Imagine a new show from Charlie Brooker, and your probably think of something incredibly intense: the man himself ranting passionately at the inanity of TV news, or a jet-black satire in which the Prime Minister is blackmailed into having sex with a pig.
But his latest offering is a much more silly affair. A Touch Of Cloth is a spoof of grim TV whodunits which owes more than a nod to the puns and sight gags of Airplane! or Naked Gun.
Not that it has been entirely without controversy. Such is the dedication to making the parody look authentic that Sky One has received plenty of concerned correspondence from viewers taken in by the trailers, all keen to alert the broadcaster to the fact their flagship new detective series has a title with a dirty double meaning they must have missed.
‘We deliberately shot some straight trailers,’ Brooker confirms at an advance screening of the show, ‘People have genuinely been writing in going, “Don’t they know that’s rude?”’
To capture the authenticity, the show has been directed by im O'Hanlon – who has several genuine police procedurals to his name, including Waking The Dead And actors John Hannah and Suranne Jones – both of whom have also portrayed ‘real’ fictional detectives on TV – deliver often ridiculous lines with a perfectly straight bat.
‘We were very aware that we didn’t want to spoil gags by sniggering,’ Brooker said at an advance screening of the film. ‘Normally in comedy, so much comes from embarrassment and mistakes. But here everyone plays it so straight. In the moment, everyone believes it.’
Hannah agreed, saying they had to ignore the comedy in the moment: ‘Normally the best bit of advice directors can give to actors is to listen to each other, but here Jim told us not to. These characters have no sense of humour.’
The show which runs to a feature-length 90 minutes has been a long time in the making. Brooker says: ‘I’ve always liked that stupid, fourth-wall-breaking humour and years ago we came up with a pilot script which was more an Inspector Morse spoof, in the same Airplane! style as this, but it was 30 mintues long, More of a vicarage murder piece.
‘It was nearly made by the BBC; it was nearly made by ITV and it was nearly made by Channel 4. Luckily Stuart Murphy [now head of Sky’s entertainment channels after coming from BBC Three] remembered it.’
‘But the style of the piece changed because in that time it took to come to the screen ‘crime series came to be largely about fucked-up men after artisan serial killers, all making artistic statements, like they are in charge of Radio 3,’ Brooker says
Co-writer Daniel Maier agreed: ‘It was fun to move it into new territory of the post-Se7en police procedurals, which have got out of hand slightly with the complexity and the gore.’
He’s spent the best part of the last decade working on Harry Hill’s TV Burp, so wading through hours of TV to find the clichés to mock is nothing new for him. And A Touch Of Cloth is riddled with them, from the opening credits to the denouement. ‘
‘Everyone approached this as a way to take the piss out of clichés,’ said Brooker. ‘As a writer your instinct is to run away from clichés, but here you embrace it.
‘Doing this has ruined all cop shows for me. I was watching DCI Banks he other day and was convinced it was a spoof. They are all the same. For example, at crime scenes there’s always a guy in a mac just listing facts, It’s ridiculous.
‘There’s a line in here straight from Luther and a scene in the morgue comes straight from The Killing. There it’s a harrowing scene – they wring every bit of grief porn out of it – but when you watch it on a compilation of morgue scenes, as we did, it’s hilarious.’
He says the genre was rife for mockery as the genuine murder-mysteries necessarily have to have gravitas. ‘Police dramas have to take themselves very seriously or people would complain. If the police in crime dramas really enjoyed themselves you wouldn’t watch them, would you?’
And, of course, they are incredibly popular. ‘People love death,’ Brooker acknowledges. ‘We love watching misery – maniacs torturing people and police on their trail who are absolute walking wrecks.’
As a fan of Airplane!, Brooker has added lots of ‘pause-button moments’ – subtle jokes in the background you might need eagle eyes to spot. His favourite, he says, was a picture of Condoleeza Rice stick on the fridge in the home of a lesbian couple ‘for no reason than we thought she’d be a good lesbian icon’.
But the writers wanted to ensure the silly jokes didn’t entirely overpower the plot. ‘You have to sort of care; to sort of want to know who did it,’ says Maier.
‘We had what we called the Taliban draft,’ Brooker reveals. ‘When we cut out all the stuff that was too zany. We put some back – there are some old cartoon gags here like opening a door to a brick wall that you can get away with – but only maybe half a dozen or so.’
And as for the charge that A Touch Of Cloth isn’t as edgy as his other work, Brooker concedes: ‘I can watch this with my mum.’ Unlike Black Mirror. ‘We were watching that together when the Prime Minister is having sex with a pig, and I thought, “What have I done?”’
But he adds that even Aiplane! Isn’t entirely as innocent as its reputations might suggest. ‘People see Airplane! as this silly family-friendly PG film,’ he said. ‘But there’s a paedophile in it, always grooming the young boys. If you described that, people might think it was a dark, Chris Morris-type thing.’
- A Touch Of Cloth airs later this month. Here’s one of those all-too believable trailers: