'Charlie Brooker is not an angry crank'
He made his name with his excoriating TV reviews. Now the Screen Burn columnist is more likely to be the one making the programmes. Either way, Charlie Brooker hasn’t lost his sense of the absurd – or of the macabre
Charlie Brooker: “I think I’m quite pleasant.” Photograph: Dave M Benett/Getty
Spoof: John Hannah in A Touch of Cloth II. Photograph: Zeppotron/Sky
Charlie Brooker is a sell-out who should never have become a newspaper columnist or written television programmes or lost weight or changed his hair or got married or had a baby. Well, that’s what some former fans say. They see his success as an affront to the angry-man persona of his earlier career.
“You can’t be an angry outsider when you’ve a show on Sky, a show on Channel 4 and some shows on the BBC. I’m not really sitting at home in my dressing gown, looking at TV, going, ‘This is f***ing s**t.’ That was the persona of the early Screenwipe stuff,” he says, referring to his very funny television review on BBC Four. “I can still adopt that persona, but it’s from a more comic perspective. I see it as a performance.”
In real life Brooker is not an angry crank. “I think I’m quite pleasant,” he says, sitting in a Kilkenny hotel ready to launch the second series of A Touch of Cloth, the cop-show spoof he created for Sky. He seems like a smiley, slightly twitchy, casually foul-mouthed man who just wants to help. “Was that any use?” he says after one entertainingly rambling answer. “Sorry. I babble a lot. I tend to babble.”
Brooker always knew he wanted to be a comedy writer but didn’t know how to make it happen. As a teenager he sent sketches to The Two Ronnies and Alas Smith & Jones. “I remember writing them on a typewriter and sending them off,” he says. “And I had an idea for a drama called The Money Burners. Every week people would carry out a heist where they would steal a bunch of money from someone they saw as immoral, and then they’d burn it. I sent it to the BBC with all these drawings I’d done of the opening credits. They were having some sort of youth initiative and asked me to come in and meet them. I didn’t go. I can’t remember why. I was scared or forgot what the date was.”
By his 20s he was no wiser. “The tradition is that people go to Oxford and Cambridge and get involved in Footlights,” he says, referring to Cambridge University’s comedy and drama club, “and I never went that route. I knew I wanted to write funny stuff but couldn’t for the life of me work out what the foot in the door was. I wrote a sitcom script when I was about 23, and an agency invited me for a meeting. They said, ‘Why don’t you write about what you know?’ At the time I was working in a second-hand music and video shop. I didn’t have the confidence to write about that, so I didn’t.”
Instead he went on to contribute cartoons and articles to PC Zone magazine, began contributing to BBC radio and launched a hilarious spoof Radio Times listings website called TV Go Home (sample made-up programme: Vin Diesel’s 500 Favourite Tartans). “I was working on a technology radio show, and my copresenter said, ‘You’re going to get in trouble for that website,’ because I was using the look of the Radio Times, and the BBC were clamping down on spoof Tellytubbies sites. So I did it anonymously. It became this anonymous, dangerous thing, and that’s what gave me a career. People would email with offers of work. I got the Guardian column through that.”