Charlie Brooker: interview

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Charlie Brooker, Guardian TV columnist and increasingly recognisable telly face in his own right, is taking another satirical swipe at small-screen clichés. This time he's using the medium of a panel show, as host of Channel 4's 'You Have Been Watching'. He walks us through his latest TV hell...

  • Charlie Brooker: interview

    © Lucinda Chua

  • A panel show like ‘You Have Been Watching’ seems like a bit of a departure for you.

    ‘It’s the most mainstream thing I’ve done, so it will be interesting to see what people make of it. I thought it might be a good thing to try, since I’m mainly known for sitting and scowling at things. We look at the week’s TV or examples of a particular kind of TV, and me and some guests discuss it and points are awarded.’

    So there is a competitive element to it?

    ‘Yes, there is a competitive element although no one’s going to die; well, hopefully no one’s going to die. Actually, no: many will die, millions will die. No, literally no one will die. I just want to clear that up… ’

    Are there going to be themes to each episode?

    ‘Not really. Unless there’s an accidental theme that crops up. Like my failure as a host. Yeah, that will be the common thread. There’s an episode that looks at TV from the ’90s and there’s an episode looking at – I was going to say the worst TV – it’s sort of not necessarily the worst because it’s not quite Kate O’Mara sunbathing on the deck of the ferry in “Triangle”, although we will show that clip just to point out that we are not going to show that clip. It’s just sort of repressed-abuse-memory television. Things you’d forgotten were awful, or you didn’t realise were bad.’

    Presumably, having a studio audience is quite odd, given that…

    ‘… given that that I hate humankind? Yes, you would think so. I did a pilot in January, which was a weird experience because I’m hosting it, so I’ve got an earpiece and an Autocue and some sort of shape that I’m supposed to guide things towards, and I’ve got a studio audience. If I think about it too much I’ll just commit suicide.‘I have to imagine that they’re not there, although they clearly are because I can hear them. And even if they’re not making noises with their mouths, I can hear them think and I can hear their disgusting eyes looking at me… I’m not what you’d call a traditional light-entertainment host.’

    Are you in an increasingly weird position given that you made your name as a TV critic?

    ‘I never really thought of myself as a TV critic. I was presenting TV before I was writing about it. I did a show back in 1999 [technology show ‘The Kit’], on BBC Knowledge. I was doing a show for Radio 1 at the time, and then I was doing the “TV Go Home” website as well. I was offered a column in the Guardian Guide and the next thing I knew everyone was calling me a TV critic. 'I wrote an article a while back, about how I was fed up with people emailing me gags, things like “Kerry Katona, silly pram-faced bitch, look at her hilarious meltdown”. I just thought: No, that’s not what I do. I felt sorry for her. So I wrote that article and I got some people going, “You fucking sell-out, you fucking pussy,” and you think: Well, if that makes me a pussy, then I’m a fucking pussy. So I don’t really know. Maybe I’ll turn into Bruce Forsyth!'

    Are we getting to the point where TV isn’t a communal experience any more?

    ‘No, absolutely not. People bemoan the loss of watercooler chat but I think that there’s more of that than ever. It’s just that it’s online. Look at the comments under a YouTube video. That’s watercooler chat. It’s not so much the communal experience that’s changed, it’s the time frame in which that communal experience takes place.’

    But it’s still communication and the exchanging of ideas, isn’t it?

    ‘Yes. Adam Curtis [the documentary maker behind ‘The Power of Nightmares’] is now exclusively going to make his films for the BBC website instead of television. That’s probably for all sorts of reasons, one of which is that he’s getting more experimental and he wants to do things that might require more than one viewing. I think he was concerned that it might limit his audience, but I think it will actually grow it. People think television is doomed but it’s going through an evolutionary stage. Even if in five years’ time we’re watching it with goggles and it smells like a gas, it’s still television.’

    It’s interesting, because you can still find Curtis’s films online, so they have an afterlife, after they’ve been broadcast.

    ‘Exactly, and I think it’s something TV companies are working on. Channel Four has just put loads of its archive online, the BBC is starting to put its archive online. Adam Curtis was saying he can put documentaries up and then he can also put up some of the source material. So that’s the theory: I guess rather than having a schedule you’ll basically have iTunes. By the way, this isn’t the sort of conversation we’ll be having on “You Have Been Watching”. We’ll be going,“That bloke looks like a snail!” Who knows, maybe we will be having conversations like this and then people will be watching it in 100 years’ time…’

    And it will finally find its audience.

    ‘I don’t know; it’s weird predicting how things are going to go. When we did “Nathan Barley”, it was almost pre-YouTube and pre-MySpace and I remember when we were first having conversations with Chris [Morris], we’d go, “Nathan’s got this website,” and Chris would say, “He needs to have video on it,” and I was going, “Yeah, but video will mean it doesn’t really work, it will just be really choppy.” If you watch an episode now you just go, “Right, okay,” whereas I think at the time people sort of went, “He’s got a what? I don’t understand.” ’

    So Nathan Barley was a pioneer?

    ‘Exactly, that’s the most terrifying thing. Well, also, the sort who’s going to get something done. In the “TV Go Home” listings he was a cunt, whereas in the TV series he was a twat, that was the difference. That was an early decision because in the listings he was not really a person, he was an object. But really, the character in the listings was the observer who was looking at him, and that was where Dan Ashcroft came from.’

    Might there be another series?

    ‘We’ve done workshops but then we both got caught up in doing our own things. I got caught up in “Dead Set” and Chris has been working on his comedy film.’

    His Islamic terrorism comedy?

    ‘Yeah, which he’s just finished shooting as far as I understand. He was obviously going to get that made, come hell or high water.’

    You haven’t been involved in that, then?

    ‘No. If it turns into a terrible fatwa don’t kill me.’

    Well, you’ve already had a fatwa of sorts, haven’t you?

    ‘What, in 2004 with George Bush? [Brooker ended a Guardian column with the line: ‘John Wilkes Booth, Lee Harvey Oswald, John Hinckley Jr – where are you now that we need you?’] God, that was weird. I mean, there you go, talk about the power of the internet. The reason that happened was because as far as anyone from America was concerned, that was a Guardian op-ed column. So I can kind of understand. It was a really old joke, but it wasn’t very funny when I was getting death threat after death threat.'

    Thanks to the internet, things get in front of people they aren’t necessarily aimed at.

    ‘Yeah, that’s like television. TV’s so jumpy at the moment because the press has got such a raging hard-on for calling it out for the slightest misdeed. It’s stomach-churning hypocrisy when you consider the things that the press do on a daily basis. You would never get a TV show which paid a man to hide behind a fucking hedge and take photos of starlets taking their tops off on a beach. Even at its most debased and awful you can’t imagine TV doing some of the stuff that the press does. The problem TV traditionally has is that it ends up in front of people who shouldn’t necessarily be watching it. With the internet nobody gives a shit about that, do they?’

    Even though the internet amplifies the numbers into the bargain…

    ‘Yeah, and that’s the joy of it, really, so if anything, TV should get closer to that. Although I’m not saying it should be mindlessly offensive. It’s funny, because one of the episodes we’re doing for “You Have Been Watching” is a ’90s episode. The ’90s were a weird time and I’d sort of blanked them out, but the other day I was watching that Denise van Outen thing, “Something for the Weekend”. There were blokes lining up sticking their cocks through what were basically glory holes and women had to identify their boyfriend from his cock. The cocks were disguised as TV detectives! There was one dressed as Columbo! That’s weird, isn’t it?’

    The Daily Mail wouldn’t stand for that now, would it?

    ‘If that went on TV now, it would unleash hell.’

    In terms of spoofing TV, is it getting harder to do? Because TV is becoming more ridiculous than any spoof could be?

    ‘Oh yeah. It was ten years ago when I started doing “TV Go Home”, and people often say, “God, the schedules today read just like the ‘TV Go Home’ listings.” There’s a weird period where people of my generation started making programmes and they all wanted to make these slightly subversive, post-modern things. You know, “We’ve got Peter Purves to swear!” And somehow that became the mainstream, so then you’ve got Robert Kilroy-Silk eating a kangaroo’s cock on ITV1 and it’s their highest-rated show. What does that mean happens next? I’ve no idea.’‘You Have Been Watching’ is on Channel 4, Tuesdays at 10pm.

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