wed 19/09/2018

Black Mirror, Channel 4 | reviews, news & interviews

Black Mirror, Channel 4

Black Mirror, Channel 4

Gripping and hilarious satire of our media-obsessed age

Rory Kinnear (right) as a prime minister faced with a porcine dilemma

It was several minutes into The National Anthem, Charlie Brooker's latest dramatic output on Channel 4 after his excellent 2008 mini-series Dead Set, a zombie-laden satire about reality television, before I laughed. I say that not as a criticism – far from from it – but as a huge compliment. For Brooker neatly confounded our expectations by making the opening scenes (shown as part of the Black Mirror season) appear as if they were part of a serious political thriller. It was only when the storyline took a ridiculous and hilariously obscene turn that one realised this was meant to be viewed as a comedy, a dark, dark, dark satire that we could laugh at loud and long.

Black Mirror is a portmanteau heading for a three-part series in which Brooker attempts to create a modern Tales of the Unexpected or The Twilight Zone, both of which crossed several genres of black comedy, thriller, zombie and crime drama. He wrote The National Anthem (expertly directed by Otto Bathurst) and co-wrote, with his wife Konnie Huq, next week's futuristic nightmare 15 Million Merits, while Jesse Armstrong (Peep Show and The Thick of It) wrote the last instalment, In Memoriam. The collective title represents the blank screens of those things that rule modern lives – plasma TVs, tablets, iPods and iPhones – for so many of us.

The real villains of the piece were those of us who allow technology and the media to inform and govern every aspect of our lives

The set-up to The National Anthem was that a fictional member of the British royal family, the popular Princess Susannah, has been kidnapped, and the ransom demanded was that the young, urbane Prime Minister Michael Callow (Rory Kinnear) would, as the oh so dainty media had it, “perform an indecent act” on live television. The “bizarre demand” was, to put it bluntly, to fuck a pig in front of the watching world.

Normally, such an outrageous storyline would form the denouement to a story, but the reveal came very early, in order that Brooker could lay out before us the real villains of the piece – those of us who allow technology and the media (news and social) to inform and govern every aspect of our lives.

At first Callow refused to participate in this vile business - “I'm not fucking a pig, page one, that's not happening” - but within minutes it was clear he was going to do just that, as Home Secretary Alex Cairns (Lindsay Duncan) and assistant Tom Blice's (Tom Goodman-Hill) Plan B fell apart. They had ordered Alex MacQueen's wonderfully humourless and ruthless hatchet man to engage a porn star (named Rod, of course) to pretend to be the PM pleasuring the pig on film, but someone snapped him entering the studio, put it up on Facebook and the ruse was uncovered by the kidnapper.

But it wasn't all played for comedic effect. Callow's angst was neatly shown when he attacked Cairns as he realised he had no choice about what was to happen, and his deeply poignant scenes with his wife, Jane (Anna Wilson-Jones), who had recently given birth to their first child, and who was adamant he didn't have to meet the ransom. But he was a PM with a low popularity rating and he had to be cognisant of trending on Twitter as an initially sympathetic public turned against him when it looked like his reluctance might cause Susannah to be killed.

Members of the public were only too willing to give their considered opinion on this imaginary scenario in vox pops filmed with real people

No one was immune from Brooker's acerbic wit: The Guardian (for which he writes a column, natch) was "running a blog and a piece on the cultural symbolism of the pig"; the tabloid TV hack gaining inside information by sending pornographic images of herself to a horny young assistant in No 10; the YouTube and Twitter-obsessed driven into frenzy by the unfolding drama; and those members of the public only too willing to give their considered opinion on this imaginary scenario in vox pops filmed with real people. The scene where the streets were empty as people crowded around TVs in pubs, workplaces and their homes to watch Callow's humiliation was only too believable.

Comedy aside, Brooker plotted a very fine thriller with clues about the perpetrator of this outrage subtly laid, with plenty of red herrings to put us off the scent. He also made it incredibly up to date, with a “head-cam relay” by police of a raid on a newly closed college where the kidnapper was believed to be neatly referencing both recent education cuts and those pictures of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton watching the capture of Osama bin Laden – history as entertainment indeed.

The National Anthem was a wonderfully accomplished piece of drama, beautifully acted and directed, and pitch-perfect in its writing. Catch the next two instalments in the season if you can.

  • Black Mirror continues on Channel 4 on 11 December
Comedy aside, Brooker plotted a very fine crime thriller with clues about the perpetrator of this outrage subtly laid

rating

Editor Rating: 
5
Average: 5 (1 vote)

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