Inside The Angry Mind Of Black Mirror's Creator

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Inside The Angry Mind Of Black Mirror's Creator
April 19, 2019
Annabel Jones and Charlie Brooker with the script and working flow diagram of Bandersnatch. Nick Wilson

 

On December 11, 2014, in the basement of Channel 4’s headquarters in Westminster, London, the atmosphere was prematurely festive. Christmas was still two weeks away, but champagne, mince pies and black Christmas crackers were already on offer as the room filled with journalists ready to watch the first press screening of White Christmas, a one-off episode of the dystopian television series Black Mirror. Jon Hamm – who, with the Mad Men finale still six months away, was one of the most lauded TV actors around – had approached the show’s co-creators Charlie Brooker and Annabel Jones about appearing in an episode. Over dinner at a London restaurant that summer, he professed his love for the show to its co-creators, prompting them to send over the script. Hamm accepted and by October they were shooting the episode.

 

Since it first aired in December 2011, Black Mirror had become a kind of shorthand for our collective anxiety over the role technology plays in our lives. Often credited with a canny knack for predicting the future, at its heart Black Mirror is about something much more disconcerting than whether our iPhones will murder us in our sleep. What if technology isn’t actually the root of all our problems? What if it’s us that’s really flawed?

 

In the first-ever episode, The National Anthem, the prime minister is bullied into having sex with a pig live on air by a kidnapper who has captured a beloved royal, and leverages YouTube and social media to force the government’s hand. In season two’s Be Right Back, a grief-stricken young woman asks an experimental company to create an android simulacrum of her dead boyfriend using data scraped from his online communications. The deeply emotional episode – proof, if any is needed, that Black Mirror is more interested in squishy humans than shiny screens – earned the show its second BAFTA nomination, for Best Single Drama.

 

It had been 22 months since the finale of the second season in February 2013 and White Christmas had been a struggle — Brooker and Jones only handed in the final edit the morning of the press screening – but they were pleased with the result. But, as the journalists mingled at the screening, in a meeting room several floors above, Brooker and Jones were being told that their show was about to be cancelled. The problem was financial. A few months earlier, Channel 4 had sent Jones and Brooker to Los Angeles to ask the US television networks if they’d consider co-producing a third season, but they’d failed to return with a deal. Now, the station’s senior executives were telling them, that instead of commissioning a third season of Black Mirror, Channel 4 was making a science-fiction anthology show starring Bryan Cranston called Electric Dreams. Perhaps Brooker would like to write an episode for that instead?

 

“Annabel was just really upset and annoyed and it was totally dispiriting,” says Brooker. “It was actually quite horrible.” They left the meeting room to join actors Hamm, Rafe Spall and White Christmas director Carl Tibbetts for a post-screening question-and-answer session. Feeling dazed, Brooker turned to Jones. “Were we just cancelled? What the fuck was that about?”

 

The decision struck Brooker as strange. The series was more popular than ever. It was playing in 80 territories. Brooker and Jones had been approached by US networks eager to commission their own version of the show, but only if they would drop the anthology format and go for a five-season series instead. At the behest of one channel, they spent some time coming up an idea for a series with a single overarching storyline. They nicknamed it Game of Drones, but the show was never commissioned.

 

When White Christmas finally aired five days after the Channel 4 screening, Brooker’s doubts about the future of their series were compounded. Despite appreciative murmurings from critics, the episode only managed to pull in 1.66 million viewers – fewer than he was hoping. “I thought, ‘That is the death of it now.’ It’s not rated very well and [Channel 4 is] saying they don’t like it. We’re dead. I just assumed Black Mirror was a no-go.” In need of a distraction, Brooker threw himself into working on Election Wipe – a satirical TV special about the run-up to the 2015 UK general election.

 

But, although Brooker and Jones didn’t quite realise it at the time of their meeting with Channel 4, something had already happened that would lift them out of their quagmire. On December 1, 2014, Netflix added the Black Mirror back catalogue to its online library of TV shows and films. “I remember very quickly after that, the atmosphere had completely changed,” Brooker says. “Suddenly, we were in a bidding war for Black Mirror. AMC wanted it and Syfy channel wanted it and HBO wanted something that was the same but wasn't called Black Mirror because it had been on Netflix and then Netflix wanted it.” While Brooker and Jones had fought with Channel 4 for a year just to get White Christmas made, and had had their ideas for season three rejected by the station, Netflix was ready to green-light the show for two full seasons in a deal worth a reported $40 million. The streaming giant didn’t need to see any storylines or ideas up front. It just wanted Brooker and Jones to get back to making Black Mirror.

Annabel Jones and a model of the USS Callister.Nick Wilson

 

Outside the glass-fronted lobby of Netflix’s headquarters in the small town of Los Gatos, California, a driving rain is hammering the paving slabs. Although it is late November 2018, this is the first real downfall of the year. As employees straggle in – most of them arriving on company shuttle buses from San Francisco, an hour north of Netflix HQ – many are murmuring with relief that the prolonged downpour has cleared away the last lingering traces of smog from the Camp Fire, California’s deadliest and most destructive wildfire to date, that burned 280 kilometres to the north.

 

It is here that 2,300 Netflix staff work to stream content to 190 countries. Upstairs, a test lab is crammed with more than 40 screens – tablets, laptops, phones, widescreen TVs – so engineers can test the Netflix app on various devices. In the main lobby, eight Emmy statues stand gleaming inside a glass case, most of them awarded for Netflix’s technical achievements. The rest of the firm’s sizeable haul – it took home 23 Emmys in 2018 alone – are in its Los Angeles office, which handles the entertainment side of the business. For senior staff, the short flight or long drive between Silicon Valley and Hollywood – from the heart of one industry back to the heart of another – occurs with tiring regularity.

 

In a meeting room on the ground floor, tucked behind a long artificial fire, Brooker and Jones are bickering. With his scruffy beard, unzipped hoodie and skate shoes, Brooker has the slouched, unkempt air of someone who has just stumbled off a long-haul flight. Which he has – arriving on a plane from London the previous afternoon. Brooker speaks with a surprising hesitancy, starting sentences with a drawn-out “Wellllll” and ending with an implicit question mark hovering in the air, even when he’s discussing his own past. Although he rose to prominence in the 2000s as a scathing TV reviewer for The Guardian, Brooker says in reality he is much less sure of his own opinions. Give him a stage, a set, a photoshoot, and he knows precisely how to perform, spinning surreal anecdotes and withering observations at a rapid-fire rate, but in other situations he is less sure of himself. Parties, he says, are one of the worst. How are you supposed to relax when everyone is there, expecting you to have fun?

 

While Brooker barrels into one of his dervish-like responses, a small smile plays across Jones’s mouth. With her watchful blue eyes and long hair falling several inches past her shoulders, Jones has a thoughtful and slightly reserved air, sometimes pausing before an answer to order her thoughts and respond with precise detail. Even more so than Brooker, her pride in Black Mirror is evident. “When you think you've realised something as effectively as you can and that you originally intended it to look like and feel like that, God, there's such a sense of achievement – and relief,” she says. Although they watch each episode hundreds of times during the production process, Jones says there are still moments when she’ll shed a tear while watching the final edit – even if Brooker suspects she’s just doing it to make him feel awkward.

 

As they talk over a bowl of chalky Queer Eye-branded sweets – Brooker declares them “disgusting”, before pocketing a few to give to his kids – Jones is needling Brooker about his obsessive attention to detail during the making of Bandersnatch. The episode, released on December 28, 2018, is composed of 250 segments of film that the viewer must choose their own path through by picking options at a series of decision points. It was a gargantuan undertaking that took the best part of a year to make, pushing back the launch of season five. After a year of working on the episode, Brooker’s focus on tedious details had started to grate. “The number of conversations we’ve fucking had about Spectrum games and the sound a Spectrum makes and ‘It wouldn’t make a sound like that if you were pressing that button there’ and ‘It wouldn’t load anything like that,’” Jones says, with a roll of her eyes. “The level of detail that you have revealed to us about the knowledge of this world is shameful.”

 

Brooker raises an arched eyebrow, momentarily defeated. “The contempt is interesting, isn’t it?”

 

With their continuous stream of gentle ridicule, Brooker and Jones could easily be mistaken for siblings rather than showrunners who just won the Emmy award for Outstanding Television Movie two years in a row. Separated by just a year – Brooker is 48 to Jones's 47 – the pair have spent the last decade together working almost continuously on well over a dozen different series and standalone episodes. Early on, in the chronically underfunded world of TV comedy, getting a show made often meant doing everything to keep costs at an absolute low. The BBC Four TV review series Screenwipe, which ran for five seasons between 2006 and 2008, was partly filmed in the living room of Brooker’s London flat. “We couldn’t afford anyone else to be in it,” recalls its director, Al Campbell, so he would rope in members of the production crew, including himself, to appear on screen.

Charlie Brooker with Captain Robert Daly's phaser gun.Nick Wilson

 

Often, Brooker would mock up graphics or ideas for the set himself, Campbell says, an education in shoestring filmmaking that would stay with Brooker years later when shooting Black Mirror on location in South Africa and Iceland. Sometimes it would express itself as a near-maniacal attention to detail. When making San Junipero – an October 2016 episode that centres on a love story between two elderly women who enter a simulated reality where they live as young versions of themselves – Brooker argued with director Owen Harris about whether it would rain in a paradisiacal simulated reality. Eventually, Brooker reneged. But Andy Weil, who oversees Netflix’s original series, says that both Brooker and Jones keep a close eye on every detail of the filming and editing. “The reason everything looks so good, the reason everything looks amazing is because they are across everything, both of them,” he says.

 

With his neatly coiffed dark hair, pale complexion and black-rimmed glasses, Weil could have just walked out of a Central Casting call for TV executives. Before he joined Netflix in 2015, he worked in comedy development at Universal Television, helping bring Brooklyn Nine-NineThe Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and Master of None to the screen. “When I joined Netflix, there were fewer creative executives working on shows than there are now,” he says. Everyone did everything – and although his speciality was comedy, Weil was put to work on Black Mirror, where production was just starting on the season three opener, Nosedive. With a script written by the writers and actors Rashida Jones and Michael Schur, the episode plays out the dire consequences of a world where people rate every interaction on a scale of one-to-five. Although it’s actually one of the more comic Black Mirrorepisodes, the conceit – based on an idea of Brooker’s from several years earlier – now has a disturbing analogue in the form of the social credit system currently being trialled in China. As is sometimes the case with the more prescient Black Mirrorepisodes, it’s up to the real world to put the cruellest spin on the technology within.

 

But for Weil, the true genius of Nosedive is in its aesthetic. The first episode to be set outside of the UK, it eschewed the usually humdrum and muted colours of the first two seasons for a vibrant and distinctly American setting, shot on location in Cape Town. “The idea that everyone was in these bright pastels, and then the music was so sad and melancholy with that brightness, that was [director] Joe [Wright],” Weil says. Brooker originally envisaged the episode as being full of glass and aluminium: “People squinting at transparent phones, that kind of thing.”

 

This, Weil says, gets right to the heart of Black Mirror’s magic. Each episode – Jones and Brooker, with a wry smile at their own grandiosity, prefer to call them films – brings together a new combination of immensely talented directors and actors. In the 20 episodes of Black Mirror released so far, Brooker and Jones have worked with 17 different directors, including Jodie Foster who, Weil says, specifically asked Brooker and Jones if she could direct an episode. “They get incoming calls from huge directors all the time,” he says. Once known as a series where up-and-coming actors got their first big break (Daniel Kaluuya, the star of the hugely successful horror film Get Out, was cast after director Jordan Peele saw his performance in the season one episode Fifteen Million Merits), Hollywood’s great-and-good are now lining up to petition Brooker and Jones for parts. In Netflix’s Los Angeles offices there is a growing list of Oscar-nominated actors who have asked their agents to secure them a role on the show.

Nick Wilson

 

As the millennium approached its close, Brooker was in a funk. It wasn’t that he didn’t know what he wanted to do – he had his sights set on becoming a comedy writer – it was that he had no idea how to get there. Wracked with frustration and self-doubt, he’d fritter away days smoking weed and watching TV. “I did spend quite a lot of time slightly mystified, but having this love-hate relationship with TV where I was watching a lot of it, and I was sort of resentful of the fact that I wasn't involved in it effectively,” he says. “If I watched something like The Day Today I’d think, ‘That’s just brilliant – I could never do anything like that.’ But if I watched anything I didn’t like, it would sort of make me angry.”

 

As a child, Brooker was obsessed with the new crop of self-referential comedy shows being aired in the late 70s and early 80s. Born in 1971 and raised in a Quaker household in the quiet Oxfordshire village of Brightwell-cum-Sotwell, Brooker remembers his father encouraging him to watch the satirical news show Not the Nine O’Clock News and re-runs of Monty Python and Fawlty Towers. Early on, he gravitated towards the kind of apoplectic anger that would later become his hallmark. At primary school he slipped a comic of his own creation filled with “gory, violent and all sorts of weird, angry jokes” into a box of comics set aside for his classmates to read during rainy lunchtimes. But on family trips to the swimming pool, Brooker was drawn to the arcade machines loaded with Breakout and Space Invaders. “They were like TVs that you could control what's on the screen. There was something really magic about them.” It was the beginning of a fascination with technology that never left him. In Bandersnatch, Fionn Whitehead plays Stefan, a young programmer in the 80s determined to create his own eight-bit computer game. “It was somewhat a [Charlie Brooker] biopic,” jokes its director, David Slade. In his house, Brooker now has a retro arcade machine filled with games although he spends more time curating and collecting games from his childhood than he does playing them.

 

By the mid-90s, Brooker, who had missed out on a degree after the Polytechnic of Central London rejected his dissertation on video games, had found a job where he could indulge both his darkly misanthropic sense of humour and his obsession with technology. After a stint writing comic strip adverts for Computer Exchange – the national second-hand video game chain that still bears the logo Brooker designed – he started writing Cybertwats, a semi-regular comic strip for the computer games magazine PC Zone, and was soon writing reviews and a column called “Sick Notes” where he insulted anyone who wrote in to the magazine, with a £50 prize for best reader letter. “Even back then, it was clear Charlie had a knack for deconstructing things to find the absurd in it,” says John Davison, editor of PC Zone between 1995 and 1998. Sometimes that penchant for absurdity led to trouble. In February 1998, a cartoon of Brooker’s ended up getting PC Zone pulled from newsagents’ shelves. The cartoon, titled “Doctor Helmut Werstler’s Cruelty Zoo” was intended to send-up the violence in the Tomb Raidergames and the oft-repeated concerns that video game violence would harm children’s mental health. Brooker’s cartoon imagined a zoo where children could take out their frustration on real animals, complete with Photoshopped images of children chainsawing orangutans and shooting lasers at toucans. Unsurprisingly, the RSPCA didn’t see the funny side and complaints flooded in, forcing Davison to pull the magazine off sale.

 

The boundary between the comic and the dreadful is almost always porous – and Brooker has spent his career as a satirist and television auteur slipping between the two. The only criticism that really annoys Brooker is when people characterise the show as a po-faced critique of the dangers of the internet, he says. Really, the show’s genius lies in its ability to shift imperceptibly between the comic and the tragic without the viewer noticing. In the infamous pig-fucking episode The National Anthem, the camera constantly cuts back to the people watching rolling news coverage unfold in hospital waiting rooms and pubs, their expressions slowly switching from mirth to abject horror. It’s comic, until it’s not.

 

The same propensity for pushing things to their extreme lies behind the mock TV-listings site Brooker anonymously set up in 1999. Each of the listings in TVGoHome was a twisted and prurient distortion of the TV shows filling the airwaves of the late 90s. “Ainsley Harriott Gets Blind Drunk and the Façade Finally Drops and He Starts Hating the Whole of Humanity” reads one listing. Another recurring entry about a “middle-class London media pissant who sorely deserves an icepick to the cheek” was simply called Cunt. (In 2005, this was turned into the TV series Nathan Barley.) Every two weeks, Brooker would force himself to turn off the TV and update the website with new listings. “When I did the TVGoHome website, that was almost a deliberate attempt to do something that I would actually stick to because it was relatively compact,” he says.

 

It worked. Brooker sent some of the TVGoHome listings to the satirical late-night Channel 4 series, The 11 O’Clock Show, which took him on as a writer. Soon he was also writing for the spoof news show Brass Eye. “[TVGoHome] was the thing more than anything else that I did that changed my trajectory,” says Brooker. His new momentum would send him into the path of Annabel Jones who, in 2000, was an executive at the media firm Endemol, which had just bought a stake in Zeppotron, the comedy production company Brooker founded with his fellow The 11 O’Clock Show writers. The first time they met, Jones recalls, Brooker was playing the first-person-shooter Counter-Strike in the Endemol offices. “I took the piss out of him and he probably took the piss out of me back and then our friendship hasn’t really evolved since that time. There was a sort of equal disdain and disrespect for each other that meant that we probably could work together. From that point on, then we've done all the shows together.”

 

Growing up in Milford Haven, a small port town in Wales which Jones describes as “very much at the end – you couldn’t get any further west”, she remembers being terrified as a child watching the anthology TV show Tales of the Unexpected. Each episode is a kind of proto-Black Mirror, suffused with a deep dread from beginning to end. “There's no safe, cosy ending. There's no explanation of the characters. It's just a twisted story. That's probably had far more of an impact than I realise,” Jones says. In 1990, she headed to London for a degree in developmental economics at the London School of Economics – a subject she knew little about other than that it offered her a route out of her small-town life in west Wales. When she graduated in 1994, watching most of her classmates head east to work in the City, Jones went in the opposite direction, to Soho’s TV production companies.

 

After working together on Dead Set – a five-part comedy-horror series where the contestants of Big Brother are the last to realise that the world is in the midst of a zombie apocalypse – Jones and Brooker were looking for their next project. It was 2008 and it seemed like most of the programmes on UK TV were either costume dramas or detective shows. But Brooker and Jones wanted to do an anthology show where every episode started with a new idea. “Originally the idea was, 'We're going to write eight half-hours and lots of different people were going to write lots of them.' That just did not pick up, it wasn't practical. That was the impetus – to do this sort of thing that I felt wasn't on TV any more at the time,” Brooker says.

 

The idea was a commissioner’s nightmare. “There’s no character continuity, there are no cliffhangers, there's no narrative continuity, so the ratings always drop. That's just a given,” says Jones. “Any commissioner whose job it is just to try and get the most watched shows on air is never going to commission it.” But Brooker and Jones presented Shane Allen, then the comedy commissioner at Channel 4, with their idea for the series, along with an outline of the episode that would become Fifteen Million Merits anyway.

 

Co-written by Brooker and his wife, the TV presenter and screenwriter Konnie Huq, the episode presents a bleak future society where people endlessly pedal exercise bikes in order to earn “merits” which they can spend on accessories for virtual avatars. The only way out is through a reality TV talent show – a cruel amplification of the ones Brooker himself raged over in his newspaper columns. At one point, the main character, Bing Madsen, who has spent months earning merits to pay his way on to the talent show, delivers a frenzied diatribe against the vapid system that had taken away the woman he loved and made her a pornography star. “Show us something real and free and beautiful. You couldn’t, yeah? It’d break us. We’re too numbed for it. I might as well choke,” he says, holding a shard of glass to his throat. But at the episode’s denouement, in a classic Black Mirror rug-pull, Bing’s rage has been sanitised and packaged into a series of televised rants on one of the channels he railed against. Praised by critics for its austere, futuristic aesthetic and powerful central performances, Huq and Brooker would jokingly refer to the episode as “the Screenwipe Story” for Madsen's resemblance to Brooker’s own polemical TV persona.

Annabel Jones and the Bandersnatch novel prop. Nick Wilson

 

When Brooker first started thinking about Black Mirror, the prevailing narrative around technology was one of optimism. In 2008, people were just experiencing the unprecedented thrill of being able to reconnect with long-lost friends, smartphones still had the capacity to surprise and amaze us, and a DVD-rental company no one had ever heard of had just given its subscribers the ability to stream movies over the internet, whatever that meant.

 

“When Black Mirror launched, I think it was still around the time people were saying Twitter was just Stephen Fry telling you what he had for breakfast,” Brooker says. “Now, it's a nightmare world full of Russian disinformation bots and far-right memes. People are worried about the things that the show was neurotically worrying about in some way at the time.”

 

A habitual worrier, Brooker has spent a lifetime assuming that a nuclear apocalypse is just around the corner. But, in 2016, it started looking like his anxieties were right on the money. On June 24, 2016, the day after the UK voted to leave the European Union, Brooker called in to Netflix for one of his weekly catch-up phone calls, where the team would discuss ideas for the upcoming season and update each other on how production was coming along. This time the mood was unusually gloomy. “Trump is going to win,” Weil remembers Brooker saying. Not even a month had passed since the now-president had won the Republican primary and he was still trailing Hillary Clinton in the polls by 20 points, but Brooker was adamant. “He was right,” Weil says, with a sigh.

 

Already feeling despondent about the way the year was shaping up, Brooker had an unenviable task ahead of him: he had to make 2016 funny. He’d already signed a contract to make Charlie Brooker’s 2016 Wipe, the seventh in his long-running series of end-of-year review shows, and at the same time was wrapping up the third season of Black Mirror, already working on the fourth and finishing up the mockumentaries Cunk on Christmas and Cunk on Shakespeare. “It was a depressing and a frightening year, and I thought ‘I don’t know how to make this funny,’” Brooker says. When he was growing up, watching Spitting Image joke about nuclear bombs and Ronald Reagan, Brooker felt reassured that as long as the grown-ups were laughing at the jokes, it must mean that they felt calm about what was going on. But now he was the adult and he wasn’t feeling calm about things at all. “Just after Trump was elected, it was like, ‘Is he going to fucking blow the world up?’”

 

Joel Morris, one of the writers on 2016 Wipe suggested they fill the first 25 minutes of the hour-long programme with Brooker on a barge, call it Charlie Brooker's Canal Holidays, and cram the news into the other half of the show. “Part of what was funny about Wipeis it's sort of an overreaction. Everyone talks. There was this sort of monkey scream at the world, which feels good, but you are overreacting to stories about snowmen and the ice bucket challenge and silly stuff,” he says. “In 2016, the news got really, really real and it felt like that was an appropriate reaction for us to go 'fucking hell'.”

 

After having spent decades perfecting his irascible comedy persona, in 2016 Wipe Brooker dialled things all the way down, putting his rants to one side as he watched the horror unfold in front of him in real time. The understated show won Brooker the 2017 BAFTA for Best Comedy – something he likened in his acceptance speech as akin to “being commended for doing a really accurate painting of a haemorrhoid”.

 

But as he gets older, Brooker says, he’s finding it harder and harder to get angry about the things that once riled him so easily. The beauty of Black Mirror is that it offers him a different kind of outlet – new genres and ideas that could lead anywhere.

 

“I’d love to do a multi-parter,” he says, or another horror-themed episode, and he’s already thinking of writing another comedy series in the vein of his detective spoof A Touch of Cloth, that ran for three seasons between 2012 and 2014. When he visits WIRED’s central London offices in late January, the ideas bounce out of him, like he’s just hitting his stride and doesn’t want to pause for fear that he’ll end up never starting again. A few days earlier, while his two young children were at school and there was a rare break in the Black Mirror production schedule, Brooker sat down to play Red Dead Redemption 2. In the back of his head, a familiar niggling voice chipped away at him. “You’re never going to write anything again, and you’ll never get any work again and you’re fucked. That’s it mate. You got to keep running or you fucking drop dead.”

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