In ‘Black Mirror’, Charlie Brooker has created one of the most thought-provoking and debate-inspiring TV shows in a generation, with each episode of the dystopian anthology series focussing on a different aspect of the technology and media we’re surrounded by in the modern world.
While devotees of ‘Black Mirror’ are currently waiting on the fifth series’ arrival on Netflix, Brooker and co-producer Annabel Jones have helped put together ‘Inside Black Mirror’, a new book offering a never-before-seen look behind the scenes of the show.
Discussing the book with HuffPost UK, Brooker discusses which episodes he thinks have been overlooked, and his big concerns about YouTube content.
In the book, you mention a lot of the obstacles that you’ve had to overcome when making the first four series of ‘Black Mirror’. What’s the closest you’ve ever been to something not coming together in the way you wanted?
Oh god. Well, ‘White Bear’ is a good example of something where it was going to be a very different story, in that in ‘White Bear’ – without wanting to spoil it for people who haven’t seen it – there’s a big twist in it, where what you think is going on is revealed not to be going on.
In the original script, there was no twist, and what the character was told was going on was going on. And then, really late in the day, I suddenly had this idea to include the twist, and totally rewrote the whole script in record time. And it’s one of my favourite stories as a result. The twist is one that a lot of people remark on as satisfying, because it’s one you really don’t see coming – and I think that’s partly because I didn’t see it coming (laughs). I think the original idea… it might have been exciting, it might have been OK, but it wouldn’t have been as chilling or as hard-hitting.
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In terms of logistics, have there been any ideas that you ultimately couldn’t make happen in ‘Black Mirror’?
Luckily, not really. When you’re filming anything, quite often you have to sort of change your plans... like, suddenly at the last minute an actor falls ill or a location falls through or there are issues with the rain and you fall behind schedule, so constantly it’s a moving and evolving beast all the time.
I think I’ve now sort of hopefully experienced enough, partly because I’m also working in a producorial role... I know when I’m writing it not to write in “opening scene… speed boat”, because it’s going to cost a lot of money and if we don’t really need it, I’m not going to write it in.
But often, and I think this is something that comes up throughout the book… quite often when I’m writing, I’m trying to save money. I’m thinking, ‘right, how much is that going to cost?‘... and often, in terms of trying to solve a problem of ‘how can we do this more cheaply’, you actually end up with something that’s more dramatically satisfying.
A good example of that is in ‘Be Right Back’. And we mention this in the book, Domhnall Gleeson’s character dies early on, in a road accident, and the director wanted to show that accident, which would have been very expensive. It might have looked amazing - he’s a brilliant director, it would have looked fantastic - but we were like, ‘we don’t think we need it’, it certainly would have soaked up a lot of our budget, and actually, what we came up with was more elegant and actually more poignant. Martha [played by Hayley Atwell] waiting for him to arrive is much more effective and emotional for the viewer than seeing a great big accident.
So usually, when these limitations present themselves… and this sounds like the most twatty, motivational speaker thing to say, but often it is actually an opportunity in disguise. I can’t believe I’ve just said that, I sound like a massive c*** (laughs). And also, if there is any kind of limitation, you can think your way round it nine times out of 10, and that means you’ll come up with something that’s more satisfying and intriguing and interesting.
The show has had huge success, and the internet is packed with theories and conspiracies about certain episodes. But are there any that you think have been underrated or overlooked?
Well I think actually, a lot of them get their [fair share of attention]… I think ones that probably don’t get as much attention as I think they possibly deserved are ‘Be Right Back’. Some people slightly overlook it, which I think is a shame, because I’m very proud of that episode. I would say, I’m also a big fan of ‘Fifteen Million Merits’, I mean Daniel Kaluuya obviously has gone on to such huge things, and I think that’s another storming one.
There’s quite a few! I think ‘Hated In The Nation’ from season three… I think some people got a bit thrown by the fact that it’s 90 minutes. And I think, if you know it’s 90 minutes going in and you’re prepared for that you probably have a different experience to people who’ve gone in off the back of 50-minute and 60-minute episodes. We did debate whether we were going to split it in two, and do it as two episodes, because there’s a cliffhanger moment in the middle. But then we thought, ‘no, there’s no point in doing that’. So, I think that’s slightly overlooked.
What else? Sometimes I think people misread ‘Metalhead’, I think ‘Metalhead’ probably gets a… oh! Here’s a bit of gossip for you, it’s Kanye West’s favourite episode, I happen to know. So that’s good, isn’t it? Yeah, but… I think that’s something where the experience of it gets slightly overlooked, because it was a deliberate attempt to tell a story with very little information. And that’s probably… well, there’s lots of them there.
And I tell you what, I do think... ‘The National Anthem’ goes down well in Britain, but I think overseas it’s hard for people to stomach because in Britain, we’ve got quite a specific sense of humour, and I think people see the dark humour in ‘The National Anthem’ potentially more in Britain than some overseas countries, and so I think sometimes that one gets a harsh reputation overseas in particular, where there might be some elements of… I mean, it’s not an out-and-out comedy, but there’s an element of dark humour that possibly doesn’t translate.
Is there anything new in the media or technology worlds that is making you particularly uneasy right now?
What isn’t? I mean it’d be quicker to list the things that aren’t. Having said that, I’m also an avid consumer of technology, so I’m not going to lock myself in a wooden box.
I don’t know, it’s interesting because… I think that… I find it odd, for instance, that my kids who are four and six years old want to watch YouTube videos of… I can understand them actually watching people playing games, because I think it’s like the radio, it’s actually about the personalities of the people playing them and their sort of chat. But the four-year-old wants to watch stuff like ‘Ryan’s Toy Review’. He’s a little kid who’s about five and he must be a millionaire and he just opens toys and things like that. And there’s a guy called Blippy, who’s like a sort of a poor web-man’s Pee Wee Herman… it’s just shoddily made!
And the fact that these things rack up millions and millions of views very quickly, and so sometimes they’ll be watching something and then the algorithm will cough up another video and before you know it they’re watching somebody pounding a nail through Peppa Pig’s fucking eye.
In the past, you’ve done takedowns of reality TV. You featured the ‘Big Brother’ house in ‘Deadset’ and alluded to ‘The X Factor’ in ‘Ten Million Merits’. Could you see yourself doing something around ‘Love Island’ in the future?
I once wrote a column around ‘Love Island’ years ago. Do you know what, I’ve seen one episode of ‘Love Island’ last year, and I sort of… I don’t know quite what we’d do with that. It sort of looks like a CGI recreation of itself, it doesn’t really feel real. I feel like I should have a PlayStation controller in my hand when that’s on, and I should be hovering constantly over the “skip” button. So, I don’t know whether that would make for a good ‘Black Mirror’ episode, but I do think that it’d make for a good PlayStation game.
There are a lot of surprises in this book, but was there anything that came as a shock to you when you were putting it together, either through speaking to cast members or to Annabel [Jones, co-creator]?
I hadn’t realised in ‘Black Museum’ quite how method Douglas [Hodge, who played Rolo in the episode] had got, and how much he’d managed to unnerve Letitia Wright. Hopefully the book has provided them with some closure. He sort of deliberately unnerved her, I think, or he certainly stayed in character for a while. So that was quite surprising.
And then it’s also quite interesting how there are whole chunks that you sort of forget, and how many stages of development you forget, because by the time you get to the finished film, that kind of overrides the memory of the journey along the way, so it’s quite interesting to go back and pick it apart.
‘Inside Black Mirror’ goes on sale on Thursday 1 November.