'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 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.”
Since landing those columns he has collaborated on the sitcom Nathan Barley with Chris Morris, written the zombie-Big Brother mash-up Dead Set – it involved zombies invading the reality-TV series – the excellently dystopian science-fiction series Black Mirror and the hilarious A Touch of Cloth. He also hosts, writes and produces Charlie Brooker’s Weekly Wipe, in which he throws a critical eye on television, hosted the panel show You Have Been Watching and is one of the four presenters of 10 O’Clock Live, Channel 4’s satirical current-affairs show.
He is, he grudgingly admits, sort of famous. This was partly what led him to cease Screen Burn, his television column for the Guardian. (He also recently cut down on writing opinion pieces.) “My perspective changed,” he says. “What I was good at was writing really disparaging things about contestants on reality shows. I have a knack for doing that, describing them in horrible ways. But the more TV I did the more I met these people and realised they’re just people trying to get on . . . So I don’t tend to absolutely pile abuse on somebody’s head now unless I think there’s a valid reason for it, or if I feel it’s just exceptionally funny.
“We did a thing on 10 O’Clock Live recently where I was rude about all the Apprentice contestants. But they’re basically set up to be hated. It’s like The Apprentice says, ‘Here are 12 people you can f***ing hate for 12 weeks.’ It’s a public service. It’s probably preventing something terrible from happening.”
At the moment Brooker seems incredibly prolific. This is partly a freelancer’s fear of turning anything down, he says, and partly because he’s easily bored. “When I was doing Screenwipe I thought, This is all well and good, but I’m just talking the p**s out of frothy shows every week. So I started doing Newswipe almost as a self-improvement thing. But then I was dealing with famines and earthquakes and terrible scandals, and I’d think, F***, I wish I was doing the frothy stuff again.”
It’s a tricky balance. In 2004, during George Bush’s re-election campaign, Brooker offended people when he wrote, “John Wilkes Booth, Lee Harvey Oswald, John Hinckley Jr – where are you now that we need you?” At the time he was surprised people took him seriously. “I make serious points and then selfishly also expect the right to say whatever I want in a stupid way and think, Well, obviously I was f***ing joking. You can tell on the Wipe shows or 10 O’Clock Live when I take something seriously, because usually any hint of a smirk disappears. There have been a few occasions when I’ve been coldly angry about things . . . But I’m usually trying to entertain before I’m trying to make a point. I’m motivated more by trying to make people laugh.”
All his work shows an acute understanding of the mechanics of television. The first scene he wrote for Black Mirror started as a parody of 24. And the comic news analysis on Newswipe comes from studying the news cycle. “A story breaks, everyone panics a bit and there’s hot news,” he says. “Then, after about 72 hours, there’s a fork in the road, and the media takes a silly turn. Things just get surreal and weird, because there are so many hours to fill with bulls**t. Spotting those branches is what we do.”
The first series of A Touch of Cloth was adapted from a real unmade crime-show script written by the Messiah creator Boris Starling. The second was created with the help of specially compiled DVDs themed around cop-show tropes. “We’d watch a DVD that was just bank-robbery scenes and then a DVD that was just scenes where an undercover cop was being initiated into a gang. Typically he does that by being a cock. He walks in and is rude to everyone. And everyone’s in a strip club where they don’t look at any of the nudity. They just stare at each other humourlessly.”
10 O’Clock Live was one of his biggest challenges. Before it was commissioned he wrote a very funny column about how he once did “a wee” of fear when faced with doing a live broadcast. Is it still the same? “Oh, constantly,” he says. “I mean, not constantly weeing, but constantly scared.”
But this fear is usually superseded by baffled gratitude that he has a career at all. He recalls discussing the next day’s newspapers on 10 O’Clock Live. “There was an artist’s impression of a prehistoric bird on the cover of the Guardian, and without thinking I drew a cock on it. Then I sat there thinking, What the f*** have I done? Weirdly, I was concerned with legal issues. Did drawing a cock on it count as defacing or modifying the image? That’s what I was worried about, not, ‘I’m 42 years old and I’m drawing knobs on live television.’ ”
A Touch of Cloth II begins on Sky1 at 9pm next Sunday