Charlie Brooker is sitting at a desk, a big cardboard box in the background, miscellany spilling out of bookshelves. “What you can’t see,” he says, since we’re on Zoom, “is all the shit all over my desk. I’m shambolic.”
He got his first gig doing a comic strip when he was 15, for 80 quid a week; he dropped out of Westminster University as the only dissertation he wanted to write was on video games, and scrambled into a career in journalism – “there was no planning, I wasn’t somebody who was out hustling” – via working in a shop and writing video game reviews. He shifted, via Screenwipe, Gameswipe, Newswipe and Weekly Wipe, into screenwriting, and achieved astonishing success with the anthology series Black Mirror. His production company with Annabel Jones, Broke and Bones, has just been bought by Netflix for an unspecified sum; the rumour is that it’s so enormous that, well, I had to get out a calculator to work out what “nine figures” over five years means ($100,000,000). I just can’t wrap my head around why he still has Billy bookcases from Ikea.
He treats this question respectfully, as is his nature. There’s a very deep courtesy under all the swearing. “Check your Ikea catalogue. They’re not Billy. They’re Kallax.” Isn’t it ironic, I ask later, that he started a company called Broke and Bones which he then sold for all the money in the world? “It’s not like they go, ‘Here’s a pile of money for you,’” he explains. “It’s more like, ‘that’s an investment for you to make things.’ Also, I’m so clueless on 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, a quirky idea and not at all what you’d expect. At heart, it’s a love letter to animators Tex Avery and Chuck Jones and the golden age of cartoon making, Wile E Coyote and all that.
“Not only are the visuals and the sound extremely evocative, extremely true to time,” he says, “the visual gags, the pace and the anarchy – those hold up today. You get hit by a broom, you smash into a door or your skin falls off, or whatever. They tend to be quite physical and brutal. They’re not really about dialogue.”
So, a cat is trying to break into a museum for a priceless artwork and a dopey dog is trying to stop him; except there’s a twist. Every few minutes, questions will flash up that you have to answer with your remote, “almost like a pub trivia quiz machine”, he says. It might be “Words you’d associate with the 90s”, or “Which film won the Oscar?” Getting them right or wrong affects the outcome so, “you’re controlling the luck of the character, rather than the decisions they’re making, if that makes any sense.”
It takes about 15 minutes to get to the end but you can cycle through hundreds of possible permutations. “It’s a curious experiment,” he says, dispassionately, “and I can’t quite work out how it will be received. It’s not aimed at children, although the idea was it’s not necessarily massively off-putting to children.” You’ll never hear him do a hard sell, even about a show he’s actively selling. He has a lab-boffin, it-might-work-it-might-not tone, an experimenter at the frontiers of telly – is it a game, is it a show, would it work better on a console?
‘[In the US] they think I’m the king of dystopia. But still in my head, it’s all the same stuff. Comedy, horror and sci-fi are such close bedfellows’
Brooker has been interested in interactivity for ages (if there’s a message to the viewer in Cat Burglar, he says, it’s: “You do your bit, mate. Don’t just sit there”). His first foray was Black Mirror: Bandersnatch, in 2018, also for Netflix. This was where he discovered that he could work with the platform, without it sticking its oar in. “That was their first big, interactive drama. It was an expensive proposition, risky, difficult, they wrote loads of code to make it work … looking back, why didn’t they want something like a Bond movie? This was very niche: it’s about someone writing a game in his head, on a Spectrum. The biggest set piece was him walking in to WH Smith in 1984. It would have been easy for Netflix to say: ‘Could you set this in America, make it a Tandy computer and make it more like War Games starring Matthew Broderick? Can it be a bit more glamorous?’ There was none of that.”
Bandersnatch is incredibly atmospheric, haunting, even. “From a technical point of view, I was satisfied,” Brooker says, again, quite dispassionately. But originally he wanted it to be like an escape room, with a puzzle at the centre which the viewer would solve by repeatedly failing, each failure delivering another digit in a phone number. “The problem was, and this is a damning indictment of humankind, 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 when it had finished.”
He takes gaming incredibly seriously, still plays massive, 55-hour games, hates the word “gamer” (“It’s infantilising, isn’t it? You wouldn’t call yourself a ‘filmer’”), and is “always just bewildered by the skill and intelligence that’s gone into a game”. The underpinning philosophy of gaming seems to have permeated his approach to life: try everything, failure is at least half the point, and maybe the most interesting half. It’s a cute paradox that this attitude has begat a huge amount of success, that he tends to shrug off. “I have a strange attitude to success,” he says. “It’s like going to an award ceremony. If you don’t win, it’s a bit of a waste of an evening. If you win it’s nice, but it’s also sort of meaningless.” He’s like an inverted Samuel Beckett. Ever tried? Ever succeeded? No matter. Try again. Succeed again. Succeed better.
Before he was Mr Interactive, Charlie Brooker was Mr Dystopia, creating disturbing, prescient vistas of the very near future. What if the prime minister had to have sex with a pig, live on air? What if anxious modern parenting turned into 24-hour hyper-surveillance? Even Nathan Barley, his 2005 comedy co-written with Chris Morris, came eerily to pass. That eponymous, portfolio-careered hipster could have been written yesterday. “That makes me sound like a wrestler,” Brooker says, not without satisfaction. “A really mean, horrible wrestler. Here he comes, in the blue corner: Mr Dystopia.”
It’s not so much that he predicted things, and then they happened, he says. Rather, Black Mirror plots were “extrapolations of whatever was already happening”. The pig plot was inspired by Gordon Brown’s Gillian Duffy moment, when he called a Labour voter a bigoted woman and “had to go and apologise, and it became this bizarre circus of calamity. I was just watching it thinking, ‘No one’s in charge here.’”
Brooker is 50. Growing up near Reading in the 1970s and 1980s, he had – in common with the lot of us – a powerful terror of nuclear apocalypse, coupled with the more idiosyncratic phobia of vomiting, which he has to this day. He drolly describes the way these fears combined in his childhood mind. “The thing that terrified me more than anything else was that if you survived the blast you got radiation sickness. Oh no! There’s a bomb that would give me a bad tummy? I wasn’t really thinking about the big picture.” In that context, he remembers taking comfort from shows such as Spitting Image, thinking that if the adults are joking about it, it’ll probably be OK. “Then, on 2016 Screen Wipe, we had some jokes about Trump, who had just been elected and started casually talking about a nuclear bomb. I was in that position as the adult, being funny and reassuring. But I was shitting myself.”
Rumbling, amorphous anxieties continue to plague him, but always laced with this sense of the absurd that keeps him, well, more than sane, happy. “In the UK, because I’ve been known for writing acerbic columns and comedies, people know that I’m not taking myself that seriously. Then I get to the US and they think I’m the king of dystopia. But still in my head, it’s all the same stuff. Comedy, horror and sci-fi are such close bedfellows.”
He’s sick of one thing, though: the jokes should have stayed on the screen, or the page; they should never have migrated to politics. “It is bizarre that we’ve got Keith Lemon running the country. We’ve got a character, a shit comedy character, running the country. And we let that happen. Our generation let that happen. They are us! They’re our peers. F**king hell.” An interactive drama, in which you can rid politics of ludicrous, empty characters: that I would watch (or play) forever. – Guardian
Cat Burglar is available on Netflix