Monday, 5 December 2011

Black Mirror: The National Anthem

“The online hive mind did the maths.”

If you expected to see the next Buffy review, don’t worry; the blog is otherwise going to be entirely Buffy (plus a movie most Saturdays) at least until I get to the end of Season Three. After that I might switch to a short, one-off series (probably Edge of Darkness, but we’ll see. It might be Charlie Brooker’s Dead Set- any preferences?) before I start to alternate episodes of Buffy and Angel. After that, I’ll probably do something similar after each 44-episode block. Otherwise, though, the only other stuff I’ll be reviewing is current television. And that pretty much only means Dark Mirror, Sherlock, and Doctor Who. Otherwise it’s Buffyverse all the way!

Anyway… I’ve really been looking forward to this. It’s by Charlie Brooker, for one thing, and the man can (almost!) do no wrong as far as I’m concerned. But the concept seems brilliant; a modern take on The Twilight Zone, with three independent teleplays extrapolating various ultra-modern technologies (Twitter, reality TV, Sky Plus) and extrapolating in a vaguely sci-fi way. Plus, knowing the writers involves, I suspect there’s going to be the exact sort of darkly humorous tone that I like so much.

This episode begins with a ringing mobile phone in the marital bed of prime minister Michael Callow (Roy Kinnear). This is appropriate, as it more or less foreshadows the theme of modern technology, its intrusiveness, and the way it speeds things up to a pace which makes rational thought impossible. I notice the last thing we hear, in the final scene before the flash forward at the end, is also a ringing mobile phone, but the circumstances are horribly distance. It’s a nice touch to bookend things with this motif.

We have the highest of high concept, er, concepts: a terrorist has kidnapped a popular princess, and is going to kill her unless the prime minister has sex with a pig, on live TV, that very afternoon. Eurgh. This is strangely appropriate from a former writer from Oink, a comic I remember well from my childhood. But, obviously, this is really about the media, the twenty-four hour news cycle, the tyranny of mass opinion, and the impossibility of hiding things in our post-superinjunction age. No sooner does the PM see the video than he’s told it’s up on YouTube, and trending on Twitter. D Notices mean nothing in this context, and the British rolling news channels can’t keep quiet if CNN and Al Jazeera are not. The genie is well and truly out of the bottle.

There are some delicious moments of very Charlie Brooker cynicism- the Queen’s attitude; the tweets in general; the journalist getting information by shooting footage of herself naked, and then literally getting shot; and of course the attitude of the public once the severed finger from the princess is apparently received. If there’s one consistent theme in Brooker’s work then it’s a healthy disdain for the mob. Ironically, the PM doesn’t even know of the attempt to fake the… footage in question. But it’s still him who has to face the consequences.

From this point onward we know that the clock is ticking and there’s no escape. Deliciously, it’s the opinion polling that seals the PM’s fate, as well as the clear implication that neither he nor his family would be safe from the mob. From hereon in there are many, many shots of the PM all alone. And that’s what he is, despite the audience of 1.3 billion and the empty streets- Brooker has no doubt that empty is what they would be. We don’t get to see the act itself, mercifully, but the PM’s suffering is very clear. He’s left pounding away for nearly an hour.

The twist, of course, is that it’s all a twisted joke; the ultimate artistic installation from a former winner of the Turner Prize. One year later it’s all back to normal, except that the PM is now dead to his wife, whose final call he couldn’t bring himself to take.


  1. Just watched this yesterday and was quite impressed, though not nearly as much as some, for two reasons:

    1)The idea that governments really care about public opinion other than on the cusp of elections has been disproved by -- the entire history of democracy. :P But, as a satire, I was willing to ignore that. Far more important to my (very, very minor) let down feeling was...

    2)I had just, the day before, watched Julia Davis and Rob Brydon's utterly brilliant HUMAN REMAINS in a single sitting. Compared to that crystal-clear, viciously low key depiction of the darkness that exists within ordinary people and relationships, 'The National Anthem' felt like a big cheery wink. Seriously, I've never before had the same feeling of wanting to scrub myself with hot water and Brillo pads mixed with wanting to give the writer.actors standing ovations. Just flat our horribly true. And..and I laughed at it! (To keep from screaming, I think.)

    Beyond that, TNA was brilliant and effective drama/comedy/satire and I look forward to the second and third installments of BLACK MIRROR. :)

  2. I'd never even heard of Human Remains, but a quick trawl of the Interweb means I'm now resaolved to see it- thanks for the pointer, although it might be a while before I get to see it. Why does there have to be so much good television around? Honestly, keeping up with it can be such hard work.;)

    I've just finished the third episode of Black Mirror. Without wanting to raise your expectations too high (always guaranteed to spoil things, that!), they're both excellent.

    I'm not sure I agree with your first point, though. Yes, governments only care about public opinion to the extent that ir helps them get re-elected and advance their highly lucrative careers (and massive pensions), but that doesn't mean they only obsess over opinion polls just before an election- they do it all the time. Getting re-elected is a marathon, even if the sprint to the finish doesn't start until the final bend. And most of this process is depressingly superficial...