When Black Mirror writer Charlie Brooker was little, he expected to die horribly. “I was convinced I’d be incinerated in a nuclear war,” the presenter and screenwriter says. “I remember when I realised, as a child, ‘That stuff on the TV about nuclear bombs is real! Why isn’t everyone running around shouting “aaarrgghh”? Why are people still buying bicycle clips?’ I really believed I was going to be killed.”
And that is why Black Mirror, his fabulously successful reinvention of popular early-60s television chillers such as The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits is so, well, dark.
“It’s a reflection of my worrying side,” Brooker reveals in a hotel room that could be a Black Mirror set – a large, unnervingly bare space with two chairs and nothing else but him and me in it. “I’m extremely neurotic, it’s the way my brain is built,” he says. “My favourite Twilight Zone is the one where a nuclear bomb goes off.”
Black Mirror began on Channel 4 in 2011 as a three-episode vehicle for Brooker’s interest in technology and the dark places it might take us. The show attracted the admiration of some important people, including novelist Stephen King and actor Robert Downey Jr, and won an international Emmy. A second series of three episodes followed in 2012 before it was picked up by Netflix earlier this year.
There were chips that wiped your memory, virtual husbands downloaded from the internet and computer animations standing in elections. “Foreigners, who don’t know me, think it’s written by the Unabomber or some massive Luddite who’s furious about technology,” says Brooker, but Black Mirror was never really about gadgets ganging up on us.
“I do love technology, but it’s in the background of the show. We use it in the same way that Tales of the Unexpected or Hammer House of Horror would use the supernatural – it’s a way of making magic things happen.”
Brooker, 45, sounds as if he might have been quite a strange little boy. “I used to draw comics a lot,” he says. “I was obsessed with The Young Ones and was massively into video games, although I was no good at them. I was one of those kids who had a ZX Spectrum and would swap games on cassette with people. I wouldn’t say I was particularly weird, but I did draw outrageous things in the margin of a textbook to amuse people.”
He still has a taste for childish violence. Married to former Blue Peter presenter and screenwriting partner Konnie Huq since 2010, Brooker has two sons – Covey, four, and Huxley, two – to watch television with. “Have you seen Bing [on CBeebies]?” he asks. “It’s voiced by Mark Rylance, and horrible things happen to this little bunny rabbit. It teaches kids that not everything is great and how to deal with disappointment and failure. In one episode Bing finds a butterfly and kills it by accident.”
Lucky Covey and Huxley.
Did Brooker know from an early age that he would make it? “Good God no,” he splutters. “I genuinely thought I was going to die in a nuclear holocaust. I couldn’t foresee any future!”
The young Brooker awaited Armageddon in an Oxfordshire village with a duck pond and bakery where he would collect fresh rolls on the way to primary school. “Almost idyllic,” he says. His 20s were less picturesque and mainly spent indoors – he dedicated much of the 1990s to reviewing video games for PC Zone magazine. “It’s a brilliant job,” he says. “You can’t complain about playing computer games for a living. It’s like being fed chocolate for money.”
His dream lifestyle did have drawbacks. “I used to get stoned all the time when I was in my 20s. I’ve never been a big drinker and I didn’t get drunk till I was 25. I’ve got a phobia about throwing up. When I was born, the umbilical cord was wrapped around my neck and I was being choked. That was my introduction to the world: ‘Here you go, see how you like this!’ It left me with a really terrible fear of vomiting. When I used to think about nuclear war, one of the things that worried me was getting radiation sickness. That scared me more than being burnt to a crisp – I’d be puking uncontrollably! So no drink – ice cream, that’s what I reach for. I’d play Doom and eat a tub of Ben & Jerry’s.”
Was that bad for Brooker’s career? “Oh yes, it totally knackered my career. If you sit there playing Mario Kart and watching Police Camera Action for six years, it isn’t very productive. I would spend ages trying to think of what the first paragraph would be. I mean, I still do, but for different reasons.”
He was aware that this lifestyle couldn’t go on for ever. “When you’re at a barbecue and someone says, ‘What do you do for a living?’ And you go, ‘I play computer games,’ you start thinking, ‘I have to get out if this.’”
Episode 3: Nose Dive. Directed by Atonement’s Joe Wright, Bryce Dallas Howard plays an office worker in a society that rates every social interaction
Brooker looked to the listings pages of Radio Times for inspiration. “I started the website TV Go Home, a parody of the Radio Times,” he says. “I was desperately trying to discipline myself to do something that wasn’t video game reviews. It happened to be at the same time as the internet became a big deal and suddenly I was offered a writing gig on [Channel 4 satirical sketch show] The 11 o’Clock Show. Then I started getting work for The Guardian. I was lucky.”
Part of Brooker’s problem in getting out of the bedroom and into real life was that he didn’t know whom to approach. “I always felt like, ‘How do you get in there?’ I didn’t go to public school or down the Oxbridge route; perhaps that instils greater confidence in people, or networking skills.”
Is it annoying then, that he tends to be lumped in with TV’s poshos in the public imagination? “It’s annoying if people go, ‘Public school prat!’” he says. “ I think, ‘Well, I’m not actually, I went to a comprehensive. So f*** you.’” And he’s had even more obscene insults thrown at him.
Might that be because, on television at least, he doesn’t always come across as a very nice man? “I’m aware people think of me as extremely negative and cynical and opinionated,” he says. “I project that sort of persona. Actually, I’m a bit goofier than people think, and certainly a lot more stupid.”
Many of his fans look at Brooker’s onscreen demeanour – his face when presenting his Screenwipe series for BBC4 is set in a permanent sneer – as a mark of his authenticity and they don’t like it when he’s not unpleasant. “I remember writing a newspaper column just after the first kid was born about how great it was. I got, ‘Oh, you gooey p****, you’ve just turned into one of them!’”
Why do people expect Brooker to be against things? “I’m certainly not a revolutionary,” he says. “I probably fear change more than I welcome it. I have allegiances that come from growing up in a Labour-voting family [his parents are also Quakers], but I don’t think I’ve ever set out to change things. I’ve always felt like a sell-out. I wanted to get the work done and that inevitably means you compromise things.”
His TV career features plenty of compromise with the establishment. “When I was doing TV Go Home I was working at Endemol where Silvio Berlusconi was at the top of the money chain. I try not to think about it, because unless you go completely off grid as a protest against everything, how can you do anything? When we did [spoof crime drama] A Touch of Cloth for Sky [owned by Rupert Murdoch], I thought, ‘Am I going to get lots of criticism for this, should I be doing it?’ But I also thought, ‘Well, you know what? I’m making a comedy.’”
There’s a pause while Brooker reconsiders. “But that’s probably just me justifying it to myself. Now you’ve given me an identity crisis. That’s depressing, isn’t it?” For a moment he looks genuinely nonplussed, then he laughs. “It’s not a burden, I’m not moaning and going, ‘Poor me doing a Netflix series, boo hoo.’ You know, most people hate their jobs.”