Monday, 5 December 2011

Black Mirror: The National Anthem (2011)

A few weeks back, the adverts for Black Mirror caught my eye. I’m a lover of anything a little different and clever. I’m one of those irritating people who enjoy David Lynch and (to a lesser extent) Lars Von Trier and am quick to bore any too incapacitated to flee about their use of allusion, symbolism and so on. Yes, I really should be shot.

I am not, however, a fan of Charlie Brooker. This is down to pure jealousy – Deb enjoys his work and many’s the time when I’ve been talking to her about genuinely riveting subjects (like the benefits of AC over DC motors) only to realise she’s zoned out, eyes wide, pupils large, gazing into the glorious writings of her Charlie.

When asked what she particularly likes about the Brook-meister, Deb says that it is because he recognises the immensity of his subjects (television, for instance) whereas so much of what she normally reads deals with minutiae (albeit important ones). This appeals to me – so much of what I love about Greek Literature, not to mention science fiction, is the concept of meta-text. Brooker gets this. He is also able to write about his subjects with a visceral strength and bravery which is powerful to say the least.

I liked Dead Set, his Zombie meets Big Brother mini-series. He was able to take on board all the elements of reality tv and meld them beautifully with the best bits of Romero. I had problems with a few of the characters and, although there were comic elements, the entire thing felt a little flat*.

Even so, I was excited. I had no idea of the subject of the piece, but the advert looked bright and punchy and raw. Deborah and I decided to watch it. Then I read the review in the Radio Times.

Hmmm. It definitely was the first time I’ve read anything about bestiality in a TV guide before. And the shock was enough to put my back up. I couldn’t see how the narrative could possibly work, and I feared the inevitable messages and their depressing presentations. Even so, we gave it a chance.

I must point out here – I am not a prude in any way, shape or form. If I had been, I’d have not survived my degree. I’ve read and analysed literature involving paedophilia, rape, incest and more scatological references than we’re used to in our society. Bestiality isn’t exactly new to Greek myth either – Pasiphae’s story was only different because she really wanted to get jiggy with a farm yard animal. So I wasn’t upset because of the subject matter being presented. Whether I felt it was appropriate that it was being shown at 9pm is another matter, but one I won’t be going in to.

So what did I think? Frankly, I was angry. I didn’t expect to be so angry. I’m quite a calm person usually. But this really hit nerves. It was designed to hit nerves. Again, I don’t object to that – that’s the point of good narrative. Poliakoff’s Shooting the Past hit nerves and that’s one of my favourite pieces of television. Why, then, was I angry?

When you set about hitting nerves, you have a responsibility. I would classify The National Anthem as a tragedy. The Prime Minister is a tragic hero – fighting the great power of fate, blind to the conclusion we can all see coming as soon as we looked at page 62 of the Radio Times. And this is a good thing. Society needs tragedy. The drama festivals of Athens looked after the mental and spiritual health of its audience – draining them of badness through the emotional turmoil and release. A reduction in the quality of tragedy becomes part of the reason for a reduction in the status of Athens as a whole in Aristophanes’ Frogs. This means that tragedians have a huge responsibility to wield their pen responsibly.

Firstly, I have to say, I found the subject matter distasteful. This was a story about rape (not of the pig, I must clarify, although I did look at my bacon sandwich with more sympathy this afternoon, I can tell you) and I feel that because the subject of the rape was male and because he was not penetrated, the care that would otherwise have been taken, was not. If this had been a story about a female prime minister forced to commit a sex act on live television, then I don’t think it would have been filmed.

Proper tragedy follows rules. People make mistakes and pay for them. There was none of this. Although not particularly likeable, the PM character was not well developed. We were meant to fill in the back-story by viewing him as a parallel universe version of Dave. The Radio Times review even went so far as to describe the PM character as ‘reptilian’. Subtle.

Aristophanes did political satire. Some of the politicians even went so far as to sue him. His satires, though, were brave and open, very clearly pointing out the wrongs perpetrated. This was done in comedy genre, though, and although The National Anthem was described as a comedy/drama, I just could not find anything other than the thinnest dribbles of comedy. I’ve been horrified to see so many people saying how funny it was. Deb described it as an Emperor’s New Clothes deal – if you’re going to describe it as a comedy and make it shocking enough, people will see humour where it is not. And if they did see so much comedy, well, is that appropriate in a narrative about rape?

The ending, though, was what really did it. Tragedy is all about the release. It builds and then BLAM 10,000kw of pure emotion flows from every pore of your body. It should be almost audible. Then, emptied, you can be filled with comedy (the Athenian festivals were composed of three tragedies followed by a comedy). The nature of the ending, then, is vastly important. I am sure Brooker looked at the ending and wanted to try something different. The Radio Times called it a ‘logical’ conclusion – laughable though that statement is, it’s not comedy as needed in this situation. The ‘logical’ conclusion was one that dismissed the extreme damage caused by rape and replaced it with an increase in popularity and a bit of domestic disharmony. I believe if you take the story and switch genders it becomes clearer how absurd and damaging it becomes. Imagine a year on, the woman, forced to commit a sex act live on television, having a kick around at a school and waving to the media. This is where the wires of his meta-text have got crossed. 

Brooker knows TV. He’ll have seen the parallels with Rebecca Loos on The Farm, not to mention all the identikit blonde reality show contestants indulging in sexual behaviour live on air. But this is where the difference between consenting behaviour and rape become so important.

A person tortured in such a way would not recover. An ‘artist’ who felt this was an appropriate act would not kill himself, thus avoiding any sort of appropriate punishment or, more importantly, investigation and understanding. The conclusion was as far as it could possibly be from logical, and so any chance of a healthy finale was lost.

It’s a shame that such a well paced and well acted piece of television should be lumbered with such a warped and sickly narrative. Going back to the Radio Times review (have you worked out yet how unimpressed I was with it?), I thought it telling that there was no mention made of the magnificent Lindsay Duncan, who outshone all the other actors and who was the only real warmth in the entire piece. I must say, however, that RT were right in one respect – The National Anthem was perhaps the first piece of on screen fiction (Catfish achieved the same thing, but was a documentary) in which technology sat absolutely comfortably with the narrative.

Will I watch the next episode of Black Mirror? Almost certainly. With my fingers very firmly crossed in the hope that all the strands of the great meta-text of television don’t inadvertently send Brooker down a problematic narrative pathway.

* Whenever I think about Brooker, I am drawn back to a particular day on the cold landscapes of Dartmoor, and a particularly sodden patch of ground which gave way; my be-wellied foot plunging into murky nothingness. Brooker’s philosophy has something of the feeling of a wet sock inside rubber footware. You know that it’s pretty miserable and it’s not going to get better any time soon.

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