BLACK MIRROR: The National Anthem

But what about the victim?  Oh, sod her, she's not the point ...

So, Charlie Brooker has returned, to slap us in our complacent faces once more.   

Once was the time, we tell ourselves, that our television was the envy of the world.  My university lecturers told me.  The critics I used to rub shoulders with at press-showings and festivals told me.  The text books I recommend to my students tell me.  Look at "Prime Suspect", they all say, or "Cracker" and before that "Edge of Darkness".  Look at Dennis Potter and Alan Bleasdale!  No argument from me about any of that.  But that's all very, very old!

When you try and find something comparable from the last ten years ... That's where opinions are less unanimous.  There's no shortage of excellence these days, but I fear that the moulds have been broken and the writings of your Tony Jordans, Paul Abbotts, Russell T. Davieses and even the (in my opinion) vastly over-valued Stephen Poliakoffs, pale in comparison to the 'greats' of the 'golden age' of the eighties.  We’ve been impressed by literate, impassioned, artistic telly … Now we need to be more impressed!

Of course, part of that will be the break-up of the traditional viewing habits.  it's rare now for ten million people to be watching the same programme on the same day.  But the programmes that do command a huge audience, a loyal audience that tune in week after interminable week, an audience which feels so invested in the show they will Twitter about it, Facebook about it and even pay cash money to be involved in its outcome ... Are the reality shows and the soaps.   

These don’t ennoble us.  They do not aspire to be literature.

These are the factories out of which churn the new breed of 'celebrities' ... The business of show needs a steady stream of affordable celebrities as commodities to sell at a profit.  And we accommodatingly worship these celebrities in an empty, envious and ultimately short-lived way.  Our relationships with them go through a few fairly familiar stages ... Indifference, which becomes Mild Interest, then Fascination ... but, the relationship becomes abusive when we turn on them and develop a taste for their Pain.  Only when that Pain is not of their own devising (such as in the case of Jade Goody's Cervical Cancer) does our sense of Guilt disguise itself as Sympathy.  

At the moment, we are watching the Leveson Inquiry into tabloid journalists' invasion of people's privacy in search of the mud their front pages sling.  We tut and mutter about the failure of standards and shameful immorality and try to ignore the creeping knowledge that they would have stopped doing it if we had stopped buying the papers.

There are several reasons I don't buy (or read) tabloids.  Personal ethics is one of them.

There are several reasons I generally try to avoid 'reality shows'.  Their cruelty is one of them.

The audience has become cruel.  Of course, there's nothing new in this ... At least we're not standing in town squares to watch poor people getting hung anymore.  Not literally.  

I suspect that this cruelty has to do with the marching infantalisation of society.  Education no longer prepares people for adulthood, it insulates them against failure.  The welfare and tax systems punish those who act like responsible adults and attempt to pay their way rather than scraping by on handouts, meanwhile the popular media is obsessed with undemanding, familiar spectacle at the cost of analysis, insight and originality.  It is not unusual now to age without growing.

Children laugh at others' misfortune without the conscience of an adult; they don't pause to think "There but for the grace of God ... "  Well, that's okay, they're children, they're allowed.  It's when those children are fully grown, with children of their own, that this unformed, uncivilised, bullying mind-set becomes an issue. 

Which is where Charlie Brooker comes in.  He's had the better part of a decade of watching and writing about the appalling brain-softening bilge that swells and bubbles flatulently between the ad breaks on our nation's most-watched channels. His loathing is detailing in a characteristic mix of eloquent insight and scatological spite.  And, yes, he’s cruel.  He sometimes feigns shock at his own levels of cruelty, then continues to unrepentantly re-demonstrate them every time he or his words appear.

But, of course, he is merely reflecting, satirically, the cruelty of the medium on which he comments. 
He is also a major adopter of and leading contributor to social media (well, Twitter) with which the traditional media are attempting to maintain a clumsy symbiotic relationship.  Social media has proven itself, time and again, to be a viral breeding ground of childish knee-jerk reaction.  With no pause for reflection, people react and share their displeasure, even if the thing to which they are reacting is actually nothing (such as the regular ‘scares’ over Facebook starting to charge). 

I have no idea how tasteless jokes used to circulate like wild-fire in the days before text and Twitter, but there’s no doubting how it happens now!

It was, therefore, only a matter of time before someone wrote a satire about both the old and new media egging each other on; and it is no great shock that Brooker thought of it first.

So, finally, I get round to what I intended to be writing about 800-odd words ago … Black Mirror.  This is a triptych (though I doubt the author would call them that) of thematically linked films (though I think British TV still likes to think of them as ‘plays’) and the first is called ‘The National Anthem’.  

The name, ‘Black Mirror’ suggests that the reflection of ourselves we see in the TV screen is a darker, crueller version of our actual selves.  Things of which we disapprove in reality, we willingly, enthusiastically watch on screen.  Morally, we are darker there.  The title alone, then, is a telling metaphor of our relationship with our screens.

And what do we watch, in this black mirror?  Programmes about the worst aspects of ourselves.  It was inevitable, then, that this programme would be cruel.  Cruel in the way that South Park and Family Guy are cruel.  Cruel in the way Frankie Boyle is cruel.  Full of merciless, insightful, intelligent, judgemental cruelty. But, unlike all these other peddlers of illusory human suffering, Brooker implicates the audience.   

We have an appetite for televised cruelty but - partly in-hand with that childish sense of humour we now have and partly nurtured by a decade of I’m A Celebrity – this appetite is sated as much by embarrassment as it is by pain.

And so Brooker posits a situation where a member of the Royal family is kidnapped and held to ransom.  The price being that the Prime Minster must fuck a pig on live television.  You know this already, because you’ve heard/read about the programme in the flurry of prurient coverage it has received.

That, right there, was Brooker’s brainstorm: Criticise our addiction to sensationalising others’ embarrassment and suffering by creating exactly the kind of sensation he is targeting.

In the show, the whole country revels in the anticipation of the misery to be inflicted on their Prime Minister, much as we waited in eager anticipation to see this, Brooker’s latest diatribe.  Then the British people in the film actually watch ‘the event’ and their appetite withers.  That’s the thing with appetites … They’re all about anticipation.  But, however distasteful people find it, they keep watching.  We are shown empty street after empty street.  The entire country is indoors, watching the degradation of their leader.

I thought the idea was loathsome.  I was genuinely frightened that they would actually show ‘the event’.  But I kept watching.

Brooker’s targets are many: Politicians who will literally do anything to hang on to power, simply because an opinion poll tells them to (the saving of a life is only ever a secondary motivation here); Journalists who will use any manipulative technique to get a lead on a story (here, the ambitious journalist in question rather satisfyingly gets shot); but, mostly you and me for our unwillingness to turn away from the car-wreck.  It is what Joseph Conrad called ‘the fascination of the abomination’. 

If this programme is offending you, he challenges, then simply turn it off.  Such are the depths that TV has plunged to that this scenario – something from a sick joke told by a drunkard – is where Brooker has to take us in order to make his point.  This is how low you have to go to be shocking these days.  Of course, in doing so, he has simply lowered the bar even further.

This isn’t the first TV programme to challenge the audience for its unwillingness to avert its gaze.  I am put in mind of the excellent 1983 movie Special Bulletin which takes the form of a news broadcast beaming live from a boat anti-nuclear protestors are about to destroy with a nuclear weapon.  In that, the protestors repeatedly challenge the networks carrying their feed to pull the plug if they disapprove of the ‘terrorism’.  Of course, no one does.  

Special Bulletin ... And this news just in ... You're all fucked.  Now Tammy with the weather.
The same idea was explored in the internet age in the 2006 film Untraceable, where a serial killer’s victims die on-line, their suffering increasing with the number of people logging-on to watch.   This idea was adapted from a similar scenario in the ‘Mikado’ episode of the TV show Millennium (1998).

All this grumbling about lowering standards probably makes me sound like someone who promotes censorship.  Nah.  Censorship never works and usually succeeds in creating the opposite response to the one desired (cf the ‘Video Nasties Banned List’ which immediately became a collectors’ wants list).  No, what I would like is some self-restraint.  We should have the freedom create and consume whatever (legal) images we please.  But just because we can doesn’t mean we should.  And, even if we must, surely it would be better if we did so as a statement of independence, of defiance, and not simply so some impossibly wealthy tycoon can increase their market share by pandering to our basest desires?

Brooker has realised that the only way to really throttle the life out of the spineless TV monster he loathes (whilst it is making him a wealthy man), is to get down there in the gutter with it. 

This show isn’t meant to be taken seriously.  It is a satire.  This is why no one thinks to print the finger.  That’s why the people clustered around their TVs mutter about the ‘Dogma 95’ aesthetic.  Sadly, like most good satire, that point will, in the fullness of time, be lost and all that will remain will be the memory of something shocking that people quite enjoyed. 

The look on Rory Kinnear’s face as he is going through with his public humiliation will live me for a while … It's just as well he's got his Hamlet out of the way already, because I wonder if I will ever be able to look at his face in any role he plays from now on, without remembered the grimace, the sobbing, the drool … Because the idea at the heart of this pieces is so entirely loathsome.  Far less loathsome – but far more troubling – is the Prime Minister’s willingness to go through with it.  

Thing is, we know no one would in the real world … But it serves as a commentary on the ambitions of those in Power and how they will, in order to hang on to that power, abandon any ethical and moral stand they ever took.  New Labour did it.  The new Lib Dens did it.  The Tories haven’t, but that’s only because they only ever pay lip-service to ethics and morals, they don’t actually believe in any of it.

Brooker’s final master-stroke is the revelation of who the kidnapper is and why they did it.  If you haven’t seen it, I won’t spoil it.  But it’s a whole new target for Brooker’s withering scorn!

So, will this show be held up a glowing example of the new golden age of TV writing?  Will it enshrine Brooker’s name on the same monuments as Potter’s and Bleasdale’s?  Well, only if its story ceases to feel so extreme and distasteful; only if our culture continues on its downward spiral to infantile, puerile, docile oblivion.  So, yes, then; very probably.


Since I'd been asked to introduce it for the local Lit.Com festival, I thought I'd best see the film.  Through various real-world reasons I won't bore you with, I didn't get to see a preview before launch day but, since I was talking about The Shakespeare Authorship Question in general, rather than the movie's specific take on it, that wasn't such a big deal.

But, purely out of a sense of professional courtesy, I felt that I should go see it.  So I did.  I am forced to wonder if, out of the same sense of professional courtesy, either writer John Orloff or director Roland Emmerich have bothered to see any Shakespeare plays, or were they working from the Cliff Notes?

I am by no means a Shakespearean scholar.  I have read no more than a handful of his plays and they have all been in a school or college environment.  Never-the-less, I detected a fairly free-wheeling attitude towards his work and its historical context.

It's obviously set in some alternate version of history where Henry V was Shakespeare's first performed play, followed closely by Romeo and Juliet, then Hamlet, Richard III and, finally, King Lear.  All in about a year. (It's possibly the same Emmerichian alternate universe where the pyramids were build by aliens riding woolly mammoths).

Okay, so this is a work of fiction and maybe these details aren't that important.  After-all, one of the things the film is concerned with is the cloud of doubt that surrounds Shakespeare so, I don't know, maybe the documents that have always told us when the plays were first performed are fake.

Could happen.  So, let's leave that and move on.

The mission here was to create an Elizabethan political thriller, concerning the machinations of court (inspired, possibly, by the similarly Machiavellian activities depicted in Elizabeth's dad's court in the hit TV show The Tudors).  That, at least, seemed perfectly feasible to my historically-uncultured eye.  Indeed, Edward Hogg has a considerable amount of fun playing the villain, Robert Cecil - who has a hump!  I imagine some imaginative stage director will already be casting him in a revival of Richard III.

All of this courtly behaviour, however, is portrayed with a lack of conviction and subtlety, which results in it seeming nothing more than camp! Particularly in the case of Rafe Spall who plays the talentless actor called William Shakespeare who becomes the front, the patsy pretending to be the writer.  As the film progresses he degenerates from an interesting possibility to a pantomime bad guy. 

So, how do I do the Ifans eyebrow?  Is this it?
You know that look Rhys Ifans has on his face in Notting Hill, that mischievous arched eyebrow he has when he can't believe what he's getting away with?  Well, he wears that expression through pretty-much this entire movie.  He plays Edward DeVere, the Earl of Oxford, who has written these heartfelt plays, using the most sophisticated language and most gripping narratives ever put on paper ... But can't come out because, well, being a writer is vulgar and beneath an Earl.  I suppose one character hiding behind the facade of another is an idea that occurs time and again in Shakespeare's plays, though none of the ones seen here.

Unfortunately, as wafer-thin as his character's motivation is, I would have probably swallowed it, and Ben Jonson's inexplicable willingness to go along with all of the repercussions that arise from the deceit, if only I believed one word coming out of any of the actors' mouths.
"Dude, even his moustache is, like, as unconvincing as the dialogue."  "Totally!"

This is an unfortunate occurrence when an American script-writer and a German/American director clearly decided they knew more about the way English actors spoke four hundred years ago, than the English actors actually reading the lines. Consequently, there is a general air - and not just in Ifans' performance - where the actors simply don't believe what they're saying.

With one or two exceptions ... Joely Richardson and Vanessa Redgrave are astonishingly similar as young and old Elizabeth ... Leaving one to feel that a time machine had been employed to allow one person to play both ends of their own life.

Joely Richardson, just 74 years young!
This leads to the film's other major problem ... The film isn't just set in one hazily-sketched-in historical period, but two.  So we have DeVere played by Ifans in one period, and by the red-hot-cos-he's-in-Twilight-so-let's-overlook-the-fact-that-he-looks-nothing-like-Rhys-Ifans Jamie Campbell Bower opposite Richardson's Young Elizabeth.  It then makes things even more complicated by chopping-and-changing between these two narratives.

Apart from Richardson/Redgrave, no one looks like their younger selves (well, okay, David Thewlis is pretty good at playing his younger self) but this makes everything appallingly complicated and you just know that it isn't worth the brain-power of trying to figure out who is meant to be whom. 

Sorry, who did you say you were, again?
To be fair, there is a pretty-good pay-off to explain all this, but, as I was watching it, I was getting increasingly irritated and confused by it all.

The film is, then, a mess on several levels.  Not least because it is hilariously funny in places; a fact which, I imagine, will come as a depressing surprise to the writer and director but not to the cast.

It's just a shame Derek Jacobi decided to take the money (for what must have been just a day's work) because his presence at the beginning, serving the role of the Chorus introducing the drama, lends the film some credibility which it certainly doesn't deserve.



All we ever ask our political leaders to do is protect us. Waging war is the single most despicable way they can fail ... And there is, hopefully, a special place in Hell for Blair, Bush, Thatcher and every other leader who sacrifice young men and women for a vote or a profit point. 

I sometimes fear that generations of weak, mendacious leadership have left us so cynical that, if were ever again in danger of military invasion, if our freedom and lives were every *really* at risk ... No one would step up and take a stand.

I gaze at the blank-eyed mouth-breathers I sometimes teach and think that our (great) grandparents went through unimaginable suffering, simply so our generation could become ignorant, apathetic and arrogant. 

Then I think about the people who still get off their arses and march and protest and camp outside St. Paul's simply because they have the right to have their say ... I think about the people who train for months to run marathons for charity, year after year ... I think about the people who risk their lives every day in lifeboats or as volunteer firefighters or mountain rescue when it would be so much easier not to ... Or who go unarmed into warzones and disaster zones to help, not because anyone makes them, but simply because they couldn't live with themselves if they didn't.  

I realise that the spirit that inspired people to walk into harms way back then, still exists today. We still have heroes. There are some pretty extra-ordinary ordinary people in the world. Hopefully we'll never need to carve their names in stone.


Me, intelligently wearing black in a black-walled cinema, with the lights dimmed.
And so it came to pass that I was asked to introduce 'Anonymous'.  This film, written by John Orloff and directed by Roland Emmerich, tells the story of the political intrigue surrounding Queen Elizabeth's court in her dotage and how this impacts on one nobleman's secret desire to write plays, necessitating the use of a 'font', namely one William Shakespeare.

Now, whilst this is the first film to deal with the idea, it is very far from a new idea, so my introduction looked into the whole matter.

So, to begin, we all know what William Shakespeare looks like, yes? 

He looks a bit like Voldemort’s younger brother …Or, if you’re a Doctor Who fan ...
... You probably think he looks like that bloke off Shameless who does the Homebase ads …
This is the most famous likeness of Shakespeare … It is an engraving by Martin Droeshout – This engraving was published in the so-called ‘folio’ – the first collected edition of Shakespeare’s works – published in 1623, seven years after he died.

The only other portrait that is considered ‘legitimate’ is that on his Funerary Monument which is inside Holy Trinity Church in Stratford. 
As its name suggests – this was also created after his death – but before the folio was published – because the intro to the folio mentions the Funerary Monument, so we know that was there first!

But both of these portraits were created from memory AFTER Shakespeare died!

There are various paintings which claim to be of Shakespeare and to have been painted in his lifetime – but most are completely dismissed by academia – except:
The Chandos Portrait, painted in 1610 by John Taylor (not the Duran Duran bassist – but the Elizabethan painter … Of whose work no other examples exist)  This is the one that The National Portrait Gallery has put its weight behind.

But then – in 2009 – another painting was discovered … Claiming to have been painted in 1610 also! 
Called The Cobbe Portrait – It is further claimed that this painting was copied for the Droeshout Engraving.
The National Portrait Gallery thought, don’t like this idea … they maintain that this is ACTUALLY a bloke called Sir Thomas Overbury … Who was famous for a sex scandal that got him imprisoned in the Tower, where he died – but that’s another story.

Is it credible that a painting could have hung on a wall for 400 years without anyone clocking that it was Shakespeare? Well, The Cobbe collection includes works handed down from the family of the third Earl of Southampton, Shakespeare's only known patron.

So, how come there are no DEFINITIVE portraits of the country’s greatest playwright?  And how come those portraits we do have … all look different?  That kind of uncertainy is exactly where conspiracy theories spring from!

See, this is not a new idea …

At the time of his death, Shakespeare was considered a great writer – but not THE GREATEST … Indeed – his works were adapted and re-worked many times over the years … No one saw his texts as Holy Writ … Personally I’d LOVE to see 1681 version of King Lear … with the happy ending!
Indeed, Shakespeare had been dead and gone a century before his works reached the heights of their popularity.  By the time of the Licensing Act of 1737 – one in four of the plays on in London was a Shakespeare.  His plays began to be studied.  His reputation spread across Europe.

In 1785 a scholar named James Wilmot could find no evidence that Shakespeare had ever written anything so decided the plays must have been written by the philosopher, lawyer and scientist Sir Francis Bacon. 
Further fuel was added to this when it was realised that Bacon stopped writing under his own name in 1613 – when he became full-time Attorney General.   This was two years after Shakespeare supposedly wrote his last play, and three years before he allegedly died!

By the mid 1800s, when science was suggesting that we were evolved from apes, not Adam and Eve … And historians were beginning to wonder if The Bible was really written by God … Or if Jesus ever actually existed … A fella called Samuel Schmucker (!) wrote a book called Historic Doubts Respecting Shakespeare -  it was meant to be a satire of other historical studies … But he inadvertently started something.

The flood of Shakespearean Authorship Doubters … Began with a woman.  An American.
Delia Bacon was her name – rather improbably … And she believed she had evidence that Shakespeare’s plays were actually written by a gang, a committee of famous playwrights and dignitaries – led by Sir Francis Bacon (no relation) and Sir Walter Raleigh!
Or: As you may remember him from the movie, Elizabeth:

Anyway, the problem with this theory is … Well, have you ever read anything written by a committee? Best plays ever?  I don't think so.

But this unlikely idea didn’t go away … Books continued to be written, investigations undertook and, as late as the 1930s, bodies were being interred for ‘proof’ of Shakespeare’s identity.  However – proof – whether for or against … Continues to elude historians!

This isn’t helped by the fact that Shakespeare himself didn’t seem to know who he was – since, in his signatures, there are 25 different spellings, such as ...

William Shakspere      Wm Shaxpere     
Wm Shaxberd     William Shakspear     
William ShakspÄ“r      Willm Shakp
Wm ShakspÄ“      William Shakespeare
Willm Shackspeare      Willm Shakp
By me William Shakspeare

Of course, there is a long-standing conspiracy that the serious search for alternative authors is being suppressed, as though by some pernicious orthodox organisation … A sort of Stratford Association of Shakespeareans … Or SAS!

Another conspiracy believes that Shakespeare was REALLY Christopher Marlowe …
The fact that Marlowe was killed in a pub fight fully 20 years before Shakespeare stopped writing doesn’t deter these conspiracy theorists … Because, they point out, Marlowe was a spy, working for Queen Elizabeth – and being officially ‘dead’ gave him the perfect cover to be both a spy AND Shakespeare’s ghost writer.

You see … there is a problem which just won’t go away – How did a self-educated dealer in grain and wool from the Midlands, rise through the London ranks from actor to director to the greatest playwright and poet to ever walk the boards?

Some people simply can’t accept this … They feel that Shakespeare MUST have been from the educated nobility.  And there have been A LOT of famous fans of this theory …

Sigmund Freud wrote: “It is undeniably painful to all of us that even now we do not know who was the author of the Comedies, Tragedies and Sonnets of Shakespeare”

Looks like he’s reclining on his own couch here!
Charlie Chaplin wrote in his autobiography:  “I am not concerned with who wrote the works of Shakespeare … but I can hardly think it was the Stratford boy. Whoever wrote them had an aristocratic attitude.”
Orson Welles commented: “I think [an alternative candidate] wrote Shakespeare. If you don't, there are some awfully funny coincidences to explain away.”
But let’s leave the last word to Charles Dickens … Arguably the SECOND greatest person ever to put pen to paper in Britain:  He said - “The life of Shakespeare is a fine mystery and I tremble every day lest something turn up.”

There are A LOT of theories about who Shakespeare was … NONE of the ones I have mentioned appear in the film you are about to watch … They have gone for a very different explanation.  They may be right.  We have no way of knowing.

For what it’s worth … I think I know who wrote the greatest literary works ever in the English language … Isn't it obvious?