Episode 9: Bandersnatch interview with Black Mirror’s Charlie Brooker

Now that Bandersnatch is safely out in the world, Charlie Brooker can talk about the making of it, the endings he likes and the secret hidden things we might never find, thanks to the editing process!

I sat down with him this week to write a profile for New Statesman. Here’s a taster:

“It’s like the world functions as a Black Mirror alert system for me,” he continues. “Where people just say, ‘Have you seen this? This is a bit Black Mirror isn’t it?’ Yeah. It is. I would say it’s slightly terrifying, but is it the worst thing China has to face at the moment? Probably not. I mean, there’s climate change…”

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Scroll down below the YouTube video for the full transcript of the episode.

Charlie Brooker and his Black Mirror co-creator Annabel Jones were on the post-Bandersnatch press tour, kind of the opposite to how it usually works. For those of us who have seen / played Bandersnatch, it’s easy to see why there weren’t interviews before the release, or preview screeners – one detail being leaked, or the previews breaking Netflix – and the whole post-Christmas joy of this launch would’ve been muted. A it happened, the release of Bandersnatch was a gigantic worldwide event that trended for days. It’s a part of the future that Black Mirror never predicted – eventually, we’d all be watching Black Mirror at the same time, all across the world.

So, Charlie and I talked about politics, 80s music, how much his kids love the Alexa and Black Mirror Season 5. Well, I tried to get him to talk about the last one, and he did a good job of, well, you listen for yourself. Netflix have nothing to be concerned about, let me tell you.


Charlie Brooker: When no one seems worried, when it seems like everything’s tickety-boo, that’s when I really worry.

Suchandrika Chakrabarti: In the 90s?

CB: In the 90s, thing were sort of – I mean they weren’t, but they felt sort of tickety-boo. That’s when I really worry, because I think, that’s too good to be true, what the fuck’s going to…? At the moment, everyone’s like, ‘This is fucked, everything is fucking fucked‘. Which makes me conversely just somewhat optimistic.

SC: Welcome to Freelance Pod. My name is Suchandrika. Chakrabarti and I’ll be your host.

Freelance Pod is all about how the internet has changed the world of work. On each episode I’ll speak to a guest about freelancing; side-hustles; the gig economy; jobs that weren’t possible before the internet; and how moving from the analogue to the digital age has revolutionised the way we work.

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So, earlier this week, I sat down with Charlie Brooker, and wrote a profile of him for New Statesman magazine, I’ll put the link the in the show notes. And obviously, we talked about Bandersnatch, which ha been the Choose-You-Own-Adventure on Netflix that everyone’s been talking about. I also asked him for details on Black Mirror Season 5… didn’t get that many! But sometimes, you know, I think it’s what he didn’t say, that gave it away. And we also delve into his memories of the 80s being recreated in Bandersnatch, the music and how much his kids love the Alexa.

So here you go, enjoy!

CB: About China, as in not the substance, not the thing that cups are made out of, like the country? Is this about the five-star rating thing?

SC: Yeah, do you want to start with that? So, I’ll give you an example: ten schools in China are giving pupils uniforms with chips that record their location, and there’s facial recognition, so they can’t fall asleep in class… you scared?

CB: Yes…? I mean, I haven’t that much about it. Lots and lots of people have sent me articles about that system in China. Yeah. It’s like the world functions as a Black Mirror alert system for me, where people just say, “Have you seen this? This is a bit Black Mirror isn’t it?” Yeah.

And so I read one thing saying this is just like Black Mirror, and then I read another article that says, no, it’s not, it’s not, come on, stop demonising the Chinese, it’s not that sinister. And then, so, it certainly sounds sinister. Yeah, sounds pretty sinister. Um, yeah, I would say it’s slightly terrifying.

It’s a bit like… I can’t work out how terrifying it is, because it’s sort of happening over there on the other side of a hill. It’s a bit like knowing that some something potentially horrifying is happening on the other side of a hill, which may make its way here. Should I only care about it when it’s affecting me and my family, I don’t know. It’s coming isn’t, it’s coming.

SC: Is it the worst thing China has to face at the moment?

CB: Probably not, I mean there’s climate change… let’s keep it light! But, like, you know, there’s plenty of challenges in the world at the moment. 

You could, and people do, use technology to keep people in line. We sort of do it to ourselves, generally, it seems. By which I mean we behave us we we allow ourselves to be judged by anyone else. Social media has become a sort of formalised way of trying to gather your own sense of self-worth in society, or your position in society, isn’t it?

There’s lots of sort of numbers, cold hard numbers, attached to it… it’s sort of it’s a bit weird. Can you imagine if Twitter and Instagram and Facebook didn’t exist, and then suddenly the government forced us to take part in it tomorrow? We’d be outraged! We’d be outraged. Similarly, if they gave us like an Amazon Echo device and said, hey put this in your house so, right you can just ask it what the weather’s like, and it will play Rihanna anytime you want it to. Oh, and it will record everything you’re saying and doing.

But I’ve got one! I literally bought one because I thought I should have that in my house.

SC: I’ve got one.

CB: Because it will help me think of Black Mirror ideas. And lo and behold, it did really, yeah, because you just get observations very quickly. Like on about day three – so, I’ve got kids who are six and four years old – and they immediately took to this thing like a duck to water. They just amused themselves by saying, “Alexa! Fart!” And she’ll play fart sounds! 

SC: Does she?!

CB: Yeeeah.

SC: I’ll have to try that out.

CB: Well, I think it’s a Skill.

SC: Somebody programmed this?! So you only have yourself to blame.

CB: You say, “Alexa, play fart sounds,” and it’s Spotify or one of those things – it’s an album of fart noises.

SC: This is the content I came here for. Thank you.

CB: Exactly. So, they were doing that, then one day, after we had it for about a week, our four-year-old walked into the kitchen and went, “Alexa. I mean, I mean, Daddy! Where are my shoes?” And I thought, well that’s right, I know what role life I fulfil in your bloody life!

Then we went on a holiday, and we went into a hotel room, and the kids walked in and went, “Alexa! Alexa!” and I went, “There’s no Alexa here,” and they went, “Yeah, I know, was just seeing if there was, so I was just saying it so I‘d hear where she was, if there was one. DAD.” right fucking now that’s quite smart is well, because they’re clever than me. And I thought, alright! Fucking hell.

SC: That’s quite smart!

CB: It is! Because, well. they’re cleverer than me.

SC: Just checking for Alexa.

CB: Our six-year-old watches videos of Minecraft and Roblox and stuff like this, and he’s obsessed with videos of people playing obscure Super Mario mods, where they’ve modified levels and stuff like this. He knows everything there is to know about Mario… anyway, sorry, I digress. 

SC: Do you want to make something that they can watch?

CB: Um, well, they can watch my stuff eventually.

SC: Yeah, but not for quite a while.

CB: It would be nice, it’d be good, I mean it’d be a challenge, to do a U-certificate Black Mirror, I mean… are any of our episodes… maybe…

SC: Hang the DJ?

CB: There’s a bit of sex in that. Nosedive… oh no, there’s a bit of swearing in that…

SC: The breakdown at the end is hard to…

CB: There’s a lot of swearing in that, yeah, and a woman with a knife… ummm… Hang the DJ’s the closest if you don’t mind sex and bad language… my god, that’s depressing isn’t it. 

SC: No, because remember watching TV with your parents when you were a kid, and there were always a couple of scenes where you were like, why am I here with them? 

CB: True.

SC: Always, so I think things are a lot better in that respect.

CB: Our six-year-old will not watch Doctor Who. Our four-year-old likes it, but the six-year-old will not watch it because he’s terrified of it, and he gets angry when you say look it’s for the whole family, he goes this is not a children’s thing, it’s for grown-ups! Anyway…

SC: So he’s got a while before he watches Black Mirror then. So, with a Choose-You-Own-Adventure, is that something we could use in elections? If voters had seen how a Leave of Trump vote might have panned out –

CB: Oh, I see.

SC: – would they have done something different?

CB: That’s the fantasy, isn’t it? Possibly like a virtual reality headset that you have to put on and it boils down the next ten years, then it takes you two minutes to experience that, so you see the ramifications of your decision. Um, I guess? I mean, they’re already at Choose-Your-Own-Adventure, aren’t they?

SC: Could you have scripted the last two years, even with all the Twine and everything? No.

CB: No. No. And it’s obviously been very, very busy doing this. So, because I haven’t been doing the Screenwipe shows, I’ve not been watching the news. I spent years watching it, so I’ve deliberately not, and what’s depressing is the news seems to be stuck as well. It seems to be stuck in shit mode. It’s just Brexit all day long, every day, just like Brexit deadlock, no one’s happy. Everyone wants a way out of it. And there doesn’t seem to be one. 

SC: It’s just a joke! I’ve just kind of stopped listening. It’s really nice, not being in a newsroom anymore, actually, because I don’t have to pretend to care.

CB: Right. Well, I mean, what the problem is that you do sort of have to care. It’s depressing, and also it sort of seems to be like, it’s stuck in the mud, isn’t it? 

SC: I don’t think any of it’s happening, it’s all just rubbish.

CB: Well yes, I’d sort hope I hope we hope it all goes away, out of just sheer boredom. 

SC: It’d be embarrassing for us as a country, but I think we’ve been embarrassed enough.

CB: Yeah, although the States is rivalling us for that now, isn’t it, for embarrassment, generally? Well, not embarrassment, but it’s undeniably interesting, what’s going on in the States.

SC: No one mentioned it at the Golden Globes the other night, no one mentioned it in the hosting. So I think people are a bit done, they’re just like he’s a crazy terrible man, he doesn’t stand for us. Let’s wait until we get rid of him, Robert Mueller will sort it.

CB: Right. Yeah, that’s the hope.

SC: They’ve got a saviour, we don’t have one. Juncker?

CB: Uh, yeah? No.

SC: No!

CB: No, no we don’t do we? Someone’ll come along. What’s that song, “A hero comes along and blah blah blahdy hell…” but who’s that gonna be? God, that’s depressing.

SC: You were almost quite positive there for a second!

CB: Well I sort of have had to, in a contrary way, I’ve said this before: when no one seems worried, when it seems like everything’s tickety-boo, that’s when I really worry.

Suchandrika Chakrabarti: In the 90s?

CB: In the 90s, thing were sort of – I mean they weren’t, but they felt sort of tickety-boo. That’s when I really worry, because I think, that’s too good to be true, what the fuck’s going to…? At the moment, everyone’s like, ‘This is fucked, everything is fucking fucked‘. Which makes me conversely just somewhat optimistic, because that makes me feel like, oh, so everyone’s on the lookout, and everyone’s worried, and everyone’s engaged, and everyone’s thinking, so hopefully, collectively, we will actually sort this stuff out.

The problem is, then I get complacent and go, oh it will be fine, and then next thing you know, I’ll be standing on a patch of ground with a fucking rudimentary spear I made out of a bit of battered old shopping trolley and and some barbed wire with dog shit on it and I’m fucking stabbing like some alt-right android scorpion in the face for in order to hold on to a bit of irradiated water I’m drinking out of an old Heinz Tomato Soup can, that’s the…

SC: So, Metalhead then?

CB: Like Metalhead! That’s what 2023 will consist of.

SC: So…

CB: I’ll keep it light!

SC: Which of the previous Black Mirrors did Bandersnatch have the most in common with?

CB: Playtest is one which is about games in a way probably more than Bandersnatch is

SC: And messing with someone’s mind?

CB: Messing with someone’s mind. White Bear, obviously there’s the symbol from White Bear that shows up a lot in Bandersnatch, and that was one of those nice little moments where we have the idea for Bandersnatch, where you know the conceit was Choose-Your-Own-Adventure, and the person you’re giving commands to becomes aware that you are there, basically, so you are the problem in the story.

And at one point early on, I was trying to draw a flowchart, and I drew a sort of thing that branched off, and I thought oh hang on that looks like that’s the symbol from White Bear, well we’ve got to incorporate that in the story, and it seemed thematically right, so actually there’s a bit of stuff in there, there’s one branch he goes down where he sort of believes, he has a dream about this government conspiracy thing program and control thing.

No one noticed there was a meant to be a thing in there that says Pax, on it and there’s a British lion symbol, which is meant to be the thing that Jerome F. Davis saw in the past, Pax, which is this lion figure…

SC: On the LSD thing?

CB: Yes,  so many to be the British lion was sort of what that was. Anyway, so that tied into White Bear that was sort of what that was, so it nods at quite a few.

SC: The one where it’s revealed as a film set, which is probably my favourite ending.

CB: Oh, I like that one. Yeah, I think that’s Fionn’s, who was playing Stefan, I think that’s his favorite ending. I do like that one because it’s so stupid. Originally that whole path, that whole fourth wall breaking Netflix path, originally that was a bit more hidden and the idea was going to be that you couldn’t get to it on first play through, it would arrive as an option on your second play through but we opened it up earlier on, because we thought it was so different to the other paths, that we thought it was worth doing that. It can be it can slightly jar with people because it’s such a tonal shift, so it does affect how some people react to the whole piece. It depends on whether they chose the symbol or Netflix, if they have those choices at that point, anyway, oh again, I digress.

SC: What did I even ask?

CB: I know!

SC: I asked which of the previous – that’s fine. I think there’s are some shows about the at moment with people trying to take back control, so have you seen The Fix with Jimmy Carr, which is on Netflix? Probably you haven’t seen it…

CB: I haven’t seen it yet.

SC: And it’s like people solve problems, and you’ve got Ed Miliband’s podcast Reasons to be Cheerful which is like you get you get him and a comedian comes in and they say one policy which would-

CB: -change the world?

SC: Yeah, solve everything. And it seems to be this kind of thing, of giving people power to make things better, it feels like in Bandersnatch we’re torturing a guy who was already not super well…

CB: Yes, although you know what, you know he’s not real…! There’s an ending where he gets a nice closure… have you got the train ending?

SC: So he ends up dead?

CB: Yeah, but he’s happy! He’s at rest – come on, it’s Black Mirror! It’s interesting, some people have been like ‘I just want an ending where his game gets five stars and he’s happy!’ And you’re like, ‘yeah, but that would’ve been so fucking boring!’ You say you want it, perhaps coming from a ‘I want to beat the game perspective’… maybe we would have done that. Maybe we’ll do an expansion pack?

SC: And is there anything that particularly informed your recreation of the 80s? I was born in the 80s-

CB: Unfortunately, I was born in 1971!

SC: You have real memories of the 80s. There’s something so charmingly almost analogue about computers from the 80s, they were so big and boxy… what was influencing you when you were recreating it?

CB: Well, it was a lot of it was my memories of it, David Slade as well, the directorremembers the 80s, I think he used to work briefly for Gremlin Graphics, which was a computer game company at the time.

And so I was born in 1971, I was 13 in 1984, and certainly the choice of 1984 was not really a nod to Orwell, or anything like that. It was literally I thought, well, the ZX Spectrum was created in 1982, okay, hit it big by 1984, people were making serious money. This was this was when the video game crash stuff was about to happen, where it went, tits up, so that was why I set it in 84. But I remember like, you know, going into WH Smith to look at computer games and stuff like that. So that was weird. The emotional moment for me was going into our WH Smith that we built in Croydon.

SC: Yeah, it was really nice seeing the old logo on the bag!

CB: I know! ‘Cos you go into  Smiths now and it’s like a dystopian present.

SC: It’s like it’s just too neat!

CB: Oh no, the one in Ealing is like a fucking wasteland! I mean, the ones in railway stations are still really well stocked, but the one in Ealing, it was just a bit like, like, like, people seem to just go in there for the post office. Yeah, basically.

But no, all of that I remember very, very well. And the days of loading games off a cassette tape, which would take like 5-10 minutes on the Spectrum with rubber keys. I remember all of that, it was very evocative for me, because I’m 1000 years old, you know, and also, I thought, well, I’ve often wanted to do something that was about retro gaming. And I thought, I don’t want to make it like an American thing, because I feel like I’ve seen that I feel like I hear a lot about the American 80s and tech, and I wanted to do something about the British games industry, which was quirky and weird.

A lot of those young people who wrote games and often than not, and wrote them on their own went mad, or got terrible pressure on them. There were these weird, quirky, old, very British games where a lot of the companies that were making, and a lot of the individuals in the companies that were making this are now like pillars of the video game establishment as it were, so you could trace like, the Grand Theft Auto games, which were written in Scotland, and I can see the same DNA, that would have been in Spectrum games, the same sort of weird idiosyncratic humour. There’s a there’s a solid through line of all of that.

SC: How about the music as well as some that you couldn’t have made it without? Like, San Junipero [which Brooker has said he couldn’t imagine making without the rights to the Belinda Carlisle song, ‘Heaven is a Place on Earth’.]?

CB: So which one do you think it is? Relax? There’s Tangerine Dream, you get to choose. I would say that’s the best, and then the other one was going to be Kraftwerk, but we couldn’t clear it, it was gonna be Radioactivity by Kraftwerk, even though they’re not from the 80s, but my dad had both of those albums, so I remember listening to those, thinking, this is fucking weird!

We’ve got like Relax on there, it’s a lot of Tangerine Dream obviously, we’ve got a lot of British sort of synth-y, and there’s like Making Plans for Nigel, which again is not a song from 84, but we wanted it to feel like a British early 80s, so it would be differentiated from like Stranger Things, and things like that. I don’t think you see Britain of the early 80s often evoked in things… I guess Pride did it? 

SC: You see the 70s, and the 80s is different, although there is a hangover.

CB: I think once BBC Four did a biopic of Sir Clive Sinclair, once, and apart from that, I don’t think I’ve seen that sort of side of the 80s recreated. For me, it was fun. If you look carefully, there’s early editions of Viz on Colin Ritman’s table. There’s copies of 2000 A. D. Stefan, at one point, when he’s on LSD, laughing his head off, is reading Bachelor Boys, The Young Ones spin-off book that came out, so those sorts of things were extremely evocative for me.

SC: Yeah, so in one of the endings when Colin’s daughter turns up, you were having fun with the newspaper front page and tickers and things, and there was something about the CEO of Smithereens sitting in front of Parliament or Congress, is that a hint for an episode?

CB: Might be!

SC: Of course you wouldn’t tell…

CB: I wouldn’t take any storyline hints, though. I would say that there might be words and things like that in there, but, no, don’t think there’s any storyline hints. Hmm…

SC: So what does Season 5 look like then, what can you tell me about it?

CB: I can say I can say very little, but I can say it’s a-coming, it will be this year, so not too long to wait, and again it’s sort of different to other seasons. That’s basically all I could say! You may have noticed we’ve got more and more secretive, which is why we we put this out like with very little warning! 

SC: How much have you got left to shoot, have you still got to write stuff?

CB: Oh, we already started shooting before we did Bandersnatch,  so we didn’t pause Season 5 to do it. At one point we were maybe going to have Bandersnatch as essentially part of Season 5, and then it made more sense do it as its own standalone thing, so we’ve got other other stories which are all complete, and then there’s bits and bobs we’ve got to do on something else… [laughs]… hmmmm.

SC: Okay, well then, thank you!

CB: Thank you [laughs]! Sorry, I have to be all cagey about this-

SC: You do. You definitely do.

CB: -it’s more fun this way!

SC: So thanks to Charlie Brooker for talking to me about Bandersnatch and Black Mirror and all things that are technological and terrifying.

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Thanks for listening. Goodbye!

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I like the comma in American headlines, I think England needs it.

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