Charlie Brooker is seated at a desk, a large cardboard box in the background, an overflowing mix of shelves. “What you can’t see,” he says, since we’re on Zoom, “is all the shit on my desk. I’m shambolic.
He got his first job doing a comic at the age of 15, for 80 pounds a week; he dropped out of the University of Westminster because the only thesis he wanted to write was on video games, and embarked on a career in journalism – “there was no planning, I was not someone who was hustling” – working in a store and writing video game reviews. He turned, via Screenwipe, Gameswipe, Newswipe and Weekly Wipe, to screenwriting, and achieved astonishing success with the Black Mirror anthology series. His production company with Annabel Jones, Broke and Bones, has just been acquired by Netflix for an unspecified sum; rumor has it that it’s so huge that, well, I had to pull out a calculator to figure out what “nine figures” means over five years ($100,000,000). I can’t figure out why he still has Billy bookcases from Ikea.
He treats this matter with respect, as is his nature. There is a very deep civility under all the swear words. “Check your Ikea catalog. It’s not Billy. It’s Kallax. Isn’t it ironic, I later ask, that he started a company called Broke and Bones which he then sold for the whole l money of the world? “It’s not like they’re saying, ‘Here’s a pile of money for you,'” he explains. “It’s more like, ‘It’s an investment for you to do things.’ Also, I have no idea about the business side of things. Probably, if you look at the paperwork, I’m going to get paid in rice.
His first project since signing the new Netflix deal is Cat Burglar, an original idea and not at all what one would expect. Basically, it’s a love letter to animators Tex Avery and Chuck Jones and the Golden Age of Cartoons, Wile E Coyote and all that.
“Not only are the visuals and sound extremely evocative, extremely true to the era,” he says, “the visual gags, rhythm and anarchy – the ones that hold up today. You get hit with a broom, you smash a door or your skin falls off, or whatever. They tend to be pretty physical and brutal. It’s not really about dialogue.
So, a cat tries to break into a museum for a priceless work of art and a stupid dog tries to stop it; except there is a twist. Every few minutes, questions will pop up for you to answer with your remote, “almost like a pub quiz machine,” he says. It could be “Words you would associate with the 90s”, or “Which film won the Oscar?” Whether they’re right or wrong affects the outcome, so “you control the character’s luck, rather than the decisions they make, if that makes sense.”
It takes about 15 minutes to get to the end, but you can cycle through hundreds of possible permutations. “It’s a curious experience,” he says dispassionately, “and I can’t tell how it will be received. It’s not intended for children, although the idea was that it’s not necessarily very off-putting for children. You’ll never hear him hard sell, even on a show he’s actively selling. He has a lab-boffin tone, maybe it doesn’t work, an experimenter on the frontiers of TV – is this a game, is this a show, would it work better on a console?
‘[In the US] they think I’m the king of dystopia. But always in my head, it’s always the same thing. Comedy, horror and science fiction are so close.
Brooker has been interested in interactivity for ages (if there’s one message for the viewer in Cat Burglar, he says, it’s, “You’re doing your part, mate. Don’t just sit there”) . His first foray was Black Mirror: Bandersnatch, in 2018, also for Netflix. It was there that he discovered that he could work with the platform, without her sinking her oar. “It was their first major interactive drama. It was an expensive, risky, difficult proposition, they wrote loads of code to make it work… in hindsight, why didn’t they want something like a Bond movie? It was very specialized: it was about someone writing a game in their head, on a Spectrum. The biggest twist was when he came to WH Smith in 1984. It would have been easy for Netflix to say, “Could you put this in America, make it a Tandy computer and make it look more like War Games with Matthew Broderick ? Can it be a little more glamorous? There was none of that.”
Bandersnatch is incredibly atmospheric, haunting even. “Technically, I was happy,” Brooker said, again dispassionately. But originally he wanted it to be like an escape room, with a puzzle in the center that the viewer would solve by repeatedly failing, each failure delivering another digit in a phone number. “The problem was, and this is a damning condemnation of humanity, that people couldn’t remember a five-digit number for more than five seconds. So we had to take that out. Which basically meant that you weren’t quite sure of the ending.
He takes gaming incredibly seriously, still plays massive 55-hour games, hates the word “gamer” (“It’s infantilizing, isn’t it? You wouldn’t call yourself a ‘filmer'”) by skill and intelligence that have gone into a game”. The game’s underlying philosophy seems to have permeated its approach to life: try everything, fail is at least half the point, and perhaps the most interesting half. It’s a nice paradox that this attitude has spawned such huge success, which he tends to ignore. “I have a strange attitude towards success,” he says. “It’s like going to an award ceremony. If you don’t win, it’s a bit like the loss of an evening. If you win, that’s fine, but it also doesn’t make sense. He’s like an inverted Samuel Beckett. Already tried? Already successful? No matter. Try again. Succeed again. Succeed better.
Before being Mr. Interactive, Charlie Brooker was Mr. Dystopia, creating ominous and prescient insights into the very near future. What if the Prime Minister had to have sex with a pig, live? What if anxious modern parenting turns into 24-hour hyper-surveillance? Even Nathan Barley, his 2005 comedy co-written with Chris Morris, oddly came to fruition. This eponymous hipster with portfolio career could have been written yesterday. “It makes me look like a wrestler,” says Brooker, not without satisfaction. “A really mean and horrible wrestler. Here he is, in the blue corner: Mr Dystopia.
It’s not so much that he predicted things and then they happened, he says. On the contrary, the plots of Black Mirror were “extrapolations of everything that was already happening”. The pig plot was inspired by Gordon Brown’s Gillian Duffy moment, when he called a Labor voter a bigot and ‘had to go and apologize, and it became this weird circus of calamities. I was just looking at him thinking, ‘Nobody’s in charge here.’
Brooker is 50 years old. Growing up near Reading in the 1970s and 1980s, he had – in common with all of us – a powerful dread of nuclear apocalypse, coupled with the more idiosyncratic phobia of vomiting, which he has to this day. He amusingly describes how these fears combined in his childhood mind. “What terrified me more than anything else was that if you survived the explosion, you would get radiation sickness. Oh no! Is there a bomb that would give me a stomach ache? I didn’t really think about the big picture. In this context, he remembers being comforted by shows such as Spitting Image, thinking that if adults joke about it, everything will probably be fine. “Then on 2016 Screen Wipe, we had a few jokes about Trump, who had just been elected and started casually talking about a nuclear bomb. I was in this adult position, funny and reassuring. But I shit myself.
Rumbling, amorphous anxieties continue to torment him, but still tied to that sense of the absurd that makes him, well, more than sane, happy. “In the UK, because I’m known for writing acerbic columns and comedies, people know I don’t take myself seriously. Then I come to the United States and they think I’m the king of dystopia. But always in my head, it’s always the same thing. Comedy, horror and science fiction are so close.”
He’s sick of one thing, though: the jokes should have stayed on screen, or on the page; they should never have migrated to politics. “It’s weird that we have Keith Lemon running the country. We have a character, a shitty comedy character, running the country. And we let it happen. Our generation let it happen. They’re us! They’re our peers. Fucking hell. An interactive drama, in which you can rid politics of ridiculous and empty characters: that I would watch (or play) forever. – Guardian
Burglar Cat is available on Netflix