I still don’t think TV gets social networking. Despite the chatrooms, despite the hashtags that pop up as graphics on shows as disparate as the X Factor and Kirstie’s Homemade Britain, there’s still a sense that the broadcast networks can be caught unawares. That life online can often move at a bewildering pace, and in unexpected directions.
Charlie Brooker gets social networking. He certainly gets Twitter. Which is why The National Anthem, the first episode in his three-part drama series Black Mirror, works so well. As a long time tweeter, he sees how public opinion can change in minutes over the change in a news story, and how complacency, cant or hypocrisy will be seen through and shot down in flames.
The high arc of Black Mirror deals with technology and how it has changed how we look and react to the world. As it’s Brooker guiding the show, there’s an ink-dark humour running through everything. It’s been marketed as a drama, but on the evidence of The National Anthem we’re in for bone-dry, laser sharp satire.
The story, for those of you with outage problems, is a simple one. A minor royal is kidnapped. The ransom demand is simple–the girl will die unless the Prime Minister has sexual congress with a pig live on TV. This concept has been enough to get certain sections of the press (you know who I’m talking about) either frothing at the mouth or declaring the show to be puerile and unfunny. And it’s a concept that could very easily fall flat. The art with satire is to play it dead straight, and that’s exactly what Brooker and his director Otto Bathurst do. A cast that includes Rory Kinnear and the brilliant Lindsey Duncan tease every inch of pathos and tragedy out of a situation that could so easily have become Carry On Terrorist. It’s still screamingly funny, and worth keeping an eye out for the neat little touches on the edge of frame. The blackboard on the pub, listing the odds of whether the PM will vomit or cry while doing the deed. Some of the Twitter comments and creative hashtags. The tech specs for the shoot, precise and unambiguous.
The show is full of moments that show how well Brooker knows television and social networking. How when a story sneaks out online, it’s impossible to keep it bottled. How the fact that we are connected all the time now means that it’s so easy to succumb to our baser instincts, or to react in ways that we perhaps wouldn’t have planned. News can be broken and reported with a phone, and the best laid plans of the Prime Minister scuppered for the sake of a quick boob shot.
Of course, the whole story has a pleasing inevitability about it. It’s like Chekov’s Gun. Once you mention a pig-shagging in the first act, you know it’ll have to happen in the third. Charlie doesn’t flinch away from this, and it’s at that point that the whole point of the show springs into focus. The Prime Minister, it turns out, doesn’t have to do the act. But he is impelled to by the will of the public. No-one turns off. No-one turns away. Our attention is on the screen, rather than on the more important stuff happening behind us. Our appetite for the freakshow is insatiable. You just have to look at Twitter on a Saturday night while the X Factor’s on to see that.
It turns out that the answer to the question “Would you watch a man screw a pig on live TV?” is “Depends who the man is.”