Sex with a pig, performed by the Prime Minister on all TV channels in the middle of the afternoon. This request delivered to Number Ten on video by a terrified princess, whose kidnappers will kill her if the PM doesn’t comply.
As opening scenes go, this was a bit of a gobsmacker – and The National Anthem, the first episode in Charlie Brooker’s Channel 4 series of comic horrors about the macabre side of technology, only got more exhilaratingly outrageous as it continued.
Here was a show that felt like it had bypassed the committees that strangle 99 out of 100 TV writers’ ideas. This actually was the programme readers hoped Brooker would one day make, as they drank in the startling metaphors and descriptions of his TV reviews – those images that are carefully constructed but a little too shamelessly transgressive for most people to conceive. Seeing a particularly hideous/fantastic one (the conceit does in fact come from a 2002 Guardian column) alive on the screen was nearly unbelievable.
Not that The National Anthem was purely about one big dirty gag. The kidnapper was communicating via YouTube upload – not traceable back to him, and also not something spin doctors could contain, because scores of copies were soon online. Gagging orders were useless because foreign media ignored them. Before long it was clear to the government that total embarrassment was inevitable: this grotesque scenario would play out according to the whims of rolling news and social networks.
Behind that attention-grabbing premise, then, was an observation that Brooker developed intelligently and unflinchingly over the course of an hour. In a world where public figures are under constant, microscopic scrutiny, they live in fear of the gaffe – and they realise that the internet now is beyond their control. Worryingly unfair, or just very funny? Brooker took that debate and disembowelled it.
It had all the benefits of that badly underused form, the one-off drama. The pace was vicious, each scene flowing unfussily into the next without flab, despite Brooker clearly having a list of ultramodern phenomena he wanted to knock down.
Never have so many zeitgeisty targets been dealt with so accurately without breaking the dramatic spell. Almost all TV dramas that try to rope in very new cultural/technological curios come across as clunky and fogeyish, but here every detail of the internet reaction – from a tin-hatted commenter saying “Wake up, people! This is a false flag operation” to an iPad-wielding government apparatchik wearily noting that “The Guardian are running a f***ing liveblog” – fed back into the PM’s nightmare and had a spiky truth behind it. Even the hackneyed dramatic persona of an ambitious female reporter sleeping with a government aide in exchange for information had a digital-age slant, as she sealed the deal by smartphoning him increasingly candid photos.
The moment where Britain watched a helicopter shot of the PM slowly being driven to the dreaded film studio? Perhaps its visual mirroring of David Cameron approaching Buckingham Palace in May 2010 was accidental, but I suspect it wasn’t. A news anchor interrupting a frenzied discussion of the kidnapper’s sick demand by observing of the controversy: “Isn’t this precisely what whoever is behind this is looking for?” obviously couldn’t have been a nod to Jeremy Clarkson causing national offence just before the release of his Christmas book, but it was piquant anyway.
And there was more here than modish snark. Brooker’s point about the uncontrollable online hivemind trying, convicting and unfairly distorting within hours of an event being reported was a serious one – the key line being the PM’s wife (Anna Wilson-Jones) telling him, as he agonised over whether to do the deed: “It’s already happening in their heads. In their heads, that’s what you’re doing.”
Wilson-Jones and, as the Prime Minister, Rory Kinnear pushed The National Anthem into something beyond a list of very good jokes. They played it straight, ensuring that while sympathy for them was a way off – nobody who watched to the end was hoping the PM wouldn’t have to go through with it – their pain wasn’t some sort of empty, sketch-show theatrical torment. It was blackly hilarious but also felt real, chilling even. Meanwhile, Kinnear’s portrayal of the nation’s leader as puffy, juvenile, craven and reptilian was a miniature satire of its own.
One consequence was that, after so many flourishes, the ending didn’t deliver a grand twist that pulled the rug from under us and then set fire to it. But the logical conclusion we got instead was quietly angry and satisfying, the knife pushed in a final half-inch.
All this made the first Black Mirror what a lot of great satire is: a ludicrous proposition that, when driven to the extreme with enough skill, suddenly isn’t ludicrous after all.