The second series of Charlie Brooker’s dark satire Black Mirror kicks off tonight on Channel 4 at 10:00pm. In this series, the journalist and TV personality scrutinises social media, politics and the ways in which new technologies are altering human behaviour.
Here, Brooker and the show’s stars discuss the new series, their characters and working on a series as smart, witty and cutting edge as Black Mirror.
The first series of Black Mirror, which was broadcast in 2011, earned two Bafta nominations and amassed a wealth of critical acclaim. Charlie Brooker explains a little more about the second run of the drama which satirises “the way we live now – and the way we might be living in 10 minutes’ time if we’re clumsy.”
The first series of Black Mirror won an international Emmy, and a lot of praise. Does that sort of thing matter to you?
Yes and no. Obviously it’s nice when something you’ve worked on is received well, but on the other hand it just ramps up the pressure and level of expectation for next time. And the entire concept of awards ceremonies is a bit bizarre. It’s nothing to do with what’s ‘best’: it’s about whether a panel of judges in a room somewhere can reach a consensus. All awards ceremonies should be torn down and converted into children’s’ hospitals immediately.
You’re back with a new series – explain a bit about each one.
Be Right Back:
Years ago a friend of mine died, and then several years after that, I was trying to clear space on a phone – this is back in the days when you could only store a limited number of contacts – and I felt terribly guilty for deleting his name to make room for others. It was crazy – a number that didn’t even work anymore – and yet it felt disrespectful to hit ‘delete’. And then this year I looked at Twitter one night and thought “what if all these people were dead, and everything they were saying was being mimicked by a piece of software”? Because that’s the kind of thing I think late at night.
People spend hours typing messages into Facebook, Twitter, you name it – what if there was a service that could harvest all this, and pretend to be you after you died? Copy your figures of speech; crack the same sort of jokes that you do; proffer the same opinions and so on. Even if you knew it was only software, if that was a friend or relative of yours, the temptation to chat with a program like that would be unbearable, especially if you were grieving.
So it’s a story in which a young woman finds herself suddenly bereaved, and then she’s offered the chance to communicate with a simulation of her husband, based on his Tweets, Facebook status updates, emails, etc. And when she talks to it, she’s stunned by how lifelike it seems. But at the same time she knows it’s not really him: it’s just a souvenir. And so the question then becomes: is that enough? And if it isn’t, can she bear to ‘delete’ him?
The first series of Black Mirror featured three stories which were pretty much different genres (political thriller / dystopian sci-fi / relationship crisis), although they all shared a similar tone and sensibility. We’re doing that again this year. If Be Right Back is a romance (of sorts), then White Bear is an apocalyptic thriller.
A young woman wakes up, apparently following some kind of suicide attempt, unable to remember her own name. She stumbles outside looking for help, but no-one will even speak to her. Instead they all stand around filming her on their mobiles. Then a man with a shotgun appears and gives chase – and the crowd continues to film, as if idly watching a sporting event. I was thinking of the ubiquity of camera phones here.
The audience at any gig is a sea of little blue lights. During the Libyan uprising you could see people walking around filming the aftermath of attacks, almost like tourists. When Gaddafi’s body lay on display for a couple of days, people crowded round it with their phones out. It all looked pretty nightmarish. Almost like a zombie movie, I thought. And then I thought, what if rather than a zombie movie, you had a story in which 90% of the population just became emotionless voyeurs.
They’d just film whatever was happening in front of them, especially if it was horrible. What would happen to the remaining 10%? Some of them would go nuts and start doing terrible things to amuse the ‘audience’. White Bear explores that nightmare — and then hopefully creates a new one.
The Waldo Moment:
Back when Chris and I were doing Nathan Barley we had an idea for a storyline in which someone invented a sort of animated MP – like something from the band Gorillaz. It seemed like something that could potentially catch on.
Today there’s no doubt that the relationship between politicians and the public has become increasingly strained – MPs are widely viewed as a different, inherently untrustworthy species. Literally like weird creatures we just have to put up with. And they’re easy to mock, but they’re not easy to replace.
And at the same time you’ve got someone like Boris Johnson becoming wildly popular in part because he represents “character”, something most MPs seem to lack. He’s become bulletproof. He can actively, openly fuck up – literally performing slapstick at times – and people seem to love him for it. Never mind his policies. He rose to prominence by doing panel shows. Now some predict he’ll be PM one day. That’s an odd state of affairs.
So this story is about a CGI character from a late-night topical comedy show that gets entered into a political race for a stunt. The guy behind it isn’t comfortable with politics – he just sees himself as a clown – but once the wheels start turning there’s no stopping the thing. But he’s not interested in running the world. He doesn’t know how. So what can he do?
Are they comedy dramas, or just straight dramas? Somewhere in-between I think. They’re pretty straight, but often based on ideas that could be funny if you chose to view them that way.
Do you think you’ll ever end up writing a lovely, fluffy rom-com, with Enya music playing over the denouement?
Didn’t you see Dead Set?
Hayley Atwell stars in the first episode of Black Mirror’s second series, Be Right Back, as Martha, a young woman stricken with grief after her boyfriend’s untimely death.
Your new drama on Channel 4 is Black Mirror. What made you say yes to it?
I actually tried to make them say yes. I’d seen the first series; I wanted to spend a bit of time in the UK. I love British television; I think some of the best writing is in TV at the moment – a lot better than the movie scripts I’ve been getting through. When I saw the first series, I thought it had a touch of the cynicism and sarcasm that Charlie Brooker is known for, and it was also inventive and tongue-in-cheek, and quite eerie, but in a truly modern way. Once I’d seen it, I called up my agent and said “Please tell them, if they’re making a second series, to please consider me. I’d love to be involved.” And it just goes to show what happens if you persevere.
What can you reveal about your episode?
I can tell you that it’s about a woman who goes through something quite devastating, and out of absolute desperation she discovers an app online that can simulate someone that she’s lost. And she effectively starts a relationship with someone who doesn’t exist, and it’s actually through a piece of technology. And because the technology is so sophisticated, it’s very easy for her to forget that it’s actually a computer that she’s talking to, and not a piece of technology. It gets eerie and very weird, and I think it raises questions about morals and ethics in technology and social media, and also about how disconnected we are from talking to each other one-on-one. This just takes that whole discussion to a very dark place. But it’s essentially a love story as well.
It sounds extremely emotionally intense. Did you end up exhausted after each day of filming?
Yes. This is the first time I’ve ever done something where I was literally in every scene, and with the heightened emotion it was very knackering. You’ve got a short space of time, you’ve got a lot of people working on their own areas, and on ‘action’ you’ve got to bring it. When I’m working in that environment, I have to really concentrate, so I found myself very insulated, and quite lonely, to be honest with you – in a way that the character would be as well.
I feel a sense of responsibility playing a role like this. I’ve not lost anyone very close to me, but I knew that people watching would have, and I wanted to try my best to be as sensitive and observant as possible about what grief can be and what forms it can take. I looked into the seven stages of grieving, and I talked to a few people about how grief manifests itself. It was twelve days, which is not a long time to shoot a one-hour drama. So I was completely shattered by the end of it. I’m always kept going by the desire to make something that will be really good, that people will really like.
And do you think you’ve got that? Can you tell?
It’s really hard to see something objectively, because when I watch something that I’ve been in, I think “Oh, I remember that day,” or “Oh, we filmed that on the last day, but it’s actually the first scene,” or “Oh, they’ve cut that line.” What I try to do now is watch the scene back when I’m on set, so it’s not a shock to the system when I’m watching it with a load of people in the comfort of my own home.
Domnhall Gleeson stars opposite Atwell in Be Right Back as Ash, the boyfriend whose death triggers the events of the drama.
What’s your Black Mirror story about?
It starts off being about a couple. And then there’s an accident, and the girl is left alone. It’s about dealing with mourning, I suppose, with the mourning process, with being alone, but adding in a technological slant which is very interesting and very odd, but which makes for some really great questions and moments, I hope.
Is there an element of the morality tale about it?
I wouldn’t say a morality tale, but it does ask some really interesting questions in a way that some of my favourite films ask really interesting questions. Like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is a brilliant film about love and loss, and it’s all set in a really brilliant framework. I thought of this as being similar, on a smaller scale, because it’s a shorter story and it’s on television, but it asks some similar questions about the mourning process in a similarly interesting way.
You’re starring alongside Hayley Atwell. How was it working with her?
It was great, we had a really good time. Hayley carried the show. I was kind of hopping in and out. God, she was working so hard, she had so much to do, and so much intense stuff. So when you come in, I think you have a responsibility to try and nail your scenes, but also to try and be nice to be around, because everyone there is working so hard, you’re the only one who gets to go home early every now and again. So she was fantastic, I really, really enjoyed working with her.
Did you watch the previous Black Mirrors to get an idea of the genre?
When I read the script, I just thought it was amazing, and my brother had told me about Black Mirror before, so I’d checked out a couple of the episodes already. I’d seen them before I got the part and really enjoyed them – I thought they were fabulous.
Lenora Crichlow stars in the apocalyptic White Bear as Victoria, a young woman who awakens one day to discover that the vast majority of human beings have degenerated into zombie-like cameraphone-wielding voyeurs.
You’re in the new series of Black Mirror. You play Victoria. What’s her story?
When we meet Victoria, we don’t know her story, we’re as confused as she is. She doesn’t know who she is, or where she is, or how she got there. And we go on this journey with her which turns into quite an adventure – she’s chased and tormented for the whole episode, while people appear to be watching her unmoved, and filming her on their phones, until we get to the end, when it becomes clear.
What was it like to film?
It was really interesting, because Carl, who directed it, often wouldn’t let me block it out with other actors, so that when we were going through it on camera, it would be the first time I saw something, or walked along a certain path, so I wouldn’t know what was coming next. It just helped add to the weirdness of it. It was the most unglamorous, weird, surreal shoot ever.
Was it quite exhausting to film, being on the run all the time, and not knowing what was going to happen next?
Yeah, it was very demanding. The hours that we filmed – it’s always extreme in TV. We were up very early, and left very late, and then you just crash out and then you’re up and on set again, so that’s pretty hard work.
What was it that attracted you to the part?
Well, one, they offered me the job. That’s usually a winner! But really and truly it was that I‘d watched the first series and thoroughly enjoyed it. It’s a really well-respected series within the industry; people were talking about it a lot. I read a different script and initially went in for a different episode, and I was absolutely in love with it. I was devastated when it didn’t go my way. So I was really chuffed when they called me back in for this one. And I was attracted to the challenge. I read it and thought “This is going to be a nightmare to shoot! I’m in!” It keeps me on my toes. It’s so different to what I’ve been doing before. Having left a series like Being Human, you want to be sure the next things you do move you on. You need to shake off the old ideas of who you are on TV. I couldn’t have really got further away from Annie as a character than playing Victoria. It ticked all the boxes for me. And it was lovely to shoot in London as well – it rarely happens.
Tuppence Middleton appears opposite Lenora Crichlow in White Bear as a mysterious young woman named Jen.
You’re in the new series of Black Mirror and you’re in an episode called ‘White Bear’ which is shrouded in secrecy. What can you reveal about it?
It mainly focuses on a young woman who wakes and she doesn’t remember who she is, in a world that she doesn’t recognise anymore. Everyone she meets is either incredibly hostile towards her, or they just film her. My character bumps into her helps her. I’ve been living in this world and I’m very used to it, and I become her guide.
Your character is called Jem. What’s her story, what do you know about her?
In the story you know that she’s become hardened by this world and she knows the ins and outs of. She is very independent and initially would rather travel on her own, but she just happens to come by Victoria and is forced to take her under her wing. Her main goal is to stay alive. When we were talking about the character we almost wanted her to come across as a bit like a computer game character, like a bit of a Tank Girl – she’s very tough.
Presumably there’s not an awful lot of back story or detail about her. Does that make it difficult to play a role like that? Or does it give you a blank canvas which is quite fun to fill out?
Yeah I liked the fact she was quite mysterious, she doesn’t give away too much. She gives away enough about the world for Victoria to understand but she doesn’t give away too much about herself and I think she’s quite a guarded and lone figure. I think the more mysterious she is to Victoria the better.
Lenora Crichlow [who plays Victoria] said the shoot was pretty intense in terms of it being very long days and not quite knowing what was going to be around the next corner. Did you find that as well?
Yes I mean it was kind of tough in a great way. I don’t think I’ve ever run so much in my life. I was doing ADR [voiceover work] for it today and it was, I’d say, 90% doing breaths for running. We were very active and it’s kind of fun doing things like that because I’m not like that at all – I hate even going to the gym, so being an active action girl is quite fun for me. I mean it was tough, it was long days and we were filming mostly outside for two weeks and almost every day it would pour down with rain. We were usually quite cold and wet and running for hours but it was quite fun.
Presumably with the plot being what it is, it quite added to the atmosphere it being rainy and dark?
Yes it really helped. I’ve just watched a little bit of it back and there’s that really weird sky when it’s like winter and it’s raining and it’s so cold, it’s almost like a completely white-grey sky. It really looks like the end of the world has come.
What was it that attracted you to the part?
A million things. I am a huge fan of Charlie Brooker and I thought the last series of Black Mirror was one of the best things I’d seen on TV for ages. As soon as the audition came up I was like ‘oh god I have to get that.’ I just love Black Mirror, and Carl the director. I was just really confident he could do a good job and he seemed to have a really good vision. And like I said it’s a part totally unlike myself, apart from being tall, which I think is why I mostly get cast as these sort of parts, I’m not at all like that. I’m not this kind of action girl. It was something really different for me.
Daniel Rigby stars in The Waldo Moment as a failed comedian who eventually ends up running for Parliament dressed as a blue bear.
You’re in a new episode of Black Mirror, entitled The Waldo Moment. What’s it about?
It’s about a comedian who performs as a CGI character on a topical programme, and at the same time, his life is unravelling. The CGI puppet that he plays ends up going viral, and it all spirals out of control, much to his displeasure, because he doesn’t like playing the character and isn’t proud of it. The character lampoons politicians, so it’s a bit of a comment on politics, through the medium of a blue bear.
And the blue bear ends up running for Parliament?
Yeah, that’s right, he stands to be an MP.
What was it that attracted you to the role?
The fact that the script was by Charlie Brooker. I’ve read his columns for years, and have long been an admirer of his. It was great to work with a comedy hero. It’s a funny script, and I think it also expresses how a lot of people feel about politics, which is to say largely indifferent.
It strikes me that this is less about technology than other Black Mirrors. Would that be fair?
The technological aspect of it is in the technology that they use to bring Waldo to life. It’s slightly more advanced than we have at the moment, in terms of puppetry, but that’s about it. So I would say yes, it focuses less on advances in technology. It’s all about the story and the satire.
And it’s a satire of politics, as you say. But is it also a satire of television and popular culture?
Yeah, I think it’s all of the above, really. It gives voice to the opinion of a lot of people, in that they don’t really trust politicians and don’t feel that engaged or involved in the process. There’s also a love story in there, so there are themes in here that everyone will recognise, in terms of heartbreak and love.
You star alongside Jason Flemyng and Tobias Menzies. Did you enjoy working with them?
Yeah, they were great. I’ve known Tobias for a few years, and get on with him very well. Jason was great to work with. He was totally bonkers – it was brilliant.
Watch a trailer for Black Mirror’s second series below:
Black Mirrror series two begins tonight at 10pm on Channel 4