Charlie Brooker: “When toilet roll ran out, people started taking it seriously. It doesn’t get more real than wiping your arse”

The 'Black Mirror' co-creator talks life in lockdown, 'Tiger King', Clap For Carers – and his new 'Antiviral Wipe' special

The background noises in Charlie Brooker’s house are fairly typical of those you might find in any UK family home at 10am on a Wednesday morning right now: while he’s on a work Zoom (with NME), his kids are taking video kung fu lessons on another Zoom on his laptop, and there’s a slightly harried tone in his voice. Alongside homeschooling and scriptwriting, the celebrated Black Mirror co-creator is working on the final edit for a special episode of his much-missed Wipe series, absent from our screens since 2016, leaving a curmudgeon-on-a-sofa-shaped gap in the lives of fans nationwide.

We caught up with Brooker to find out what Antiviral Wipe – on BBC2 at 9pm tonight – has in store.

So, you’ve done a Wipe!

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“Thanks for putting it like that.”

How did it come about?

“Well, we were scheduled to do a Philomena Cunk series this summer, [about Diane Morgan’s Wipe comedy persona], which was a follow up to Cunk On Britain, but global, so there was literally going to be a whole episode filmed in northern Italy about the Renaissance. Then this happens and it becomes apparent very quickly that you can’t go to the end of the road, let alone fly to Egypt.”

And there’s only so far you can go with those novelty Zoom backgrounds…

“Yeah. So we had a team ready and we were looking for ways to keep them employed. The BBC said to me, Could you do a Wipe show? And I said, ‘No, not doing that! Finished doing those! Not doing it again!’ And then as weeks went by, I sort of thought, you know what, actually, it’s a format that works perfectly done under lockdown.”

Philomena Cunk
Diane Morgan as ‘Wipe’ comedy persona Philomena Cunk. Credit: BBC

Presumably being married to former Blue Peter presenter Konnie Huq comes in handy when you have to construct a set from toilet roll tubes and sticky back plastic?

“Yeah, her skills did come in handy – that pops up in the show at one point. And luckily, I actually have the original leather sofa I used to sit on, so it doesn’t look or feel too different at all.”

Interesting that you had the sofa – do you have all sorts of props hoarded away?

“I do have quite a few. I moved some things out of shot, actually, because I didn’t want to look like too big of a prick.”

So your house is like the Black Museum in Black Mirror?

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“Some bits of it are, yeah. I’ve got clapperboards, I’ve got the old WH Smith sign from ‘Bandersnatch’. I did chuck the ‘Bandersnatch’ paperback on the Antiviral Wipe desk as an Easter egg.”

Letitia Wright
Letitia Wright in ‘Black Mirror’ episode ‘Black Museum’. Credit: Netflix

The ‘Bandersnatch’ book is quite a controversial object isn’t it? Aren’t you being sued over that by the makers of the Choose Your Own Adventure books?!

“I think I can’t comment on that. I think that’s an ongoing case.”

I hope if it goes to trial the verdict is delivered with two choices…

“I can’t even comment on what my opinion of that would be.”

What do you make of the way TV has responded to lockdown?

“It is a bit weird in that you see more of people’s houses than usual. It’s impossible not to make snap judgements about their carpets.”

Bandersnatch
Fionn Whitehead in ‘Black Mirror: Bandersnatch’. Credit: Netflix

Aside from having a laugh at interior decor, did you find it hard to make jokes about COVID-19 given all the death? How do you find the right balance?

“That’s the constant, constant, constant question. We acknowledge that this is horrible, but equally, in any of the Wipe shows, there have been horrible things I’m having to talk about. I thought, at first, I’ll probably focus on things that people are watching, like Tiger King and Quiz and what have you. And actually, in the making of it, that stuff is hardly mentioned. It’s much more about the government response and what we’re all going through.”

Do you think Brits have responded to this in the way we might have expected? I’ve been surprised by the compliance to the lockdown rules…

“No, not really. There was a bit we cut out of the show about the Government’s ‘Nudge Unit’ that models behaviour on a computer, because they don’t know any real people. A lot of their thinking was based on the assumption that not many of us would comply, so their computer was too cynical. I think when toilet roll ran out, people started taking it seriously. It doesn’t get more real than wiping your arse.”

Did you panic buy a 24 pack?

“Well, we already had LOTS of toilet paper, funnily enough.”

Charlie Brooker
Credit: Alamy

In Black Mirror, we sometimes see the public acting like a mindless herd filming atrocities on their phones. Do you think the tacit acceptance of government restrictions speaks to that?

“If you look at things like Black Mirror or [Brooker’s zombie miniseries] Dead Set or what have you, society collapses really quickly and everyone turns on each other in a dog-eat-dog sort of way. And actually, I think if you wrote that now, people would watch it and go, ‘Well, hang on a minute, I stood on my doorstep and applauded the NHS’. On the whole, people have been sensible and thoughtful, the vast majority of people, and there’s a lot of altruism.”

It’s not what the big outbreak disaster stories tell us, is it? It’s sort of terrifying and mundane at the same time…

“Yeah, again, there was a little bit we had to cut out where I’m watching the daily briefing and Robert Peston starts asking a question and I go, ‘God, it’s like someone put on a fucking audiobook’. Like, how quickly you can get bored, even during a pandemic. It’s remarkable.”

Charlie Brooker
Charlie Brooker at the 2019 Emmy Awards. Credit: Getty

Have you been clapping the carers?

“Yeah, we’ve been out. The kids like joining in. I would hope that when we come out the other side of this – and I include myself in this – there’s more basic respect for the gig economy and for the health workers and, you know, the people who were really keeping things going.”

Do you think the world will improve after this, or do you think the usual suspects will capitalise on having a blank slate to do their worst?

“It could go either way, really, and so therefore, I guess it’s the time to start making the argument for the optimistic view.”

On a daily basis almost, we hear about things that would ordinarily be quite alarming, like the NHS contact tracing app that records your movements. On the face of it, fine, sensible, but also: very Black Mirror?

“It is, and it’s like, well, at what point does that get switched off? That’s obviously very easy to exploit but if it’s going to save lives now, I guess you have to think, in a short term way, it’s literally life or death.”

Are you the kind of person who buys into conspiracy theories?

“I get very frustrated by conspiracy theories. I understand why people want to believe, because the world looks scary and it often doesn’t make sense and so sometimes a conspiracy theory can sort of comfort people. And also it’s flatters you into thinking you now know this secret piece of information, which all the fucking sheep out there don’t know. The truth is that the government and the powers that be probably don’t give a shit about you anyway. Not enough to orchestrate the grand conspiracy. I get very cross about the ‘anti-vax’ movement. If they find a vaccine for this and people start going, ‘I’m not giving that to my kids,’ then, you know, for fuck’s sake. Fine. But then go and live on an island. Maybe Richard Branson’s island. He says he needs some cash. Let’s have a whip round and buy it.”

Sort of like a TV show, COVID Island?

“More like Daily Mail Island. How big is [Branson’s] Necker Island? Cos if it’s roughly the size of London, geographically, you could make a backup of London couldn’t you. And if it isn’t big enough, if it’s a third as big as London, just make a version of London that’s absolutely exact, but a third scale so you’d be like Godzilla. I don’t know why I’m saying this but it would be good.”

That thought about conspiracy theorists having…

“I’m sorry, I’m gonna interrupt you there, just because actually that is an amazing idea for a reality show. Right? You build a whole city on an island that’s a third of the size of a normal city but everything works. There’s cars, there’s buildings, trains, everything. And then you take a load of people, you put them to sleep, and they don’t know where they’re going. And then they wake up on that island and you don’t say anything, you just film. They think they’ve become giants. Anyway, sorry.”

social distancing
Chief Medical Officer Professor Chris Whitty speaks during a coronavirus news conference inside number 10 Downing Street. Credit: Leon Neal – WPA Pool/Getty Images

It’s good to think these things out. In terms of ‘higher knowledge’, what do you reckon of the way the government has communicated with the public?

“It’s tricky, isn’t it? Because while I absolutely think they’ve cocked a lot of stuff up, and they have given a confusing message, I do believe that you have to make a message very simple for people to get it because people are busy. It’s worked for them in the past – ’take back control’, ‘get Brexit done’ – it cuts through on a level that a more nuanced argument doesn’t. I don’t agree with it, but it works.”

Are we living in the era of the three-word slogan?

“Dominic Cummings is lauded as a genius, basically, for working out if you shout ‘get Brexit done’ 1000 times people might vote for that, regardless of whether they agree with it. But, you know, you could sell a lump of shit if you called it delicious chocolate and go ‘eat yummy chocs’. And then when you open the box and it’s fucking full of human shit, that’s when you realise that although a three word slogan might be great, it doesn’t necessarily describe what you’re going to get.”

Barry Shitpeas
Barry Shitpeas is a recurring character on ‘Wipe’. Credit: BBC

Wipe characters Philomena Cunk and Barry Shitpeas might make good modern-day politicians?

“When we’re scripting Wipe shows the Philomena and Barry parts are often really obvious, because they express stupid logic. They can sort of make a point by arguing stupidly in favour of the point you’re against. So weirdly, they can sometimes be more cutting about things than I am.”

They’re in tonight’s show?

“Yeah, there’s a ‘Moment Of Wonder’ where Philomena has interviewed someone via Zoom. And, you know, she’s so good she can sort of move from arrogance to boredom to naivety to delight to anger without really doing anything and while blinking quite slowly. In real life Diane [Morgan, who plays Cunk] is not afraid to leave an awkward pause.”

Will we ever see Barry Shitpeas get his own spin-off series?

“Well, Al Campbell, who is Barry, is actually a director who just did a show called Code 404 for Sky that’s a big budget sci-fi comedy thriller. He’s moved up to the big leagues, so we have to persuade him to come out of Shitpeas retirement.”

Charlie Brooker
Charlie Brooker speaking at an event. Credit: Getty

How many times during lockdown have people messaged you and said, ‘This is all a bit Black Mirror’?

“A lot.”

Did you see there’s now a robotic dog like the one in Black Mirror episode ‘Metalhead’ policing a park in Singapore, telling people to maintain social distancing?

‘To be fair, it looks like the dog from ‘Metalhead’ because it was based on those Boston Dynamics robots. I’d looked at videos of them and thought, ‘Ooh, that’s creepy’. But I hadn’t really anticipated them in about a year’s time running around the park shouting at people.”

So you’re not claiming that as a soothsayer moment, as you did with the similarities between the blissfully-unaware German Big Brother contestants and those on Dead Set?

“No. I don’t know if I can claim anything really as soothsaying. Well, the David Cameron pig thing. That was fucking weird. I don’t know where that came from.”

You worked on an episode of The Simpsons last year. Given that people are obsessed with The Simpsons predicting the future, did you worry that combining forces with them might bring down society? I mean, it is happening…

“No, I know. It’s weird. I am flattered by the description of me having worked on it, because it’s just my voice. It was really exciting because I went to the studio where they do it and Dan Castellaneta who plays Homer Simpson was doing his ‘D’ohs’ for the episode. You’d sort of assume that because he’s done it for years, they’ve got all the D’ohs on file. So that was exciting to watch.”

Something that is very Black Mirror is the Black Mirror Labyrinth experience that was due to open at Thorpe Park in March – because the country went into quarantine and nobody has been through it. What’s it like?

“Well, I’m not really involved in any of that, so I’ll be as interested as anyone will be to find out what it is.”

Do you quite like the idea of it just sitting there unused?

“Especially because they’ve been setting up COVID-19 testing stations in theme park car parks. There, that’s the ultimate immersive Black Mirror experience.”

You’ve said you’ve parked Black Mirror for a bit, on the basis that people don’t have an appetite for dystopian fiction right now. Can you tell me what the plan is instead?

“Well, people have inferred a lot more than what I said. What I actually said was I’m not writing any dystopian stories about society collapsing at the moment, because it wouldn’t quite ring true. And we’ve done quite a lot of episodes of Black Mirror like ‘Hang The DJ’, which is basically a romcom, or ‘USS Callister’, which is a space romp. So it’s not always dystopian hell. I try to be very cagey about what I’m working on because we deliberately try and keep things under wraps until the last nanosecond, and what I said was I’m writing some things that I find amusing.”

So there may be some new Black Mirror episodes in the works after all?

“You can infer from that what you like! I don’t see much difference, in a way, between Black Mirror, Dead Set, Nathan Barley, A Touch Of Cloth or the Wipe shows. They’re all things I’ve written, and sometimes I like to write things and then decide what banner it fits under.”

So is it time for another Brooker sitcom? Or maybe even for your first Hollywood blockbuster? Have you got a plan for the next 10 years?

“Well, Annabel [Jones, Brooker’s creative partner] and I have got a new company and there is sort of a plan. But I’m not going to tell you what it is.”

Joe Exotic music videos
‘Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness’ is streaming now. Credit: Netflix

Fair enough. Every one’s been binging The Last Dance and Tiger King on Netflix – two documentaries. Why do you think documentaries are thriving when you’d assume escapism is what people want?

“I think with Tiger King, it’s partly that everyday life is getting so weird that, in a way, watching something about a real world that’s even weirder is probably quite comforting. And looking ahead over the next 12 months it’s going to be easier to make documentaries than it is to make lots of other things. Filming a group of people on a sofa in a coffee shop is as hard as making the whole of fucking Gravity right now.”

Final question: is 2020 the worst year ever, and if so, how can it turn things around?

“God, well it’s really going to have to pull its finger out. I guess the thing to make it not would be we’d have to find a vaccine that tastes like chocolate and keeps you immune to this forever and hope for a giant, moonshot-like societal shift. And make my reality show about a one-third sized London. That’s the most important thing, actually.”

Charlie Brooker’s ‘Antiviral Wipe’ is on BBC2 at 9pm tonight, Thursday May 14

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