To explain the concept of ‘Black Mirror: National Anthem’ is not to do it justice. I know this because I’ve tried. I’ve tried twice actually. Both times I open with ‘So I watched this AMAZING show last night, you know, written by Charlie Brooker,’ and then finish, rather lamely, with ‘And he has to have sex with a PIG! It’s horrible…’ as my friends look on confused and more than a little disgusted. Rest assured though, the programme is so much more than my feeble explanation lets on. Dark and compelling, Brooker’s newest drama had me reaching for the ‘Father Ted’ box-set the moment it finished just so I could convince myself that the world wasn’t quite so bleak and awful after all.
National Anthem tells the tale of the kidnapping of Princess Susannah. We see the Prime Minister, Michael Callow, wake up to a video demanding that he appears on television having ‘full, unsimulated sex with a pig’ across all British terrestrial and digital channels lest Susannah get executed. What follows is a satirical look at the influence of social media on the nation’s tendency to break into mob rule.
At first Britain’s sympathy is with Callow and no one expects him to carry out the ‘indecent act’, but within hours public opinion has shifted. By 3pm the nation seems in agreement that he should ‘do the deed’ and save Susannah’s life, and Callow is told his personal safety is likely to be in jeopardy if he does not comply. The whole concept does, I grant you, sound faintly ridiculous. However, the power of Brooker’s National Anthem lays in the way the whole thing smacks of reality.
Firstly the characters are carefully cast and portrayed to remind us of our own British figureheads. Susannah is Kate Middleton all over, with her nice shiny engagement ring and the news reporters describing her as the ‘royal of the Facebook generation’. Rory Kinnear’s Cameron-esque Prime Minister isn’t quite smug enough for my liking, but his wife is an absolute dead-ringer for Sam-Cam. The mixture of sycophantic and back-stabbing ‘people’ surrounding the PM as he makes The Crucial Decision are also highly believable, and Lindsay Duncan’s deadpan performance as the PM’s Press Secretary was by far the best of the show.
Not only are the characters highly believable, but the way in which the event unfolded was too. Not especially the Prime-Minister-having-sex-with-a-pig part (though that wouldn’t surprise me, it’s probably exactly the sort of high-jinks Cameron and the Bullingdon Club used to get up to on a weekend), but the way in which Susannah’s ransom video spread across the internet. It was taken down from youtube after 8 minutes, but not before thousands had made and uploaded copies. The whole sorry affair was trending on twitter, and the entire nation seemed aware of the kidnap hours before the news had the nerve to break rank with the government and report it.
As the video was publicised, the sense of mass hysteria heightened. Across the sphere of the internet anyone with a twitter account was casting their two-cents on the matter, and we saw a distraught PM’s wife reading the hateful jokes which people were posting beneath Susannah’s YouTube ransom. This aspect of the plot felt incredibly familiar. Uninformed opinions and angry reactions are posted everyday on the internet; we only have to look at our facebook news-feeds to see this.
When the riots broke out in the summer we all knew people who were calling for extreme measures to be brought in. ‘Send them to Iran!’ people posted on Facebook, ‘They should all be shot!’ – and all to the rapturous reception of dozens of likes. Brooker’s drama highlights the danger of this. Sharing a knee-jerk reaction is no longer as harm-free as it may have been in the past. In National Anthem, the broadcasting of angry views on the internet forced the Prime Minister to have sex with a pig. The mind boggles at where else this could lead us.
Of course, sharing your opinions through the internet is, in many ways, an incredibly positive thing. It bridges long distances, and allows you to communicate instantly. Indeed, if it were not for the internet it is likely that movements such as the Arab Spring may never have happened. The message of Brooker’s National Anthem is not that we should abandon our social networking; he himself is a keen tweeter. Instead perhaps he’s just trying to warn us of the implications of our angry outbursts, and of the way they can drag the entire nation into a sense of mob rule.