Charlie Brooker shares advice to new writers | As well as some eye-opening revelations from his own career... © Netflix/Matt Holyoak

Charlie Brooker shares advice to new writers

As well as some eye-opening revelations from his own career...

Charlie Brooker has revealed how he designed the logo for a high street store, pissed himself on live TV,  and is ‘too chicken shit’ to try stand-up.

BBC comedy festival logoAt the BBC Comedy Festival in Newcastle last week, the Black Mirror creator imparted advice to aspiring writers – as well as  sharing some of the more bizarre feedback he’s received for his own work.

Charlie Brooker has revealed how he designed the logo for a high street store, pissed himself on live TV, and is ‘too chicken shit’ to try stand-up.

At the BBC Comedy Festival in Newcastle last week, the Black Mirror creator imparted advice to aspiring writers – as well as sharing some of the more bizarre feedback he’s received for his own work.

He told those who wanted to follow in his footsteps to just keep writing, to follow ideas through until they were finished – and not to be too tough on themselves.

In a wide-ranging interview with Romesh Ranganathan, Broker told of how he started writing at an early age, creating a ‘really disturbing’ comic strip at the age of ten, featuring scenes of a man falling onto a floor full of spikes and ‘writing in agony’ over several frames.

But it took him a while for writing to become his job, which came via a unique and circuitous route.

Although he always wanted to be a comedy writer, he said he didn’t initially do much about it.

‘I had a real chip on my shoulder about not going to Oxbridge, and about not being in Footlights,’ said Brooker – who has a BA in media studies from Polytechnic of Central London.

‘So in my 20s, I would spend my life stoned, sitting in a dressing gown complaining about TV being shit, getting profoundly depressed. ‘But he was also ‘furious’ when he watched The Day Today because he was not involved.

He started working in second-hand store CES in Rathbone Place, Central London, and drew their adverts – including creating the logo for the company which now boasts almost 400 UK shows.

‘It’s probably one of my favourite things you’ve done,’ said a stunned Ranganathan.

There he struck up a friendship with some writers on video games magazines who would come in to sell – probably illicitly – the games they had been sent to review. On seeing his artwork, they persuaded their editor to give him a comic strip in the magazine PC Zone, and eventually a job writing his own reviews.

‘It was anarchic, snarky – cunty,’ Brooker said of his writing. ‘You’d just try to be as entertaining as possible. I belatedly realised that this was quite good training.’

He did try to get into TV, revealing: ‘I wrote a sitcom script and they said, "this is good but could you come up with something with a different premise? "… and I just didn’t.

‘And, by the way, despite this, I was moaning all the time about failing.’

His links with video games got him a job as a roving reporter on a Radio 1 programme about the internet, and subsequently, a TV spin-off on BBC Knowledge called The Kit (Here is his first TV appearance, being interviewed by Victoria Derbyshire about the show in 1999)

Meanwhile, he set up the website TV Go Home, featuring ‘nasty, satirical, barbed descriptions of TV shows’ in the style of the Radio Times, which could have landed him in hot water with his BBC bosses.

‘I was told I’d get sacked,’ he said. ‘So I got someone to host it anonymously. I did it every fortnight and as a result of that, I got gigs writing for The Guardian. They got in touch and asked if I could write something about Sid Owen leaving EastEnders. And that was the leap I was looking for…’

He sent one of his Screen Burn columns to Channel 4’s satirical 11 O’Clock Show – and they gave him a job as a writer. He said the break ‘felt accidental’ but ‘I was driven by some sense of my own mortality’ to try to get ahead.

Brooker also revealed he had once thought about being a stand-up ‘but it seemed so terrifying to me. I still have regular anxiety dreams that I have been booked for the Dominion Theatre and have to talk about something. I’ve thought about stand-up but I’m too chicken shit’.

That anxiety got the best of him when he co-hosted Channel 4’s Alternative Election Night broadcast in 2010.

He recalled a producer telling him in his earpiece: ‘"We’re coming to you, Charlie, after the break "… and I did a little piss. Not a lot. If it had been a lot, at least it would have been over. Like a pencil lead amount of piss. Enough to make me think I’m not in control.’

His acerbic TV reviews for The Guardian also led to the BBC developing what would become Screenwipe with him.

‘At one point, they wanted it to be called something like Charlie Brooker’s TV Party,’ he revealed. ‘I don’t think I could have withstood that. I can’t conceive how I would have fitted into that format. I’m not good at rapport.’

But the commissioner moved on, leaving Brooker and his team to create the format they wanted.

He admitted he was not in his element on panel shows either, but gave the tip: ‘Don’t say nothing, because they smell fear. If you’re on a topical show, try to sum up the story because then at least you’ll be useful in the edit.’

Ranganathan then revealed that at one Mock The Week recording: ‘I didn’t say anything for 45 minutes because I said something so shit’ – and that to break his silence, he just blurted out his own name.

When asked about how strongly distinctive his programmes seem to be, even when he was relatively new to TV, Brooker said: ‘On some level, I’m thinking "it’s got to be this or it’s nothing".

‘I’ve spent too long doing my own thing. I am quite rigid like that. I don’t know if that carries on into the finished product. I’m always thinking that if it’s not right, it’s fucking terrible – so it has to be right.’

He said any success he had was ’a fixation on detail and a lot of luck’.

‘If you’re trying to get something noticed you might as well make it as idiosyncratic and as "you" as possible,’ he told aspiring writers. ‘There are only two times in your career that you’re allowed to do that: at the start when no one cares, and at the end when you’re indulged as an auteur.’

‘The one thing that was absolutely transformative [for me] was the TV Go Home website as it was every fortnight and I kept going at it. It meant I built up a body of work and a small cult following. It was proof of concept – something I could send in to people to show what I could do

‘When I’m writing scripts now I’m still convinced at various points that it’s shit. I was writing something four days ago and in utter despair at how fucking awful it was. Then I got to the end and I could see what I needed to fix.

‘The problem is that as you go along, you’re judging yourself against the finished product, or the season finale of Succession. But at some point Jesse [Armstrong, that show’s writer] will have been racked by fear thinking it’s shit – I assume.’

He also spoke about Cunk On Earth, his new series coming out soon, having been delayed by the pandemic. They had planned to start shooting in April 2020, starting with star Diane Morgan flying to Northern Italy – which by then was the epicentre of Covid in Europe – to talk about the Renaissance.

He said: ‘The experts she interviews do know she’s a comedy character, we’re not conning them. But they are told to be very patient with her. She has prepared questions but she is busking it based on their answers.’

Turning to Black Mirror he said he tended to start with an absurd comedy idea, but play it straight. ‘They’re often funny ideas that on some level that have made me laugh,’ he said. Then, like a sitcom, he imagines ‘how much worse this situation could get or how the logic could spiral out of control.’

He embarked on the formula with Dead Set, the 2008 Channel 4 series about a zombie outbreak outside the Big Brother House. ‘The gag was they wanted an army of followers and now they’ve got one,’ he said.

And he said he enjoyed Black Mirror for allowing’ outrageous premises that wouldn’t sustain a whole series – something where people would go to work and say "I saw this weird thing… the PM fucked a pig".’

Brooker said that particular episode, The National Anthem, ‘saved’ the anthology series from an uncertain future by setting the right absurd tone. But he recalled conversations with Channel 4 over whether ‘it had to be a pig’ – with executives asking whether, instead, it could be ’a frozen supermarket chicken, or big wheel of cheese’.

When uncorroborated allegations later surfaced that David Cameron once put his penis into a dead pig’s mouth as part of an initiation ceremony into an Oxford drinking club, Brooker said: ‘It was the weirdest night of my life. I did think maybe this world was a simulation. What a narcissist to think this was simulation just to trick me!’

As for advice to new writers, he said it was simply: ‘Make something. Get to the end of it. Every moment when you’re racked with self-doubt, you have to push through’.

Even if nothing comes of it, he said. ‘you haven’t wasted your time’ as the ideas can be consigned to a bottom drawer for possible use later – citing his police spoof A Touch Of Cloth as something he wrote long before Sky picked it up in 2012.

‘Also you’ve learned something and you’re adding to your body of work, to things you can show to people and if they don’t like it, ultimately,  well then they are cunts.’

Published: 15 May 2022

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