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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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Comments

I still cant get this hour out of my head, it was completely bonkers! I think I probably wasnt alone in being a bit confused with the reason behind the plot, until that was, the kidnapper was revealed to be a turner prize artist. Total genuis, and more scary... could possibly happen? Hopefully to Cameron.

Cheap amature crap, i was expecting more from Black Mirror. It seems that C4 has lost its way in giving the audience cutting edge tv.

I watched the BBC1 documentary about Facebook just before this, and it made for an interesting counterpoint.. I thought it was a thought provoking satire on the power of social networking- a kind of computerised mob rule in which decisions are driven by Twitter trends, 24 hour news, and Facebook. I didn't laugh that often- and again, that's a compliment. It was all far too chilling for that. The final twist that the whole thing was an artwork was brilliant, and I didn't see it coming. "The first great artwork of the twenty first century"- haven't we heard that somewhere before, after 9/11? And I am stupefied that Dan can call this "Cheap amature (sic) crap". Whatever else you thought of it, two things it definitely was NOT was cheap or amateur.

Full of holes, awful - wasted a hour. I would rather piss fire than sit through the other 2. Anyone who talks about this around me tomorrow in a good light will be forever branded a moron.

Well, you sound like a charming individual. Surely it should be possible hold a different opinion to yourself without being dubbed a moron? I suppose that would make Veronica Lee, who wrote the review, a moron as well. I shall certainly be watching the next two instalments. If they're anything like the first, they'll be original and thought-provoking TV.

Agreed, Mattsr, It doesn't sound like there would BE many people about you, Timon. I'd certainly run a mile. Or maybe you just let it all hang out on messageboards and are really a Very Nice Person.

It referenced the twin towers been art at the end, thats something I cant find humor or quality in, people died in mass and I know that its easy to say its art for a cheap pop to to try to get some controversy buts not the way to do things. I have had this argument before, dead people is not art, would the authors mother laid in a casket be art too? I am sure he would not like it if people called it so.

I see, the thing is you didn't get it...

"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." See, I didn't buy that bit at all - felt a bit too much like Brooker's cynicism getting the best of him. Especially when someone - in a crowd of people working in a hospital, all transfixed at the screen - commented that it had been on for an hour already. Most people wouldn't watch it for an hour. Just as they wouldn't watch Gaddafi being beaten for an hour. The defining criteria for the YouTube phenomenon is *how short* the clips are. They watch horrifying things on the web/news *because they are short* and thus easy to consume. They'd be as much bored as they would be horrified if you asked them to sit through an hour plus of something like this.

I Agree in would rather piss fire than sit through the other 2. Thank you!

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