Black Mirror began as an essentially British programme – with early episodes such as The National Anthem and The Waldo Moment focusing that scorched earth, dystopian feel on facets of UK culture.
So fans of the anthology series were surprised in 2016 when the show suddenly switched to streaming giant Netflix – with many fearing it would be ‘Americanised’.
Creator Charlie Brooker has always insisted that money was not the motivation behind the change of scenery but has been guarded about the actual reasons for the decision.
Now, in new book Inside Black Mirror, Brooker reveals what really prompted the move – and the story starts with the former TV critic’s first drama, Big Brother zombie horror Dead Set.
Brooker and fellow Black Mirror showrunner Annabel Jones initially pitched Dead Set to Channel 4’s drama department – only for them to pass and for then head of comedy Shane Allen to take it under his remit instead.
That relationship saw Allen commission the first two series of Black Mirror, before the creative process at Channel 4 changed.
The network felt that Black Mirror was just becoming too costly for what was ostensibly a comedy show and a meeting with Channel 4 shortly after the second series of Black Mirror had aired only heightened Brooker and Jones’s fears.
“Channel 4 said they wanted to make more Black Mirror,” Brooker explained. “We agreed to do four more episodes, but this time they wanted to see detailed synopses of each film in advance, which I thought was outrageous at the time.”
While some of these stories would eventually go on to become Black Mirror episodes when the show moved to Netflix, the team at Channel 4 evidently weren’t so keen.
“When feedback came, we were told they weren’t very Black Mirror and they were no longer going to allocate the money for four episodes,” said Brooker.
Jones added, “We were trying to get a meeting to discuss why these ideas weren’t Black Mirror, so we could attempt to understand what the concern was.
“Given the show had won lots of awards and had been really positively received on the whole, it was strange. I think there wasn’t any clarity from the channel. We also felt unchampioned.”
However, after a year away to focus on other projects, Brooker and Jones were told that Channel 4 missed Black Mirror, and had the budget to create a Christmas special – which became the acclaimed White Christmas.
While the pair felt things were now looking positive for Black Mirror on Channel 4, things changed during a meeting just hours before the press day for White Christmas.
“We were told they’d like to do more Black Mirror, but anthologies are expensive, so it’d have to be a co-production,” Brooker said. “So that felt deflating.
“And then they said they were working with Bryan Cranston on this anthology show called Electric Dreams, adapting Philip K Dick stories. Maybe, they suggested, I could write one of those.
“I thought, ‘I’m feeling angry. Is this insulting?’”
But Black Mirror’s fortunes suddenly changed when the first two series of the show were put up on Netflix in the states, becoming hugely popular with American audiences and leading to a bidding war among the US networks.
Netflix even offered to make two series of Black Mirror, each containing ten episodes, in a creative partnership with Channel 4.
Jones explained, “With Channel 4 being the original commissioner, they had to be involved because they took the financial risk of making the show – which was perfect for us, because then it meant we’d keep Channel 4, our Black Mirror DNA.
“Netflix respected Channel 4 were the original commissioners, and seemed happy to be equal creative partners. It was a very grown-up approach.”
Yet Channel 4 still wasn’t keen on the idea.
After cutting the ten-episode deal with Netflix down to six per season, Channel 4 said they would go ahead if they could see briefs for all six episodes in advance – something which didn’t fill Brooker with confidence, as they had previously turned his ideas down.
Despite him emailing Channel 4 chief exec David Abraham in desperation to try to make the situation work out for all players, eventually the Black Mirror team realised they had to take a deal with Netflix in order for the show to survive.
“We realised this was not going to happen with Channel 4,” said Jones. “We had to push ahead and do this deal with Netflix.”
Black Mirror has since become a stratospheric cultural phenomenon that has also won numerous awards, including seven Emmys.
And according to Brooker, the streaming giant is the perfect fit for the anthology series.
Speaking at the London Film Festival in 2016, he explained, “On Netflix, we can put the whole thing up and it’s like a short story collection, or an album, or tickets to a film festival.”
Fans will be able to enjoy more of Brooker and Jones’s unique vision of the future when Black Mirror returns later this year.
Season 5 of Black Mirror comes to Netflix later this year