Monday, 5 December 2011

BLACK MIRROR – "The National Anthem"

Monday, 5 December 2011

The first in a trilogy of dark tales from misanthropic satirist Charlie Brooker, "The National Anthem" was a gleefully twisted and unsettling hour of comedy. A fine example of how to explore a simple idea to its full, this was an audacious attack on modern-day politics—in particular, how it increasingly allows popular opinion to lead it by the nose.

Prime Minister Michael Callow (Rory Kinnear) is awoken in the early hours, to be given news that popular Princess Susannah (Lydia Wilson) has been kidnapped. Worse, a hostage video was briefly released on YouTube where she read out her kidnapper's bizarre demand: she'll be executed unless the PM has sex with a pig on national TV at 4 o'clock that very afternoon, broadcast across all channels. What followed was a strangely plausible hour that milked every drop from its simple and compelling concept. Can the government fake the sex act with CGI? Can they find and rescue the princess before the 4pm deadline?

"The National Anthem" was driven by the desire to see what the ending might involve, and while the plot was simplistic and (mostly) predictable, it made salient points about our social and technological landscape. The way the Internet can't be policed (being beyond the effects of a "D-Notice" that gags traditional media) was a particularly important cog in the story, and called to mind this summer's situation with "super-injunctions" stopping the press from revealing news stories that were common knowledge on Twitter and Facebook. It was also very amusing to see how the government's approach to the situation started to be led by the results of opinion polls—particularly when public outcry over the kidnapping and its repulsive ultimatum slowly gave way to a perverse demand for Callow to commit bestiality to spare an innocent woman's life.

The cast were uniformly excellent, and the decision to treat the story with such seriousness was most welcome. This could easily have been an episode of Spooks tackling a more conventional demand (like the release of a political prisoner), which only made the ludicrousness of the porcine situation all the funnier. Kinnear was exemplar; his face communicating a hollow feeling in the pit of your stomach. Humiliation (especially sexual humiliation) is a fear everyone has, so his character's dilemma was actually more knuckle-chewing than if the kidnapper had demanded he shoot his wife dead. Perhaps because you can distance yourself from deaths in a drama, but watching an authoritative character slowly realise he must be filmed having sexual intercourse with an animal gets under your skin. Perhaps because it's pushing buttons that rarely get pushed in a TV drama. And isn't that what all good satirical drama should be doing? Plus, I really loved the coda, set a year after Callow's shameful hour, where it was revealed the kidnapping was organised by a lowly performance artist trying to make a point.

Overall, "The National Anthem" was a grim but unforgettable start to Brooker's Black Mirror triptych; setting the bar very high for the remaining two episodes.


  • Sterling support from Linday Duncan, Tom Goodman-Hill and Donald Sumpter. The absence of any tongues in cheeks was what really made this drama soar.
  • It's a shame "The National Anthem" had to use fictional celebrities. Imagine how incendiary this would have been if the PM was a David Cameron lookalike and the princess was Kate Middleton.
written by Charlie Brooker / directed by Otto Bathurst / 4 December 2011 / Channel 4