Charlie Brooker: Tea and empathy
Charlie Brooker is a savagely funny satirist who takes aim at modern irrationality. But in person, he’s a rather more gentle soul.
This article is a preview from the Winter 2014 edition of New Humanist. You can find out more and subscribe here.
The magazine publisher Malcolm S Forbes once said, “You can easily judge the character of a man by how he treats those who can do nothing for him.” This is perhaps the most remarkable thing about my nine-year friendship with Charlie Brooker – that he is successful enough to have left me behind years ago, and yet he has almost tirelessly helped me, and received nothing in return except friendship.
We met when we were both working in television. I was a jobbing episode writer on £12,000 a year; when Charlie was with me, he was generous to the extent that he wouldn’t even let me pay for bus tickets, and bought me self-help books when I was struggling with anxiety and depression. On meeting him in 2005, I had just escaped an abusive relationship which culminated in violence during pregnancy. Charlie was friendly and kind and safe, and though he alone couldn’t restore my faith in people (that would take years), he made me realise that though there were people in the world who would try to hurt me, there were also those who would try and help.
I always remember him as incredibly focused and driven when it came to his career, yet quite absentminded when it came to other things. Sometimes I would be in the middle of a story when he’d hold up his hand, say, “Sorry, I’ve just remembered something [to do with work]” and start scribbling on a notepad. He had so many projects on the go – scripts, columns, programme ideas – that he would always leave his Guardian columns until the deadline, and then type feverish streams of consciousness that made perfect sense and were angrily amusing.
He was partly responsible for my move to atheism. When I met him, I was a deist struggling with my faith, considering agnosticism. “I’m an atheist,” he declared. “Absolutely, completely, no question.” His certainty made me question everything I thought I knew about God and religion; by mid-2006 I too was an atheist, though he never tried to influence me. I remember that he also had hundreds of fascinating books on science, philosophy and religion around his house in Battersea, which he allowed me to pick up and leaf through at my leisure.
Unlike most of his contemporaries, Brooker went to a polytechnic instead of a redbrick university, to read media studies. In the mid-1990s he started writing and drawing cartoons for PC Zone, a video games magazine, but it was his spoof television listings website TV Go Home that earned him his Screen Burn column in the Guardian. From then on, his rise has been meteoric; when I first met him, he was writing two Guardian columns, penning a script about zombies in the Big Brother house (the acclaimed drama Dead Set) and holding down the post of creative director at Zeppotron, a subsidiary of the production company Endemol. He made the leap from cult figure to household name when he co-fronted Channel 4’s satirical late-night topical show 10 O’Clock Live with Jimmy Carr, David Mitchell and Lauren Laverne; his current programmes include A Touch of Cloth, Black Mirror and Charlie Brooker’s News Wipe.
When we meet for the interview at Endemol’s offices in west London, I am in tears. He thinks it’s because I had to take the lift (I have a fear of enclosed spaces) but it’s actually because my fiancé has called off our engagement. Brooker consoles me and tells me jokes, and I calm down as we drink tea together in an office meeting room.
I ask him what he and I can do – along with the readers of New Humanist – to make the world a better place?
“That’s a daunting question,” he admits. “Daunting because I don’t know. I’ve got no concrete suggestion. Either I could come up with the wrong thing, or someone will read it and say, ‘Fucking patronising arsehole, I do that anyway! What do you mean, recycle more cardboard? Who the fuck are you?!’ I find it hard to think of something that people wouldn’t have thought of. I suppose… empathy? It’s a difficult one. We seem to be becoming more kneejerk, generally – partly because of technology, I think.”
Like with Twitter mobs, I ask?
“Yeah, everything’s gone a bit black-and-white. People exaggerate things, everything gets a little exaggerated. Maybe it’s rich coming from me, ’cause if I write a column, I exaggerate things for comic effect, and I feel like that’s happening all the time now with the world.”
I’ve witnessed this black-and-white thinking a lot lately with people being so polarised over Israel’s bombing of Gaza, I say. “Well, where do you go with that? I just see fucking horror, absolute fucking horror. It’s not like before I was an absolute automaton who didn’t care about things, but now I have a kid…” Brooker has just become a father for the second time.
To provide contrast, he relates a tale of a child in a documentary who was dying and met the character Elmo from Sesame Street. “I think before I would have found this a sad story, but I was almost physically on the floor. I couldn’t take it. And that’s a kid meeting a puppet, so stuff like Gaza I basically find … it’s only recently that I’ve looked at the news and thought, ‘I can’t take that’.”
Brooker has always been sensitive and emotional though, I recall – a world away from his hard-nosed, apathetic Screen Burn character. He cares about people, which is one of the reasons he gave up the column – because he regularly had to come face-to-face with people he’d criticised, and felt guilty about it. I wonder if he’s so compassionate because he’s had the odd psychological wobble himself.
Among many other helpful gifts, you once gave me a book called White Bears and Other Unwanted Thoughts, I tell him. Distressing intrusive thoughts about shocking, embarrassing things are a symptom of obsessive-compulsive disorder, and I suffer from OCD – for instance, at weddings, I used to fear I’d shout out obscenities as the bride walked down the aisle. I recall that he’s struggled with similar thoughts.
He nods. “I used to get them on 10 O’Clock Live, but with screaming. I thought, ‘I’m just going to scream at the camera, aaaaaagh!’”
It’s a relief that someone else experiences that, I say. I remember when I told a friend of his that I didn’t want to go to a performance with them, because I was scared of blurting out obscenities, and she asked, “Why, is that what you usually do?” And I couldn’t explain that no, of course I didn’t.
“That’s the point,” Brooker interjects. “You don’t [do it and you don’t] want to do it. You don’t want to harm yourself or shock society or injure people.”
I agree: you don’t want to throw yourself out of a window or in front of a train or throw somebody’s tea in their face, but that’s OCD. It’s ego-dystonic, which means the thoughts represent the very opposite of what you want to do.
“I found that book really interesting, because it was so clearly written, and quite funny in places,” Brooker notes. “It made sense, saying, ‘You’ve got a limited number of things you can think about, and so by trying to shove a thought out – like, “The audience is going to attack me on the show!” – you’re forcing yourself to think about it, in a paradoxical way.’”
Does he think that the fact that we have disturbing thoughts has prompted us both to become rationalists, because we need to make sense of the world in a reassuringly naturalistic way? It’s so much more comforting to think that things are random and we’re not having these thoughts for any supernatural reason.
“Yeah, it isn’t God telling you to jump off the banister!” Brooker quips. “I hadn’t thought of that, but possibly. Everyone’s trying to understand the world and reality. OK, not everyone,” he corrects. “Some people are fine just eating crisps and blowing off, and aren’t they lucky? But anyway: the religious find comfort and reassurance in the idea that there’s a cosmic system of justice. And conversely, I find comfort from things that weirdly, on the face of it, aren’t that comforting. If there is any sense of purpose in the universe, I’m never going to work it out. It would be arrogant of me to even think I could touch the underside of that, which is quite liberating, because you think, ‘I might as well make the most of it while I’m around then.’”
When we were at a dinner party in December, I remind him, an MP said to us, “You and your bleak atheistic nothingness”, and he replied, “I find it a reassuring comforting nothingness, actually!”
“I think that’s true,” Brooker laughs. “I’m not a militant atheist – I mind when it looks like religion’s impinging on other people, and people are telling other people what to do on the basis of religion, then I don’t like that – but I’m jealous in a lot of ways of people who can find solace in religion. I just wish I were someone who could draw solace from what I think is a story. I find it hard to believe that there’s a force…”
God’s got a lot to answer for if he does exist, looking at the state of the world today, I interject.
“He’s certainly got a hands-off approach,” Brooker concedes. “It would appear that it’s increasingly hard to justify his lack of intervention – unless, of course, this is the intervention – in which case, Jesus Christ!”
He pauses. “I wrote a column once that said, ‘Stop worrying about the point, there isn’t a point!’ I find it comforting thinking that, if we alone are responsible for how the world works, and how good or bad it’s going to turn out to be, that implies that the solution lies within humankind and not with some force. You can’t say, ‘Oh well, whoops, it’s God’s will, we’ll just carry on.’ It implies that things should be fixable. The tragedy is that people often start doing things with the best intentions, and then things go awry, or it collides with somebody else’s idea of the best intentions. To what degree any of that is solvable, I don’t know.”
Can religion, and supernatural thinking in general, be harmful to people who are suffering from mental illness? For instance, there’s a New Age school of thought that says that you get what you think about, so if you can’t stop thinking about getting a disease, you’re “attracting that experience”.
“Well, for someone who tries to be rational, I am quite superstitious myself,” Brooker confesses. “I don’t like to fly on the 13th of the month. Actually, I don’t like to fly, full stop! We were thinking of calling our company Nosedive, and I didn’t want to call it that as I thought, ‘What if I’m on a plane and aaagh, we called the company Nosedive!’
“But getting back to your question: I probably don’t agree, as there are so many different forms of mental illness that I wouldn’t say [religion] is necessarily harmful to everyone who is mentally ill. And if you’re mentally ill to a degree that you’re going to take imagery from that and find it injurious to your health, you might find it in something [other than religion] anyway.”
He pauses. “Where I think it’s wrong is when psychics claim that they can talk to the dead. That person is either deluding themselves, in which case it’s tragic, or they’re doing it deliberately, in which case it’s malicious and greedy and thoughtless and horrible. So in that respect, I think that sort of supernatural thinking could be harmful to very vulnerable people. But that’s a person misusing it.”
I’m thinking of the religious meme where you’re told, “Everything happens for a reason,” I explain. So if something bad happens, you feel you’ve caused it. And religious people with OCD often have blasphemous thoughts, and feel that they’re going to go to hell because of them.
“Yes, but then I don’t know that that’s unique to religion,” Brooker argues. “It’s more to do with people, and what people do with spiritual thoughts. There are people who have a system that says you should feel terribly guilty if you veer from their position on how it all works.”
He points out that there are all kinds of orthodoxies including those around the body and health. “You could sit there feeling guilty, thinking, ‘I haven’t eaten salad all week.’ The one thing that I find brilliant about getting older is that I don’t have to pretend to enjoy going out any more.”
I hate clubbing, I say in agreement.
“It’s the great thing about having a kid,” Brooker says. “It’s like, ‘I’ve procreated, I’m knackered and busy and that’s it. I don’t want to go out anywhere, I don’t have to.’”
That’s funny, I interject, because he used to like going out drinking.
“I’ve never been comfortable at parties though. I like not having to go to parties.”
You always seemed so confident though, I say. I remember going to a party with him at rooftop garden club Century, and him talking to the Times columnist Caitlin Moran. I thought how confident they seemed, and how small I felt next to them. “But I just put on a persona,” he explains. “You kind of put on that hat which is closer to my Screenwipe persona, in a way. And you can get away with that at a party, because you can be brash and say silly things and swear. But I couldn’t sustain it for very long. I’d be able to do it for five minutes, but beyond that I’d run out of material! So in a way, that’s a total projection. And everyone’s like that to a degree, definitely, because no one would be able to get through it otherwise.”
And as he accompanies me down in the lift to make sure I’m okay, I think again how different he is in person from the cynical writer full of bile and vitriol people imagine him to be. He is, I think, a man Malcolm S Forbes would have liked to meet.