do it at the same time. We’ve postponed that for a bit. I’m doing the end of year show. It’s all-consuming, which means you can’t consume anything else…”
Is this what you feel happiest doing?
“I’m not happy doing anything. What is happiness? No… um… yeah, I think so. It’s a constant challenge.”
[Someone comes to announce that catering has arrived…]
“Shall we go and get some soup? He said, hungrily. We’ve set up a soup kitchen outside. I’d say it’s… It’s fucking cold. Jesus. Who broke the bloody weather?… I’ve got to stop swearing. I swear all the time… In terms of what I’m happiest doing, I like variety. Which is stupid, because generally all the things I’ve ever done have either been short runs or… Dead Set was one story, but it was a short one. Black Mirror is a different story each episode. Topical shows again are different every week. It’s bloody stupid, really, because it’s difficult! It means you don’t get many recurring characters… Philomena Cunk, I guess would be one. It seems to be the way I’m wired, for whatever reason.”
Even TV Go Home had that variety.
“Yeah. I started doing that specifically because I wanted to do something with comic strips. I did a website where I put comic strips up. But comic strips take so long to do, and are such a pain in the arse, and I wasn’t the world’s greatest cartoonist, so I thought that I should be doing something that I could just regularly update. So I started doing that because it was easy and bitty. I set myself the goal of doing it once a fortnight. At the time it was probably the most disciplined I’d ever been. It became quite popular, and that was what got me the job on The Guardian and things like that.”
What made you decide to do spoof TV listings?
“It wasn’t really my idea. It’s a thing that’s been done in novelty comedy books since year dot. I’d forgotten but rediscovered recently that when I was about 16 I was doing stuff for a comic called Oink and I’d written a Radio Times parody for that. So I’d been doing it for yonks. That was the prototype, I suppose. At the time I started doing TV Go Home it felt like TV was in a slightly transitional period. There were things that overtook the listings, like Touch The Truck. Also, if you think about… it was pre-I’m A Celebrity. When you’ve got Matt Willis from Busted eating a kangaroo anus on TV, what’s the point of writing a satirical listing? You can’t really outdo that.”
Does Donald Trump make you feel the same way about political satire? Where can you go?
“Hes terrifying, because he’s shameless. Literally shameless, in that you cannot shame him. He’ll just come out with a blizzard of lies. There’s that old saying that the bigger the lie, the more people will believe it. What he does is comes out with a constant confetti of little lies so he never really gets called out, because there’s always another one… as soon as you start to go: ‘Hang on a minute, that didn’t happen you fucking liar!’ he’s come out with another ten lies. What do you do when it’s someone who just lies all the time? You’ve got no idea what he really believes, or really represents. He’s a terrifying, weird, comb-overed blank. He’s kind of like the nightmare vision of a President. He’s the guy from the fucking Deadzone, but you can also see that he’s appealing because he’s none-of-the-above. He’s the anti-candidate, but he’s the worst possible person to step into that role. Maybe it’s all a situationist art prank, I don’t know. I feel like I won’t sleep soundly until after November, even though the election is nothing to do with me. It may be happening overseas, but you kinda feel like… I don’t really want to have to start digging a bunker.”
How do you feel about Hillary Clinton?
“I don’t know much about her, but I know she’s not particuarly popular. It’s almost a perfect storm. There are few people I can imagine would do a worse job than Trump, so I would be inclined to look at it in that reductive way. I don’t know too much about her, but I understand that she’s not well liked in the States, to put it mildy. It’s not exactly a popularity contest. I keep telling myself that sanity and pragmitism will prevail, and people will go: ‘I hate Hillary, but at least she’s not him.’ I read PJ O’Rourke say he’ll vote for Hillary, because he thinks she’s wrong on every issue, but she’s wrong within normal parameters. I feel like I won’t be able to watch the news on the night of the election, because I’ll worry too much about it. I’m nothing if not a worrier. The Black Mirror version of that reality is that you wake up and Trump’s won, so maybe it’s good for business.”
How do you rate Nathan Barley, looking back now?
“I think, apart from anything else, the fucking cast we had on it… Benedict Cumberbatch is in it, Ben Whishaw… And it was weirdly prescient. It was slightly informed by my experiences writing in the video games world in the 90s. I wanted to transition from that to writing for newspapers but I didn’t know how to do it.”
“Dutch wine. That was what I felt like. I wouldn’t know how to begin writing for a Sunday newspaper because I don’t have that whole… It’s like everyone else knows something I don’t. Dan Ashcroft’s desperation was informed by that lack of a sense of direction. We predicted a lot of things by accident. In Nathan Barley he’s got that phone he carries around with him all the time, the Wasp T12. I remember at the time we thought it should have all sorts of different functions. It’s sort of got apps, but they’re physical. He could open it up and it had DJ decks, and it could project things. If we’d thought of apps you could use on a screen we could have made a fortune. It basically is an iPhone isn’t it. At the time it came out I remember people going: ‘Oh, this is a bit two-years-ago. The dot com bubble has burst. That moment’s passed. Now it looks like an alternate reality where everyone has slightly older technology.”
Do you find yourself reading and watching a lot of near-future satire? Have you read things like Super Sad True Love Story?
“No. I try not to read things or watch things, generally. Don’t get me wrong, I’ll watch and read things that are not in the same ballpark, but for instance I haven’t seen the film Her because loads of people have said to me: ‘That’s quite Black Mirror, you should watch that.’ I don’t want to watch it because I’ll be too angsty. If it’s brilliant I’ll get twisted up. If I think it’s rubbish I’ll get twisted up. If I think it’s just okay I probably won’t like that either. I kind of can’t. Although I did watch Ex Machina, which I enjoyed. I tend to avoid sci-fi near-future things if I can, partly because I’ll see something and go: ‘We’re trying to do something like that!'”
Do you worry it would end up in your writing?
“Not so much. We’ve done episodes that are ostensibly in a similar world to other things. There have been stories before about nightmarish Orwellian futures, so I don’t worry too much about overlap. Her came out around the same time as our episode Be Right Back, but they’ll have been in production for ages. People always gleefully tweet me these things, and horrible news stories as well. ‘Someone was killed by an iPhone falling on their head, that’s a bit Black Mirror isn’t it?’ I’m the first to be informed of all of that shit. Increasingly it’s product launches. People tweet me saying: ‘Apple have launched a thing that’s just like the home-controlling egg from the Christmas special!’ or the Samsung contact lenses. I think a lot of our stuff is quite out there, so I don’t think anything like that will happen this time…”
You say that now…
“I say that now. That’s true. Who’d have thought the pig fucking episode would be the most accurate one? I didn’t know anything about that. It’s the one thing people always ask me. I didn’t. I’d never heard that rumour. When that story broke I was quite weirded out. I was quite worried, for a short period, that maybe reality is a simulation designed to confuse me. It was so weird. It was such a weird thing. The day before someone had sent me a link to an article that was: ‘Look at all these things Black Mirror predicted’ and it said in the article: ‘Obviously not the prime minister one…’ I genuinely thought it was too weird a coincidence. It was too specific. If I’d known about it I wouldn’t have bothered writing a thing about it, I’d have just run around yelling it at people.”
What do you think really happened with Cameron? Did they just want to make him deny it?
“It was a weird old story, wasn’t it? There was supposed to be one source. You would think, that if the logic follows that he always felt he was born to rule even at Bullingdon, then you’d think he would have the wherewithal to think: ‘Maybe I shouldn’t fuck a pig’s head in front of everyone.’ I could imagine some tomfoolery, but actually putting your knob in a pig’s mouth? I find that hard to believe. I would image it’s an embroidered version of something. God knows. It seemed to be motivated as a revenge story. I felt quite sorry for him, although it was funny. In The National Anthem the Prime Minister is the most sympathetic person in it. It was too funny for people not to enjoy. It was like a carnival on social media. It was eerie how it did play out on the news as it did in our episode, in that they pussyfooted around it and how they would even manage to describe it. That really did play out exactly as it did in the episode, which is bizarre because they must have been having the same conversations in the newsrooms. ‘Everyone on the internet is talking about, how do we describe it? It’s breakfast, we can’t have people choking on their bacon.’ I don’t know. I’m hoping that doesn’t happen again. I don’t want to predict more things. It would be quite bleak.”
Do you ever get those tweets about things being a bit Black Mirror and think: ‘God that is quite a good idea’?
“Occasionally, but it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that originally the point of the series wasn’t to be technological. I’ve discovered that if we sit there trying to think of stories on the basis that: ‘Oh, Google are doing a thing…’ it’s hard to come up with. It tends to be more broad ‘What if?’ ideas that lend themselves to some sort of technological element. Really, we use technology in this show in the same way that The Twilight Zone would use magic or the supernatural, it’s a means by which magical things happen. Which is sort of how it happens in real life. When the show first came out there was a period when I’d have believed anything. The first time you use Uber it’s like magic. What I just do this and the car appears? That’s amazing. I did a show a couple of years ago for the BBC called How TV Ruined Your Life. As part of that, one of the things we did was went out and vox-popped people. One episode was on progress. We went and showed people a promotional video we’d mocked up for a mobile phone that let you call through time so that you could ring yourself in the future so you could remind yourself of something. We showed it to people and a surprising number took that at face value, because you’re so accustomed to believing miracles. The Time Phone allowed you to call through time and it also had a laser so you could boil a cup of tea in seconds. People went: ‘That’s clever, when’s it out?’ because why wouldn’t it be? In fact, you could ring yourself in the future. I could imagine a service that you call and record a voice message and then it’s timed to call you back in the future: ‘Hey Charlie, remember that you’re living in a dystopian nightmare?’ So the ideas for Black Mirror either tend to be a funny ‘What if?’ about a situation or things like The National Anthem that take a ridiculous scenario and treats it seriously. All the thematic layers were secondary. You realise that if you commit to it then there’s all sorts of other things you can be saying. When people talk to me about Black Mirror ideas they’re often coming at it from a worthy, issues point of view, whereas I usually start with a popcorny idea, a hooky premise, that means people will say: ‘I’ve just watched this mental thing where a man fucked a pig.’ Well, hopefully not that, that’s a spoiler. Hopefully we’re adhering to that. It’s weird when you look at the episodes across the series. You go: we’ve got a poignant one, we’ve got a lighter one… now we need an absolutely devastating one.”
‘What’s the worst thing you can possibly imagine?’
“Yeah, often it’s that kind of thing. Here’s a set-up, now what’s the worst thing that could happen now? What’s the worst thing that could possibly happen to anyone? We’ve had a couple of examples of that. In White Christmas, what happens to Raph Spall’s character is pretty much the worst thing that could happen to anyone. Living for eternity experiencing Christmas Day in a house that isn’t there, on your own, with the body of a child whose death you were responsible for, while Wizzard’s ‘I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day’ plays on an eternal loop and every time you smash the radio it gets louder.”
“Yeah, it always makes me laugh. Whenever we come up with an endpoint like that I always fucking piss myself. That’s when you know it’s perfect. That would be horrendous! Let’s have a good laugh about it!”