Black Mirror Retrospective – The National Anthem

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Black Mirror is a controversial TV series that first aired in 2011 with three episodes. It looked in to the way we live and the way technology influences our lives now, and how it could start influencing us in the near future. The “Black Mirror” of the series title is a reference to screens everywhere – computer monitors, smart phones, televisions – and how what is displayed on them is a reflection of modern society. When a screen is turned off it displays nothing but black. When it’s turned on, the real darkness is unleashed, as far as Charlie Brooker is concerned. I loved the series and think that it addressed a number of important issues about our relationship with technology in an interesting, unique and powerful way.

With a second season of the show on the horizon it seems a good time to take a look back at the original episodes. These articles are going to look at the messages being sent by the show writers (Charlie Brooker, Kanak Huq and Jesse Armstrong) and the way they deliver them and so will be completely full of spoilers. If you haven’t watched Black Mirror yet then click here and check them out.

The National Anthem, written solely by Brooker and directed by Otto Bathurst, a fairly unknown director, started the series off with a shocker. Coming in to Black Mirror I didn’t really know what to expect – only that it would probably be grimly humorous and extremely cynical due to Brooker’s involvement. I was right. In the opening minutes of the program we see the fictional Prime Minister Michael Callow woken up in the early hours of the morning and faced by a video that introduces you to the core concept of the episode – the fictional Princess Susannah has been kidnapped, and Callow has to have sex with a pig on live TV to ensure her safe return.

This utterly bizarre ransom sets the tone for the rest of the episode. I found myself snorting with laughter when the demand was first read out, and I think that is just what Brooker wanted. At this point you have no real connection to Callow – he’s just a generic politician and you find the idea of him being forced to debase himself in such a way momentarily amusing. Who hasn’t wanted something horrible to happen to some of the smarmy buggers who lord it over us, lying and cheating their way to the top? Our in-built dehumanisation of political figures is expertly exploited from the outset, paving the way for the sense of disgust and loathing for oneself and for humanity as a whole that the show incites later.

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Prime Minister Callow, played by Rory Kinnear

The video was uploaded onto Youtube and then quickly removed, but not before it had been downloaded, re-uploaded, shared, Tweeted, Facebooked and generally spread all over the internet. Before long everybody has seen the video and everybody has something to say about it. The media blackout, ordered by Callow’s administration, quickly collapses when foreign networks start broadcasting. The media is portrayed throughout as primarily concerned with ratings and success, ignoring the human side of the issue. Attempts to phrase the story in a form suitable for pre-watershed viewers are amusing, but also expose the role of the mass media as sanitisers. They take the real world issues that are occurring and explain them in a way that won’t have people bringing up their last meal, even when the subject matter is horrendous. This is similar to military euphemisms such as “friendly fire” and “collateral damage” that are so popular in coverage of atrocious war zones across the globe.

The media’s obsession with the story is shown further by one particular reporters attempts to find out more about what is going on inside number 10. She sends naked pictures of herself to someone in Callow’s administration to coerce information from him and then goes to the location that the princess is reportedly being held at, potentially disrupting the police attempts to ensure the safety of Susannah. The news woman gets wounded by the police while trying to flee the scene of the failed rescue attempt. This highlights how she was willing to risk her safety and the safety of the princess in order to cover the story. This resonates all the more with viewers in the wake of the News of the World phone-tapping scandals and the information about the unethical attitudes and actions of members of the Murdoch empire.

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Initially the public are sympathetic with the vast majority saying that they would support Callow if he chose to not give in to the ransom demands. This all changes when the kidnapper discovers that members of Callow’s administration are attempting to use video-editing methods to allow a pornographic actor to stand in for Callow in order to fool the kidnapper. The kidnapper sends a finger to a news station along with a video apparently depicting him cutting the finger off of the princess. After this is made public the fickle nature of public approval is exposed. Approval ratings essentially flip, with most people believing that because of a completely reasonable action carried out without Callow’s knowledge that he should now, in fact, have sex with a pig. As you follow Callow and his wife, Jane, through the day you start to see them as real people with real emotions. Callow might not necessarily be a particularly likable human – he completely flips when informed about the whole porn stand-in/finger situation and almost strangles the member of staff responsible for it – but he is human.

Jane’s pain is hardest to watch as she searches for public reactions to the situation on Twitter and Youtube. The comments from the public that you glimpse on her laptop screen are sobering in their realism, with people spouting witty lines about bacon juice and blow-jobs, insulting Jane’s appearance by comparing her to a pig and generally being disgusting. You quickly realise (if you’re a terrible person, like me and most of my friends) that these comments are the kind that you would chuckle to yourself about while searching for coverage on the issue. Something that may be funny to random people on the Internet is shown to be deeply hurtful to those directly involved.

These comments reflect the truth behind the darkest parts of human nature – the screen acts as a black mirror of our nasty sides, the things that might flit across our minds but never be said in polite company. Our Internet anonymity makes us feel that we can say anything we please as long as we’re hiding behind our computer screens. Any socially adept individual, if faced with Jane in person, crying and distraught over what is happening, would seek to comfort her, not to insult her. It is entirely plausible that without the Internet and the technology we have today that this dark side of human nature, this glee at others suffering, would not be seen. It wouldn’t be exposed because people would see the human cost of their words and actions immediately if there wasn’t a gulf of technology between their actions and their victims.

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Eventually Callow is told that if he doesn’t comply with the kidnapper’s demands then, due to public opinion, his safety and the safety of his family cannot be ensured. He is forced to have sex with a pig or put his life and the life of his wife and child in danger. By this point there is nothing funny about the idea of him committing this act. When he walks on-stage and is confronted by the pig eating swill from a bowl your way of thinking about the issue shifts even further. In my mind I was still thinking of a pig as a pink, two-dimensional cute animal from a child’s book before this moment. Being confronted by the reality, a fat mass of sexually-repulsive animal right before the act is committed shocks,and finally gives you the full understanding of what is being asked of Micheal Callow.

Everybody is watching. The streets are empty as the broadcast begins. Even an ear-splitting note designed to make people turn off their TV’s isn’t enough to deter anyone from staying tuned. A girl who said she “couldn’t watch” earlier in the show stares hypnotised at the screen. People cover their eyes only to uncover them and carry on watching. People laugh at first, but then the reality of it hits them – most of them. Yet they can’t look away. It’s history in the making, as one individual remarks. The state of society in this alternate reality is so perverted, so twisted and disgusting, that everyone watches the entire broadcast. It is revealed later that this was an international event, watched globally by around 1.5 billion people.

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We then discover that Princess Susannah was released about thirty minutes before the broadcast went out, heavily drugged and staggering around central London. But everyone was inside, waiting for and then watching a politician have sex with a pig, live on TV. The sick nature of society resulted in the act, which was totally avoidable, happening anyway. It is then revealed that the kidnapping was perpetrated by a famous artist, who hung himself during the broadcast. The entire thing was a message and a test. If society was so messed up that there wouldn’t be enough people left on the streets to find the princess and stop Callow, then he didn’t want to live in this world any more. While I find the idea that there would be no-one who would choose not to watch the broadcast a little far-fetched, I see this as more of a warning about where we could soon end up in society if we don’t change our ways and inject a little humanity into our technology.

Callow becomes popular after the events of that day and the early release of the princess is kept secret from everyone, including Callow himself. Knowing that what he did was for nothing would destroy him – all he has to cling on to by the end is that what he did saved a life. In the final shot of the film it is seen that his marriage is ruined as his wife refuses to speak to him outside of public appearances, even a year on from the event. This man’s life has been ruined through no fault of his own.

Is this kind of behaviour human nature? Is it an inevitable consequence of the dehumanising nature of technology? Am I a bad person for laughing at videos of people in painful or unpleasant situations on Youtube? These are the questions that the viewer is left with when the credits roll. The National Anthem made me rethink the way I act on the Internet, anonymous or not. Hopefully it did the same for a lot of other people too, though a look at almost any Youtube video or twitter feed suggests that it has made little difference. All we can do is try to remember that when we post things on the Internet they are being read by real people, just like us, sitting behind computer screens the world over. Just because no-one knows who you are doesn’t give you free reign to be a horrible person.

The first episode of Black Mirror was more thought provoking and well-constructed than most anything else that makes its way to TV. The controversial subject matter is played straight while not ignoring the potential for a little humour dotted throughout. The situation is not made light of and the viewer is left a little shell-shocked at the events they have just witnessed. In my opinion, this is TV at its finest.

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One thought on “Black Mirror Retrospective – The National Anthem

  1. Pingback: Movie News | February 2013 | Screen-Watch

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