Dead Set - Charlie Brooker
To die for
Charlie Brooker is best known as the ranting, raving TV critic rallying against stupidity on the small screen. How then did he end up creating Dead Set, a satirical TV series about zombies and Big Brother? David Pollock found out
In George A Romero’s seminal 1980 horror Dawn of the Dead, a group of mismatched survivors of the zombie apocalypse take shelter in a deserted mall. Famously, the film is Romero’s thinly veiled up-yours to consumerist Western society, to the ‘zombies’ who loll around suburban shopping malls in real life, pressing their noses against store windows in awe at the spectacle of desire.
Now consider the 21st century, in which anyone who wishes to make do with the cycle of covet and consume fed to them via digital television and the internet can indulge in it without ever leaving their armchair. And let’s also spare a thought for the inestimable Charlie Brooker – television critic, commentator, writer and producer, and the man behind such essential viewing as Nathan Barley, Charlie Brooker’s Screenwipe and the late, lamented web-rant TVGoHome. The man, indeed, who said of last winter’s vomiting bug in his feverishly essential Guardian column: ‘If I was running things, it would be dealt with like a zombie outbreak: shoot all victims in the head … then barricade the windows till the end credits roll.’
With a CV and an attitude like that, who better to loosely update the concepts of Romero’s paranoid epic for the credit crunching, future fearing, fame hungry present day? And what better folly for survivors to barricade themselves in this time than the Big Brother house? This stuff might have written itself if Brooker hadn’t come up with Dead Set, a five-part zombie horror meets reality TV epic airing on Channel 4 on consecutive evenings this fortnight. But it wouldn’t have been half as good.
‘Dead Set’s a fairly standard nightmare scenario, in which Britain is overwhelmed by a zombie apocalypse which wipes out pretty much everyone in the country, from hot dog sellers through to the people who pay the wages of hot dog sellers,’ says Brooker, the show’s writer and producer. ‘Just about the only people who aren’t aware of it, initially at least, are a bunch of contestants in a fictional series of Big Brother.
‘In the original Dawn of the Dead, which was sort of a model for this, the setting has obviously got satirical undertones. I would say the same about this, but while you could spend your time watching it thinking “Mmmm, yes, a satirical point”, most of the time you’re going to be thinking, “Help! Here come the zombies!” It’s a scary romp, first and foremost.’
Much like Brooker and Chris Morris’ Nathan Barley, the story of a trust-funded, air-headed Hoxton new media dilettante, which had its start as a recurring gag on TVGoHome with the non listings-friendly title Cunt, Dead Set’s first episode reveals unanticipated depths of drama and characterisation which go well beyond the attention-grabbing log-line – which is, in this case, a simple ‘Big Brother with zombies’.
‘On one level, the fact that it’s set in the Big Brother house is kind of irrelevant, although it also sort of isn’t,’ says Brooker. ‘It’s inspired by shows like 24, so hopefully people will be too involved to sit there and stroke their chins.’
It’s in the horror-thriller department that Brooker has moved furthest away from his regular style. Perhaps surprisingly for a show on the small screen and from a UK channel, Dead Set is genuinely both convincing and frightening, the zombies belonging to the racing, flesh-ripping, adrenaline-crazed type as originated in 28 Days Later, rather than the grey skinned mob so affectionately sent up in Shaun of the Dead. As in the vast majority of zombie films, their origins are, at least initially, not even hinted at – all we need to know is that they’re hungry.
Clearly Brooker has done his research into the genre. ‘I watched a lot of zombie films,’ he says simply. ‘In the original Romero movies, zombies were this big dumb mass of stupidity. The protagonists always get complacent, because these things are shambling around quite slowly and can’t keep up with them, and then by sheer weight of numbers they get overwhelmed. So if you live in a city, you’re surrounded by people constantly, and if you imagine something suddenly afflicted them all, and they were all coming after you, then you’re in big trouble. Except, of course, modern day zombies have evolved, they learnt to run in about 2002. We considered having your old-fashioned, stumbling zombies in this, but it felt more in-keeping with a fast-paced TV thing to have running zombies.’
Reality TV is a genre Brooker is even more familiar with. While he’s never actually worked in the format, Brooker has analysed, deconstructed and slagged it off many times in his Guardian column and on BBC Four’s Screenwipe, even – bizarrely enough – ending up at Glastonbury festival with former evictee Aisleyne Horgan-Wallace for a Guardian piece in 2007. A bunch of former housemates actually appear, which is surely designed as a crowd-pleasing scenario, given the garishly Mika-themed zombie holocaust which is to follow.
‘They were all exceptionally pleasant,’ reflects Brooker. ‘Even the ones I’ve been really rude about in print. In fact, I think the rule is, the ruder you’ve been about someone in print, the nicer they turn out to be, and the bigger an arsehole you feel for having been unpleasant about them. ’
Brooker has the advantage that his production company, Zeppotron, is actually owned by Big Brother’s makers Endemol. He’s quick to point out that he still had absolute creative autonomy in making Dead Set, which surprised him, and also that everyone at the show was only too willing to help. Even the biggest names. ‘You couldn’t have something set at a Big Brother eviction night without Davina,’ he says. ‘She’s in it quite a bit, playing quite an unexpected role, and she’s brilliant. She hurled herself into it, and I think she’ll really surprise people. And wouldn’t you know, I’ve been rude about Davina before – that’s a classic example of someone turning up who’s so incredibly pleasant that you just feel, “Who’s the arsehole in this scenario? It’s definitely me!”’
Strong performances abound throughout – particularly from Jaime Winstone as Kelly, a put-upon young production runner – alongside moments of the blackest humour, and probably the most stomach-churning representation of the old anti-zombie ‘go for the head’ maxim ever. Yet, also, despite Brooker’s earlier protestations about chin-scratching, Dead Set’s use and abuse of so many familiar tropes from British reality TV’s biggest show will undoubtedly alter the perception of anyone watching. It might even, if the pun can be excused, be one more nail in an already tired genre’s coffin.
Dead Set is on Channel 4 from Mon 27 until Fri 31 Oct. The collected DVD of the series is out Mon 3 Nov. The new series of Charlie Brooker's Screenwipe starts Tue 18 Nov, on BBC Four.
Dead Set - How to be subversive on tv
The Sex Pistols may have used the word ‘fuck’ for only the third, fourth and fifth times on British TV. But far more impressive was Professor Gunther von Hagens’ Channel 4 televised autopsy in 2002 – the first public autopsy in 170 years – which received record complaints and very nearly saw him arrested.
Dressing up acerbic, loaded commentary in the paper-thin undergarments of comedy is another effective technique, one pioneered by David Frost and his crew of political commentators on That Was the Week That Was with its groundbreaking lampooning of the 60s establishment. However the 90s was when satire was truly rife, none more so than in the genius of The Day Today and Brass Eye, the spoof news shows which, thanks to the likes of bomb dogs and CAKE, often seemed to make more sense than the real news. See also Blackadder, Armando Iannucci’s The Thick of It, The Simpsons and even Da Ali G Show, which thoroughly exploited the goodwill (or vanity) of people when a camera is pointed at them. On a similar theme but different format, Bo’ Selecta’s sketches mocked the Heat generation’s obsession with celeb culture minutae, attracting criticism for alleged racism, misogyny and wilful puerility along the way – none of which prevented it from being hugely popular.
Post-Brass Eye, Chris Morris took his skewed comic vision to and altogether darker place with Blue Jam – a place momentarily visited decades earlier by the peculiar genius of The Prisoner, Monty Python’s Flying Circus and Spike Milligan’s Q. Vic Reeves’ Big Night Out may have been more about Tommy Cooper or Eric Morecambe than excavating the grim recesses of Milligan’s trouble psyche, but it didn’t make it any less funny.
Monkey around with conventions
The rule book is ripe for rewriting – see Not The Nine O’Clock News for the shake up of sketch comedy – as is the the sacred cow of ‘youth TV’, which started out well, turning heads successfully with The Tube and Network 7 only to later fall foul of its own worthiness, reaching its nadir with The Girlie Show and the short-lived rave-in-a-room at 6.45pm, Dance Energy. The Office deserves credit for implicitly making the suggestion that ‘car crash’ reality TV means we can’t really be shocked by what’s on the box any more. However, souped up, lo-fi versions of Punk’d like Scare Tactics suggest otherwise, as does Brooker’s Dead Set, which sees shock return in earnest, back round in one full, satirical circle.