- 16 Aug 13
He was the irreverent TV reviewer turned screen-writer and presenter. The enfant terrible of UK critics, Charlie Brooker talks about his poacher turned gamekeeper career and the influence of fatherhood on his writing...
Hmmm. Charlie Brooker and the way the scathing Screenwipe star might look at you. Or not, as the case might be.
The Sky Cat Laughs Festival is in full swing and Hot Press is sitting in a nondescript Kilkenny hotel suite with the notorious “humourist, satirist, critic, journalist, author, screenwriter, producer, presenter and broadcaster”.
A lot of different hats to be wearing, to be sure, but that’s how Wikipedia describes the multi-talented 42-year-old Englishman. Your correspondent is faced with a tall, angular, awkward-looking, coffee-fuelled ball of cackling energy.
The man appears unable to sit still. Shifting constantly, Brooker strokes his beard, wiggles his eyebrows, gazes at the ceiling, stares at the carpet, scratches his Converse, runs his hand through his hair, and talks in staccato machine gun bursts. He’s engaging and friendly, but direct eye contact does not appear to be an option.
He’s in Kilkenny for the Sky premiere screening of his crime thriller parody A Touch Of Cloth II. The second case for DI Jack Cloth (played by John Hannah), the show sees the alcoholic copper reunited with bisexual partner DC Anne Oldman (Suranne Jones) as they try to nail a vicious gang of armed robbers who’ve been terrorising the City of Town. It’s Brooker’s quirky, totally OTT take on the well-worn English detective genre.
“It’s unlike anything I’ve done in that it’s broad and it’s silly and it’s stupid,” he explains. “There’s bits of it that are hopefully quite clever, but it’s mainly a repository for as many jokes as possible, kind of like Airplane was, so hopefully it’s in the spirit of Airplane rather than in the spirit of something like Scary Movie. Which is shit!”
Unashamedly exhausting every cliché in the book, many of the gags are so bad that they’re also side-splittingly hilarious.
“When those kind of spoofs are good it’s because all the cast are behaving as though they’re not aware they're in a comedy,” he avers. “Whereas the minute they start mugging and hamming it up it’s death as far as I can see. The first one was very much parodying police procedures and dark murder mysteries. This one is kind of broader and it’s an undercover operation to take down some bank robbers and then it all gets a bit Die Hard and melodramatic towards the end. It’s a collaboration, written with a team of people, so it’s nothing like Black Mirror or the Wiped shows."
Although he generally writes shows such as Screenwipe (TV criticism with the dial turned to ‘11’) and the darkly surreal Black Mirror (essentially a more adult version of The Twilight Zone) himself, he says he enjoyed the collaborative process on A Touch of
“On something like this, where the point is to have as many different types of jokes as possible, I’m not going to be able to think of them all – everything from puns to bum jokes through to clever side gags. You want a room full of people. You write it, you go through it, you add jokes.
“If you’re doing something like Black Mirror, it’s the polar opposite. When we did the first A Touch Of Cloth, we were shooting it at the exact same time we were shooting the first Black Mirror. It was actually really handy psychologically going from one thing that was quite bleak and heavy-going into something that’s just funny and is making people laugh. Like, on the set, everyone is just enjoying themselves. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do. It’s almost like The Two Ronnies in terms of that sort of accessibility. This one is a bit ruder than the first one. In some ways, it’s least like what people would expect my persona to be.”
One of the rudest – though also, in fairness, wittiest - critics around, Brooker has been a heavy hitter on the UK media scene for the last decade or so. He tells me that he originally wanted to do something
“I wanted to be an astronaut at one point but, once I realised the amount of physical peril involved, I went straight off that,” he deadpans. “Then I wanted to be a cartoonist, which I did for a while. And a magician, but I was awful. Then I knew I liked funny stuf... So I pretty much got to do what I wanted to do, really. I was lucky.”
His first paid writing gig was reviewing video games for a computer magazine in the mid-’90s.
“It was a really good education in a way,” he recalls. “You’d have to write a 5-page feature on something that was really abstract and, the particular magazine I was working for, its whole ethos was just to be irreverent and to entertain the reader. I got to write gibberish for pages and pages. At the same time I started a website to host my comic strips. This was in the very late ’90s and I wasn’t updating it very often and I decided I needed something to do regularly so I did a spoof Radio Times thing called TV Go Home. That took on a life of its own and sort of became a hit. Because of that, I started getting offered work by the Guardian or doing things for TV shows.”
Driven by “neurosis and guilt,” he says he's only ever missed one print deadline in his life.
“Ugh, it still drives me mad up to this day!” he says, shuddering. “I did this humorous letters page thing in the ‘90s in a video games mag and I was supposed to go on holiday the next day. I was meant to have done this thing and I was tired and I still had to pack. I wrote half of it and then sent the editor a really apologetic letter saying I had only written half of it - can someone else write the rest of it? - and then I flew off on holiday.
“And someone else did do it, and they put in this weird homophobic gag and it just really annoyed me – everyone was going to think I wrote it! It still annoys me. Since that I haven’t missed a deadline, but there has been the odd occasion where a deadline has shifted to meet me. We did that with Black Mirror where we had to pause the production by a week because I was so behind on a script.”
Although he started off writing about TV, nowadays much of his time is spent writing for TV. Is there
an element of poacher turned gamekeeper about
“Oh God, yeah!” he nods. “Like the stuff I was writing for the Guardian in the early days, like the Screenwipe stuff, was very much written from the perspective of an outsider. It was kind of like, ‘No-one’s really reading this so I’ll write whatever outrageous stuff I want’. You can’t carry on doing that now that I’ve sort of written things for most of the channels, I’ve had my own shows, I’ve appeared on things. It would feel like bullying.
“If I go on TV now - I did this the other week - and take the piss out of all the people on The Apprentice, it’s a bit less like someone who’s just sitting at home watching it, it’s a bit like somebody on the TV doing it. So yeah, it has slightly changed. Also, the more stuff like that you’ve done, the more you think it’s not really the presenter’s fault. You’re aware of how much of a head-fuck it is having to talk to talk to a camera. You have a more sympathetic mindset which is deadly if you’re trying to write something vicious.”
While his ‘take no prisoners’ style is often hilarious, he can also be incredibly cruel. It’s not for nothing that the Telegraph recently dubbed him “the world’s most savage TV critic” (he once described Big Brother presenter Davina McCall as “a shrieking Harvester’s barmaid on her hen night”). Now that he’s regularly working in TV himself, does he ever encounter any of his journalistic victims?
“Once I got a really angry email from a member of the public who had been in a show which I’d written a review of and, as part of it, I'd been unpleasant about them, and actually I thought they had a point in this email. But generally speaking people are alright which is kind of annoying. It would be better if they were bastards and you could think, ‘Good. I’m glad I said that’. Instead of thinking, ‘Oh, I feel like
In 2010 Brooker married former Blue Peter presenter Konnie Huq whom he met while filming an episode of Screenwipe. He says that the birth of their son, Covey, last year has totally changed his perspective on things.
“It changed how I was writing the weekly Guardian column… it’s going monthly. I just couldn’t be fucking arsed to be that opinionated about things on a weekly basis. He’s quite young yet, though. Quite a few of the Black Mirror episodes last time were written with him at night. I’d take him out of our room and have him in a carrycot in the room I was writing in. It was actually a really good distraction and a motivator. When he was really young he would sleep for like three hours and then I’d have to feed him so for those three hours I had to fucking write, otherwise I wasn’t going to get them done. So I wrote most of the second series like that.”
What’s next for Charlie Brooker?
“I literally don’t know at the moment,” he shrugs. “It’s all in a state of flux. I’ve got a conveyor belt of stuff coming. It's been a matter of thinking, ‘Oh, is that going to clash with that?’ You know, it’s been A Touch Of Cloth and then Black Mirror and Weekly Wipe and then 10 O’Clock Live. There's a pile of opportunities that have come along and I’ve had to start throwing some of them out. I can’t do them all so it’s a bit more complicated. There are film things and there are TV series to do. I can’t possibly do them all, but I’ve got to work them out. I’m always either in a state of panic because I’m not doing anything or a state of panic because I’ve got too much to do. Now I’m in a state of panic because I know I have things to do and I haven’t started doing them… so I start to feel