In 2000, a relatively unknown video games journalist called Charlie Brooker took over as the Guardian Guide’s TV reviewer. His Screen Burn columns were like nothing else in British media before or since. Passionate and merciless, they guided readers through a decade that saw the beginnings of reality TV and the “golden age” of drama. The columns spawned two books and the BBC TV series Screen Wipe. Brooker wrote his final Screen Burn column in 2010, and then disappeared into obscurity – save for producing the TV phenomenon Black Mirror, which boasts Jon Hamm, Michaela Coel and Daniel Kaluuya among its stars, as well as inking a multi-show deal with Netflix, the fruits of which include last year’s Death to 2020 and, arriving on 28 September, Attack of the Hollywood Clichés!. The Guide caught up with Charlie to discuss TV criticism, causing an international incident involving George W Bush and the mysteries of The White Lotus’s notorious suitcase scene …
Hi Charlie, how are you doing?
I’m all right. You’ve got an annoying shadow right over the middle of your face.
It’s the sun reflecting from the house opposite.
Oh that’s right. Blame the sun.
For 10 years, you wrote the Screen Burn column in which you played the character of a venomous TV reviewer called, er, Charlie Brooker. How did you get the column in the first place?
I’d been writing for a video games magazine, which had become depressing because I had discovered it had the same circulation as What Caravan. I couldn’t work out how to make the leap into “mainstream media” but I’d been doing this website TV Go Home, which did parodies of the Radio Times. I’d written something absurd in G2 about Sid Owen because he was leaving EastEnders and did a couple more things like that. Then Jim Shelley, who used to write a column called Tapehead for the Guide, was leaving, and I was asked by Tim Lusher [the editor at the time], would I write it? Looking back it was really jammy. I didn’t really realise at the time what a good gig it was.
This was all in an era of big satellite dishes and VHS players – even box sets weren’t really a thing then. How did you get the TV shows to review?
I’d have to ring up PR people and they would arrange for VHS tapes of shows to be posted or couriered to my house. It was sort of exciting because it meant that I could get American shows that we were several weeks behind on in the UK. I’d be six episodes ahead on 24 and feeling smug.
Did you set out from the beginning to write something so … despairing?
I think early on my persona was that I was somebody watching each show like it was a horrible unfolding 3D cartoon that I was looking at in an angry mood. In my head, the fact that it was slightly exaggerated was quite clear. But I don’t know if it was to readers.
When you started, it was before shows like Mad Men or Game of Thrones had even begun. Those early columns focused more on reality TV: Big Brother and Popstars were just getting started …
That was an easy thing to write about. It was a bit like writing about sport, I imagine, knowing nothing about sport. There were lots of instant hate figures. It fitted well with the constant theme I had, which was that this was the end times and we were watching some sort of sparkly light-entertainment version of humanity unravelling – a position that now seems absurd, sitting in the actual end times. Although I suppose in 15 years’ time when I’m literally on fire I might not think these are the end times.
The first show you really championed, and then wrote about endlessly, was The Wire. I would say your praise was so relentless it had a lot to do with the show’s popularity in the UK.
It was one of the first shows that did things where it didn’t hold your hand; it didn’t patronise you. You’d see a random scene – the mayor having a chat to his adviser or something – and then the story for that episode would just carry on. And you’d think: what was that about? That was about nothing. I don’t understand what was going on there. Then it might pay off in three episodes’ time. It was rewarding your attention; it wasn’t ambient noise with pictures, which a lot of television can be.
It also had that realistic tone to it, where, you know, a lot of the time the problem is they need to get a fucking piece of paper signed by somebody so that they can do the wiretap. But it would take them like four episodes to get the fucking wiretap up and running. Because they have to deal with a load of paperwork, bureaucracy and internal politics. It was frustrating sometimes but it wasn’t spoon-feeding you the same stories over and over again. I can’t think of many other things that were of that tone and calibre at the time. But all I did was write: “You should be watching this show. It is good,” over and over again.
On balance, the column was more about critique than praise. You were infamous for the kinds of withering takedowns it’s hard to imagine being published in a paper today …
No, and it’s probably right that they don’t. In my head, I was writing about people who aren’t real. People on TV felt like they were almost cartoon characters. But then I remember the Sun’s TV critic, Ally Ross, had said to me once that he’d met some actor he’d been horrible about that turned out to be nice and he thought: who’s the asshole in this equation? And that phrase just kept ringing about in my head, like: who is the asshole?
But isn’t saying that “Michael Parkinson is a man with a face like a corpse’s shoe” contributing something to the world?
I’m not saying it was inaccurate! I think my favourite was when I described Mick Jagger as “having a face like a wet flannel hanging off a doorknob”. That is horrible. I was quite keen to always include some insults about myself in there. So I would try to make it clear that I was writing from a loser’s perspective. But we’re in a different era now where we’re more mindful of human beings and on balance that’s probably a good thing.
Perhaps your most notorious moment was in the run-up to the 2004 US election, when you ended a column about the presidential debate with what you later called a “tasteless and flippant” joke involving George Bush and John Wilkes Booth. It caused an international storm and you had to make an official apology.
It did. That was … instructive. There were several unfortunate stars that aligned. One of which was, I wrote it. So that’s the first star. Also, it was at a time when the Guide started putting everything online and it was appearing devoid of the context in which it had originally appeared, as a column in an A5 supplement that had a more anarchic, snarky tone to the rest of the newspaper. At the same time, the Guardian had been doing this campaign of writing to swing voters in America to implore them not to vote for Bush. Which I have to say, sounds like the most patronising, counterproductive thing you could do. That had already rubbed some people up the wrong way. So when my column appeared online, people basically thought it was an op-ed column. There was a big furore and it was no fun. I got loads of death threats. There’s just a horrible sense of fucking up. You feel physically sick and you can’t really function correctly for 72 hours. It’s like having a cold egg cracked over your head. In retrospect it was naive to think that you can write a joke like that and not get a load of shit back.
If you were still writing the column, what would you be being horrible about now?
Well I wouldn’t be mean now. I’ve made lots of TV shows and it would just be bullying to sit there going: here’s a show by an up-and-coming writer I’ve seen and it’s awful. But don’t get me wrong, I watch things all the time and think, “eurgh”. But I’m going “eurgh” from a different perspective now. I actually get more angry if something’s really good because it makes me feel hopeless and inadequate.
I’d probably focus my hate more on YouTube. My seven-year-old used to watch a little kid unboxing presents all the time, which made me puce with rage. And now he watches a lot of YouTubers. There was one guy who bought an island during the lockdown and he was just playing hide and seek in golf buggies. It makes me feel quite ill. I could write about that in the same way I would write about the very first series of Popstars: with the jaundiced, miserable eye of someone with no joy right down to their bone marrow.
Surely some joy! What about TV shows you’re really enjoying? It’s been a long time since we’ve had some Screen Burn recommendations …
At the moment, I’m watching the show with the most boring title ever. It’s called The Hunt for a Killer. That is an economy range title, like Sainsbury’s Oat Flakes. It’s a Scandi-noir thing, but it’s based on a real case and what I’m finding really fascinating about it is it’s the most bone-dry thing I think I’ve ever seen. Massively underwritten and understated and underplayed. All the scenes are somebody going: “We’ve had a phone call, there’s a budget cut so you know I’m going to have to fill out some paperwork before we can go over and interview that suspect.” “OK.” That’s the scene. Somehow because it’s not doing any of the things I’m expecting it to do, it’s really drawing me in.
I also really enjoyed The White Lotus but I have a question about it. There’s a scene where somebody does two huge shits. It sparked a debate in my household as to whether that was CGI, or the guy just did a poo. You could definitely do it with CGI, without a shadow of a doubt. But it would be probably $50,000 cheaper just to find someone who would do a poo.
Could it not have been a prop poo?
No, it’s somebody squatting in profile around the ankles. And you see, not one but two poos emerge and flop down. I think if that did cost, like $50,000, that’s a pretty good use of money for a pivotal moment in your show. That’s better than the Death Star exploding.
So you still have a love for television?
The jealousy does ruin things. Succession was so good it made me furious with envy. Even if I enjoy your show, I don’t really enjoy it any more. That’s awful, isn’t it? But to be honest I have those feelings all the time, it doesn’t have to be watching TV. The other day I had to use a jet washer on the patio. Have you ever used a jet washer?
Those ones that really clean the grime with a lot of force?
Yeah. So if you’ve got a grimy patio, you get a jet washer, and it cleans a small area at a time, but it really cleans it. It’s transformative. It was like doing a big scratch card. So I had to use one of those the other day to clean the patio. And I genuinely had the thought within the first 10 minutes: this is the most satisfying thing I’ve ever done. It makes a mockery of my entire career. I should have been jet-washing. Without any exaggeration, I thought: why haven’t I just been doing this? Why did no one tell me about jet-washing as a career path? That lasted about another 20 minutes and then I was just cold and covered in grit. It’s actually awful.
It’s not too late to start a jet washing YouTube channel.
No. I look at someone like Limmy who has got a fantastic new career as a Twitch streamer and I think, “oh maybe I should have done something like that”. Then I think no. That ship’s sailed.
In your final column you wrote about catchup services taking over and the end of scheduled TV. Now streaming has almost totally taken over. Do you still watch live TV?
You know what: in lockdown we had some work done on the loft and the cable to the TV aerial got cut. And I didn’t have a telly aerial for a year. So everything I was watching, I was watching on catchup or streaming services. Actually, I could write a whole column about how much I fucking hate the ITV Hub. That is like watching things with both feet in a fucking trough of shit. This constant, horrible discomfort. It is staggeringly, staggeringly fucking bad.