‘...find a better thing to do that isn’t the snow ...’ Charlie Brooker is returning my call but talking to somebody else as I pick up. ‘It’s all a bit mental’ he apologises. ‘There’s a lot of prep going on for 10 O’Clock Live and I’ve to work out what I’m doing in the first show. I’m going to have to decide after this conversation.’
Back this evening, Channel 4’s live news digest with Brooker, David Mitchell, Lauren Laverne and Jimmy Carr attracted mixed reviews for its first series. From 1.5million viewers for the opening episode, ratings shrank to an average of 883,000 over its 15-week run. Appreciation for its satirical endeavours were tempered by criticisms that it wasn’t punchy enough, that it simply reinforced the liberal opinions of its audience, that it underused Laverne, that it overused Laverne, and that it cut interviews short just as they were becoming interesting.
Streamlined to 10 shows of 45 minutes each and no longer scheduled against Question Time, with fewer individual monologues and more round-table discussions, Brooker anticipates this series being more fluid.
‘There’s less time and less things going on’ he explains. ‘Before, everything would feel quite rushed and we were ping-ponging all over the place. So there will be more time to react, more of a live feel. It’ll be more amiable ...’
‘I don’t know why I said that. That’s about as misleading as saying “musical”. Looser definitely. You’ll probably tune in and we’ll be literally shitting ourselves.’
He rejects the charge that the programme is politically one-sided. ‘That’s because no right-winger has ever been funny, apart from Mussolini hanging from a lamppost’. But he concedes that ‘we could do with a bit less whooping from the audience, for it to be seen less as a youth show’.
‘You really don’t want a situation where people are being whooped for their opinions, you only want whooping if a joke is funny. A criticism develops: “Oh, these people are all left-leaning, there’s a whooping bunch of sycophants in the audience, I want to kill them all, they’re cunts”. That’s an extreme way of relating it, but it’s true.’
‘It’s a tricky one. I don’t think I’m as right-on as people think I am, I’m not that political really. But then I don’t think I’m that opinionated and others beg to differ. Really, you want to be tweaking the nose of those in power and it’s a coalition government we‘ve got at the moment. It would seem very odd to constantly aim your fire at the left.
‘But there’s no point in alienating people or pretending that anyone in the centre or vaguely to the right is an idiot or should be booed off the show. We had a bit of a pantomime reaction last time.’
More recently, Brooker’s bleak, comedy-horror mini-series Black Mirror became Channel 4’s most complained about programme for December. Having depicted a Prime Minister having sex with a pig on live television, he dismisses the outrage, snorting: ‘You should see one of the ideas I was writing up this morning ...’
A second series is still to be officially confirmed but he reveals that his co-writers, his wife Konnie Huq and Peep Show’s Jesse Armstrong are likely to be involved. ‘It’s a place where writers can try different things and write about a new box of technological tools that haven’t been used much in television.
‘The idea was never to push the boundaries of taste, they were always “what if?” stories. What I enjoyed about writing [first episode The National Anthem] was thinking, “What is the most outrageous and absurd idea I can turn into a horror story?” It’s still rare that you see Twitter referenced in a drama, so it felt modern.’
Before that comes A Touch Of Cloth, a long-gestating detective spoof for Sky 1 that Brooker has co-written with TV Burp writer Dan Maier. Based on a script by Messiah screenwriter Boris Starling, the two-hour police procedural stars John Hannah as DCI Jack Cloth, ‘a maverick, heavy drinking loner who has thrown himself into his work following the mysterious death of his wife’ and Coronation Street’s Suranne Jones as his ‘plucky, no-nonsense sidekick’ DC Anne Oldman.
Since 2003, ‘a pilot was nearly made for the BBC, nearly made at Channel 4, nearly made at ITV’ he explains. ‘It’s been completely rewritten since then. It’s a very stupid comedy with a Police Squad, Airplane-style of humour, applied to those artistic serial killers who carve people up in an interesting way and the dogged detective with a troubled home life, teetering on the brink of sanity’.
As an adolescent, Brooker optimistically submitted sketch ideas to The Two Ronnies and Alas Smith and Jones. But he eventually arrived in television via the unorthodox route of writing for comics, computer games magazines, his parody TV listings site TV Go Home and criticism for the Guardian. Securing his first television job as a writer on The 11 O’Clock Show, at the relatively late age of 29, he feels he wasted time that many of his contemporaries and future collaborators didn’t, bolstered by self-belief and connections they took from public school and Oxbridge.
‘It’s not like I came up through the working men’s clubs’ he laughs. ‘And the internet has opened some things up while destroying other platforms. But I lacked the confidence and the knowledge of the routes to take. It was only when people started coming to me because of TV Go Home that I began realising how the business works.’
In his late teens, Brooker toyed with performing stand-up and he reveals that he’s considered making a live version of what he mockingly derides as his ‘ ’Wipe franchise’ – the evolution of Screenwipe, Newswipe and How TV Ruined Your Life, vaguely characterised by him sitting, growling at a TV set and miming pitiful, vigorous masturbation at its unending horrors.
‘[A live version] is certainly not something I’m ruling out. Wait until I’m panicking about mortgage payments’ he deadpans. ‘But live performing is a skill set I lack. I’m still learning on air. I can’t escape the thought that the people in the audience hate my guts, so I’m slightly in awe of anyone who can stand in front of a room of strangers and talk without looking at their shoes after two seconds. I won’t do it standing up anyway, I’ll be behind a desk’.
He foresees forthcoming Wipes being more topical when they return to television and stresses his desire to work with Brian ‘Limmy’ Limond again, following the Scottish comic’s appearance in his 2011 round-up. Stand-up Doug Stanhope as well. ‘I got Doug in after seeing him at the Edinburgh Festival a few years ago. What’s great about using him on the show is that he’s even more cynical and barbed than I am’.
A return for Nathan Barley, the sitcom he co-wrote with Chris Morris, appears increasingly unlikely. ‘Again though, I wouldn’t completely rule out him coming back in some form or another’. He is guarded when questioned if he’ll work with Morris again soon – ‘erm ... yeah ... not in the immediate, immediate present, that’s all I can say’.
So will he follow Morris into filmmaking?
‘Yes’ he asserts bluntly. ‘There are notions. But nothing I could even begin to discuss. I’m certainly super-fucking busy. There are things that I can’t confirm I’m doing, even though I am actually doing them. That sounds like I’m building a fucking bomb. I promise you, I’m not.’
- Black Mirror is available on DVD from February 27. 10 O’Clock Live is on Wednesdays at 10pm on Channel 4.