A pig comes to Charlie Brooker’s rescue
If it wasn't for its piggish sex scene, The National Anthem would just be Martin Amis without the flair.
A couple of years ago, coincidentally around the time of publishing a new book, then 60-year-old novelist Martin Amis suggested setting up ‘euthanasia booths’ on every street corner of Britain to deal with the ‘silver tsunami’ of an ageing population. Apparently preying on his mind was the thought that novelists’ talent tend to precede their physical demise, and Amis wanted to go when his talent did.
Well, any admirers of Amis’ earlier works, like Money and London Fields, who have felt compelled also to slog their way through any of his more recent novels, or to pay attention to his increasingly desperate attention-seeking outbursts, should consider buying Charlie Brooker a drink. He may have finally put the grumpy old man to bed for good.
Admirers of Amis’ particularly exuberant form of grotesque satire would have found much to enjoy in The National Anthem, the first of three dramas in Channel 4’s new Brooker-penned series, Black Mirror. Set in a near-contemporary Britain, the drama includes a scene where the prime minister is forced – through a series of calamitous and botched events – to have sex with a pig on national television in order to spare the life of a young princess. This was as dark and unsettling as Amis, the one-time enfant terrible of English literature, has been for nearly two decades. Brooker may not have Amis’ knack for sparkling prose but, as anyone who watched BBC2’s adaptation of Money can testify, perhaps that worked in his favour.
Expectations for the series should not be high. Brooker, an entertainingly sharp commentator on the media in his original TV listings-mag spoof, TVGoHome, and in his BBC series, Newswipe, has looked increasingly uncomfortable since he found himself shifting from the noble and important work of writing intelligent TV reviews to becoming the voice of liberal Guardianista outrage in recent years. His demeanour on Channel 4’s 10 O’Clock Live resembled that of a boxer who wishes he’d taken a bribe to go down early rather than have his limitations exposed in so ruthless a format as live political comedy.
Although Brooker has notched up two considerable successes as a scriptwriter – with hipster pisstake Nathan Barley and zombie-reality comedy Dead Set – both creations tended to confirm popular prejudices rather than skewer them. For all his foul-mouthed bluster and deadpan wit, Brooker is less a pugnacious moral satirist than a contemporary humourist – an Alan Coren, say, for a profane age. Perhaps it is time to call Brooker’s bluff.
Like the genial Coren (once a TV critic for the Mail on Sunday) and like the grouchy Amis, too, Brooker reveals a fundamentally conservative outlook in Black Mirror, which no amount of ultra-modern electronica and monochrome styling can disguise. Nominally investigating the impact technology has had on our lives – the ‘black mirror’ being a disused monitor or screen – and with Brooker’s announcement that the series served as a homage to retro sci-fi shows such as The Twilight Zone, there was a feeling that we’ve all been here before. Visually and atmospherically, it was difficult to distinguish The National Anthem from Dennis Potter’s posthumous 1996 swansong, Cold Lazarus. That Potter himself has been quoted extensively in the media coverage around ‘Hackgate’ – having famously described Rupert Murdoch as a ‘drivel-merchant, global huckster and, so-to-speak, media psychopath’ – should make it clear from which well Brooker is drinking. Hell, even the title of the first episode seems to reference a decade-old song by arch eco-misanthropes Radiohead.
For all that, however, The National Anthem was something of a triumph. Clearly borrowing from one-time collaborator Chris Morris, this was satire delivered with a studiously straight face but without Brooker’s increasingly trendy vicar bully pulpit, and it was all the more successful for it. Yes, we were all supposed to imagine it was Dave Cameron or Nick Clegg screwing that pig but, in a tumultuous year for British politics, this was at least an attempt to recognise that we are not living through 1980s Thatcherism again. The reality is all the more terrifying for it.
Yes, much of the classic liberal targets were old-hat – celebrity royals, weak-willed and overspun politicians, immoral and irresponsible media hacks and (most tired of all) a gawping and thick public of proles eager to be entertained by any spectacle of debasement. But they were drawn together with a sharp eye. A key difference between the politics of yesteryear and 2011 has been the absence of meaningful political opposition on the streets, coupled with a hitherto unknown disintegration of establishment stability, with the political-media-civic structures tearing themselves apart.
Just as Amis’ early novels were thrilling in portraying the moral anarchy of the breakdown of the postwar consensus of British political life, so The National Anthem revealed today’s toxic stew. What could have been treated as a crass gag – indeed, it almost certainly will be in Amis’ wretched-sounding work-in-progress State of England – the pig-fucking PM instead became an unsettling metaphor exposing everything from the spinelessness of our elected representatives, the institutional cluelessness of the civil service, the declining authority of the mass media and the fundamental nihilism of modern terrorism (and, as it turns out, art).
Of course, if Brooker thinks this is somehow all the fault of TV and smartphones, that is his own pig-headed shortcoming. With the show going out against the backdrop of the Occupy protests, with the sense of spectacle and statements elevated above its (non-existent) political content, the casting of Rory Kinnear – one of the finest Shakespearean actors currently treading the boards – as the tragic prime minister felt like (ahem) a masterstroke. As stirring republican statements go, the realisation that you would rather watch one princess die than see an elected representative forced to fuck a pig is a strange one, but perhaps it is in keeping with the spirit of the times.
If Brooker wants Black Mirror to be a masterful dissection of contemporary life then he should be reaching for the scalpel from here on. As it is, with another promised ‘satire’ on reality TV – the forthcoming Fifteen Million Merits – we will certainly not get it. Whether we actually need a new Martin Amis is a different matter but, while The National Anthem may have been a pleasantly surprising fluke, at least we can safely shuffle the old Amis off this literary coil.
David Bowden is spiked’s TV columnist.
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