Monday 5 December 2011

Black Mirror: The National Anthem

Charlie Brooker is one of the few writers whose material I'll read or watch even if I have no interest in the subject matter. His grumpy newspaper articles ranting about the media are always fun, and his grumpy appearances on tv in Newswipe and Screenwipe ranting about the media pick their targets well. His previous attempts to cross over to the other side and write drama have been less successful, although I've always found it strange that critics haven't been more critical of a poacher turned gamekeeper.

Nathan Barley was a sitcom that laboured the fairly obvious point that people in the media are idiots. And Dead Set was a zombie version of Big Brother that laboured the fairly obvious point that people on Big Brother are idiots and the people who watch it are zombies. Black Mirror is his latest drama, which in its first episode asked the important question: is it always wrong to have sex with animals? As cutting edge questions go this isn’t all that cutting edge as The Vicar of Dibley dealt with this issue about ten years ago in an early evening popular piece of family entertainment, but nevertheless this time the answer was a resounding no.

The idea behind the title was an excellent one, that the black flat screen sitting in the corner of your living room is like the enigmatic monolith from 2001 and so a series of Twilight Zone dramas will explore what goes on behind the black mirror. Except of course when you switch off the tv, all you'll see in the black mirror is yourself, only darker. The National Anthem was the first story and it was heavy on good ideas, which is rare on British tv these days, and so close to being brilliant it was well worth watching, but it wasn't as well written as it could have been and so it wasn't as provocative as it reckoned it was.

Taking the episode as a journey into the twilight zone where you suspend disbelief was the best way to enjoy it, as the plot holes, even for a fantasy satire, were wider than a 56 inch flat screen. A member of the royal family has been kidnapped and the ransom demand is simply that the Prime Minister must appear on live tv and re-enact a scene that you'd never get to see in Peppa Pig. The Prime Minister reacts as expected and tries to silence the story, but in these days of the Internet that proves impossible. Within minutes the story is on youtube, twitter, and facebook, while the 24 hour rolling news service does its best to work out how they can break a suppressed story everyone already knows without revealing the lurid details everyone already knows.

Starting with that excellent premise the drama that unfolded was an odd one that for me failed to say anything original about the modern media and our strange mixture of disgust in and encouragement of lurid stories while the secondary aspect of the story of the Prime Minister's descent into a dark world beyond his control was riveting. Brooker first came to prominence writing with Chris Morris, who explored the world of stupid media people churning out depraved material for an even stupider general population in a surreal and shocking manner some ten to fifteen years ago. This didn't say anything that Morris didn't do better back then or for that matter, for example, Ben Elton's Popcorn did in the early 90s. All I got from the story was that news travels fast on the Internet and media people will sell their soul for a story, which isn't much of a revelation from a black mirror. Even less riveting is the satirical point that the entire population of the world is so media-obsessed and desperate for crude entertainment that we'll drop everything just for the chance to sit in front of the tv and watch the Prime Minister pork a porker.

What did work though was Roy Kinnear's dignified and compelling performance as the Prime Minister in a role that required him to lose all dignity when events spiral out of control. With his advisors and press secretaries, he's the most powerful man in the country and yet slowly as the day goes on he gets to understand that in reality he's the most powerless. Surrounded by bad advice, focus groups, spin doctors, and trends on twitter he faces the classic dilemma that no matter what he does he's doomed. Either he saves a life but destroys his marriage and his career, or he takes the risk that someone he doesn't know will die and yet he'll still destroy his marriage and his career. And all the people who are supposed to help him can do is advise him that he shouldn’t risk looking like he's enjoying himself with the pig.

As this was a Twilight Zone type fantasy there had to be a twist at the end and it was a groan inducing one when it's revealed the set up was a Turner Prize winning piece of conceptual art. It all went wrong for everyone involved as the member of the royal family was released early, but with everyone indoors cheering on the pig nobody noticed. The only deep and disturbing irony in that is that anyone would think it deep and disturbing. I reckon the real Twilight Zone would have provided a better twist and Rod Serling's narration would surely have been funnier. Although I enjoyed the first episode, with next week's episode looking pretty dire I think I'll pass on the rest of the series and start looking forward to Brooker's news summary of the year instead.

1 comment:

skhwoody said...

i thought the episode was excellent, i missed it on first transmission, but one of my friends said they were so disgusted with it i thought i had to see. I love Charlie Brooker, i think the newswipe series is excellent, an outpouring of anger at the modern day news obsessed/celbrity culture i feel i rally against as a sole voice, is backed up sometimes i feel as i agree with practically everything brooker says. (see the newswipe special about how the media brings about a news story and the backlash, by creating that backlash in the first place) I must say i though the review is excellent as always and apart from a few points i agree in the summing up. I think the animal part aside, this was just the background to the story, the actual strength of the episode for me was showing the power that people wield from the anonimity of their phones/computers and how the media bend and twist all news to their benefit, where have the days gone where news was reported and now manipulated and created.