Charlie Brooker Interview: You Have Been Watching
The man who has built a successful career and cult following from acutely observing and irately criticising the output of our television industry is about to switch sides, in a way.
Of course he was always on the telly offering his opinions on the best and worst of the week’s viewing. But the format (Brooker sat in front of his TV in what appeared to be his front room) helped create a persona that we could all related to. Brooker was an everyman struggling to find sense in the ceaseless outpouring of cultural effluent that so often comprises mainstream programming.
We all been there, screaming mindlessly at an advert or a programme that offends every sensibility we hold dear.
Now, however, Brooker is about to embark on something altogether different; the hunter may be about to become the hunted.
In his new guise Brooker is turning presenter for a new TV show You Have Been Watching, whose format is closer to a panel show video diary.
There will be guests, an audience and autocues which begs the question; has Brooker sold his soul to the God of Television?
Tell me about the concept of You Have Been Watching. What’s the idea for the show?
It’s me and some guests, looking at the best and worst of TV, with me asking the questions, in a loose quiz show format. Hopefully people will laugh. It’s largely about the TV that’s been on that week, but also we will be delving into the past, and also craning our necks over the hedge to see what’s going on, on TV around the rest of the world. We’re also doing a bit that’s like a book club for TV – a sort of TV club – where we’re inviting viewers to watch a particular show and then tell us what they think of it. That’s modern and interactive, isn’t it?!
What kind of shows will you feature for the TV club. Will it be dramas and entertainment shows, or deep philosophical documentaries from BBC4?
Clearly nothing but the latter! Very dry documentaries about the history of harpsichord-making. I think it’ll be anything that particularly catches our eye. It won’t necessarily be something awful and gaudy. I know people often think that I just shout and scream at the TV screen, but I appreciate that there’s good bits. So it’ll be a real mix.
Is presenting in front of a live studio audience a new thing for you?
I did a pilot, so I’m well aware that it’s like having a nervous breakdown. You randomly talk out loud and people stare at you. It’s mentally a very interesting process.
Do you find it quite stressful?
It’s weird. I’ve done a couple of panel shows, like Have I Got News For You, and the first time you do something like that, it’s an experience like taking LSD and then talking to somebody else’s parents and trying to pretend you’re not on LSD – there’s a voice screaming in your head, but you’re trying to act like there isn’t. But it’s a weird experience to host a studio show. You’ve got three guests, an autocue, you’ve got the dynamics of the show you’ve got to drive on, you’ve got to hold a conversation with these guests, and you’ve got instructions coming into your ear via an earpiece. As a sensory experience, it’s probably pretty similar to what I imagine a full-blown psychotic mental breakdown would feel like. But also weirdly exhilarating – I can see why people do it.
Has the experience made you more appreciative of the skills of TV presenters in general?
Yeah, I suppose so. I did some TV presenting before I ever wrote about television. I co-presented a gadget show on BBC Knowledge in about 1998, in my previous guise as a games writer. So I’ve always understood that it’s a weird job. I think sometimes people have a false impression about what I write. I can be quite rude about people, but I think I tend to be quite fair about it. I’m aware that, if you’re a presenter, the chances are you’re not writing your own scripts, they’re doing what they’re told most of the time. So if there’s a problem with the programme, it’s not necessarily their fault. But it’s certainly made me realise that appearing at ease while doing that sort of thing is, I guess, either something that you can do or you can’t. It’s such an odd experience. By all accounts I looked at ease when I was doing the pilot, but we shall see. Maybe the first episode will consist of nothing but me weeping.
Can you confirm any guests that you’ve got lined up?
We’ve got people like David Mitchell coming on, and Frankie Boyle. But it won’t necessarily be just the type of people you’d expect on a panel show. There will be quite a few people from the world of telly, not necessarily comedians. This is much more mainstream than the stuff I usually do, things like Screenwipe, where I’m angrily sitting around in my own filth. This time I’ll be angrily sitting around in my own filth in a studio.
You’ve been writing about television for a long time. Could it be that some of your studio guests are people you’ve not written very complimentary things about in the past?
Possibly. And if that’s the case then I’ll probably find out that they’re really nice. That’s always how the equation works – if you’re really horrible about someone in print and then you meet them, they turn out to be really gracious about it, and pleasant, and then you feel like a prick.
How much TV would you say you watch?
Probably a lot less than people think. When I’m doing a series, obviously I end up watching a lot, but in between series I probably watch less than the average person. What I tend to watch is selected – I often tend to see the extremes, I guess – the very good and the very bad.
Can you ever just sit back and enjoy watching TV, or do you find you’ve always got your critical faculties analysing everything?
When people describe me as a TV critic, I always look behind me and wonder who they’re talking about. In my head I just write stupid stuff, and sometimes the subject matter just happens to be television. You Have Been Watching won’t be us sitting around dryly debating whether so-and-so is giving a brilliant performance – this won’t be a piece of criticism so much as hopefully amusing conversation that spins off as a result of watching something – which is exactly what people do when they’re watching TV. Other people can do more academic criticism. I’m more interested in dicking around.
What would you say have been the best TV shows in your lifetime?
Oh God, there have been loads. In different periods of your life you like different things. If you asked me when I was six, I’d have said Tiswas, probably. Now? The Day Today. What else? I’m always banging on about The Wire. There’s so many. Monty Python. There have been so many great shows it’s really hard to pick them out.
Do you think the great traditions of TV are being upheld? Are we still quite good at making TV?
Yes and no. There’s a lot more television in general than there used to be – there’s an unsustainable amount, I would have thought. 98 per cent of anything is pretty much average, be it food, be it music, be it people – and two per cent is great. We’ve got loads more TV, so obviously there’s loads more cruddy TV around, which is grist to the mill for programmes like ours, which can look at some of the extremes and find them quite funny. But there’s also more good TV around. There’s shows like The Wire. I thought Red Riding on Channel 4 recently was brilliant. Twas ever thus, there’s always been a lot of crud and a small amount of quality.
Talking of the crud, what are your real pet hates with regards to TV?
I can be scathing about things, but I only get actually genuinely angry on rare occasions. It’s quite funny to be disproportionately angry with something quite throwaway that you can just turn over. I get genuinely angry when I see things like TV psychics, that’s a pet hate. I don’t like shows that encourage people to have plastic surgery. Things like that annoy me. Directly giving somebody bad advice I think is pretty poor. Sometimes there will be presenters I just can’t stand. Jeremy Kyle, there’s a good example. There’s somebody who’s horrible, but he’s so horrible I find him amusing.
You Have Been Watching is on Channel 4 on Tuesdays at 10pm from 7 July. Click here to request an alert.