“Wow! Zombies! Brilliant!”

Graham Kibble-White interviews Charlie Brooker

First published October 2008

Charlie Brooker

Charlie Brooker

On Monday 27 October, E4 screens TV critic and writer Charlie Brooker’s zombie drama, Dead Set. The show’s unique selling point is – for the first episode at least – the action is based around the C4 reality behemoth, Big Brother. As the UK falls foul to a plague of the undead, it seems the only people unaffected are the BB contestants and the show’s lowly runner, played by Jaime Winstone.

OTT collared Brooker at the series’ press launch…

OTT: Do you like the horror genre?


OTT: So did you know you wanted to do a zombie film, or something like that?

CHARLIE BROOKER: It’s not something I grew up thinking I want to write a schlock-drama piece of entertainment along those lines. Literally, I was watching 24 and I thought it would be better with zombies. Once I had the idea it was annoying me that no-one had done it. And I thought, it would really annoy me if someone did do it, and it wasn’t me. A bit like inventing a new whisk and having to manufacture it yourself before someone else does. That’s a terrible analogy! That’s like the worst analogy ever!

OTT: Can you remember the moment when you thought you’d bring Big Brother in. Were you watching a particular episode?

CHARLIE BROOKER: I can’t remember. It was a long time ago that we… the first draft episode of this was written in about 2005. It was the series of Big Brother with Science and Derek Laud and Maxwell and Saskia. I’d just been watching that, and I think it’s the perfect setting. It’s a funny setting and it’s a contemporary setting. And, obviously, there’s the satirical undercurrents going on there. The original Dawn of the Dead, the thing I felt with that was, you could watch it and go, “Oh yes, it’s a comment on capitalist consumer society”, or you could just watch it and go, “Wow! Zombies! Brilliant!”. I just thought it was the modern equivalent of that.

OTT: So could it have been set in The X-Factor?

CHARLIE BROOKER: Well, the problem with that is The X-Factor doesn’t really have a house, and all zombie films end up being a siege. So you need a setting. Although, we did joke that if we had a follow up series we’d set it in I’m a Celebrity… but, er, that would be nauseating.

OTT: Would it have been crap if you hadn’t got Big Brother and had to make up a generic BB-alike?

CHARLIE BROOKER: It wouldn’t have necessarily made much difference to the overall series, but if you were doing that – probably for legal reasons – you’d have to explain why it wasn’t Big Brother. And make up rules of the show. The advantage of doing it with an existing show is everyone knows how it works, and everyone’s got an opinion on it already. So you don’t need to explain. And everyone knows the sort of person who goes on Big Brother. So you don’t need to have scenes going, “God, you know that show that’s really popular, Grand Sister…”. You don’t have any of that. So it’s useful if you’re lazy like me.

OTT: Will it tap into love or hatred for BB?

CHARLIE BROOKER: I think people who are already predisposed towards liking Big Brother will probably come to this and see it as a fun romp. And those who hate it will be rubbing their hands in glee. I did look at where people are chatting about it online. They were saying, “I see, it’s a satire in which Big Brother is going to keep running, but no-one’s going to notice that they’re all zombies”, or, “It’s going to say everyone watching the show is a zombie”. The housemates in this are treated quite respectfully. There’s a lot of hatred that’s automatically aimed at any contestant who goes on a reality show. And I do it in print myself quite a lot. It’s quite good – free people to slag off in an amusing way. But ultimately I don’t quite understand the point to which people feel they’re superior. And start hating people just because, well, “They’re fame-hungry! They sicken me! We should throw them to the lions!” I don’t quite have that mentality, because if you’re 22 and got quite a boring job, why not fucking go on a reality show? It’s probably more interesting than watching one.

OTT: Would you?

CHARLIE BROOKER: No, because of the toilet arrangements. I think everyone’s got a little egotistical part of their head that sort of goes, “I wonder how I’d fare in the Big Brother house?”. But I know I couldn’t go because if I’m sharing a small bungalow with people and there’s one loo, I can’t bear it. I have to wait till they’ve all gone to bed before I’ll have a shit. Knowing there’s cameras around, I just wouldn’t be able to poo. I’d probably start ingesting my own faeces… That’s a horrible answer!

OTT: On both Dead Set and Screen Wipe, you’re quite negative about the TV industry. How do you feel being a part of it?

CHARLIE BROOKER: I was quite keen on making the heroine in Dead Set a runner. There are a lot of people who are keen to get into TV and they start on the bottom rung. And really, you have to work like pigs. It’s not glamorous at all. It’s fetching coffees and dealing with some twat like me having a fit because they’ve brought me Diet Coke instead of normal Coke, or whatever. And a lot of people, I think, drop out and don’t make it because of that. A lot of television is hard, unglamorous work.

OTT: But do you think it’s nasty?

CHARLIE BROOKER: Do I think it’s nasty?

OTT: That’s how it comes across in Dead Set.

CHARLIE BROOKER: I think it can be a nasty profession to work in. Weirdly, with this, because it’s a sort of fictional Big Brother going on, we were given a free rein to do what we wanted. No-one said, “Oh, you can’t do that! You can’t depict a producer like that!”. Clearly, Dead Set is a massive exaggeration of what it’s like. I was going out with a girl who was working on the first series of Big Brother and it struck me that it was like – I think this is true of any production – it was like a cult, where there was a bubble of people. It becomes their life and takes up every hour God sends. Whether that’s nasty or exploitative, I don’t know, because there are so many opportunities in that. The industry is probably more boring graft than nasty, I would say… But I don’t know, I started out as a writer and sort of came in sideways. Yeah, it probably is! It’s probably fucking hell!

OTT: Was it boring graft to work on this? Doing rewrites and the like?

CHARLIE BROOKER: That side of things is quite boring, rewriting things against a very tight deadline. I’ve worked on things before, just not to this degree, but what struck me is how many people are involved. And if any one of those departments wasn’t functioning at its full output, you’d have a really problem. People always say it, but I can’t fault anyone on this show. A lot of people think we used the Big Brother house, but we didn’t. They had to build one.

OTT: Why didn’t you use the real one?

CHARLIE BROOKER: It wouldn’t have been practical. We need more space to fit the camera crew inside it as well. And also they were rebuilding it for Big Brother 9 at the time, so there wasn’t any way we could have feasibly done it. Our director, Yann Demange, has had a big influence on the project. He’s a force of nature who had a lot of say in shaping the story. He came in, read the first episode, loved it and got on board. He then read the second. “I don’t like it!”. And I was like, “Who the fuck’s this guy?”. But it spurned me on to rewrite it. I think he’s had a big influence over the way the programme is shaped. It changes quite a lot. It starts out very 24, with plates spinning and a trail of breadcrumbs. But as we get to episode four and five it gets… well, I’ll be intrigued to see people’s reactions.

OTT: The scene where Big Brother stops – all the crew are dead and the housemates are alone, but don’t know it. You must have been looking forward to writing that.

CHARLIE BROOKER: Yes. And the original idea was to keep that going for quite a long time. But then, really, you think, no. They’re so aware that if the cameras weren’t moving, they’d notice very quickly. So, it seemed more interesting to have them click straight away. The year of Celebrity Big Brother when George Galloway was in it, for research for this – because that’s how long I’ve been working on it – I went down to the camera run. It’s really creepy, like an aquarium with these dumb creatures staring at you from behind glass. Although, they can’t really see you, they’re not really aware that you’re there. You sort of felt like you were a ghost, because every so often they’d look you right in the eye, and you’d just instinctively freeze. But actually they were looking at themselves. So I thought it was a scary situation to have something [a zombie] in there that they couldn’t see, watching them. And also, when Jaime’s character goes in, they think she’s a housemate and it’s part of the show. Contestants go on that show to feel a bit more special than the general public, and obviously, our lot are much more special than the public now [who've all turned into the undead]! They’re way above them.

OTT: Was it tough to get Davina McCall on board?

CHARLIE BROOKER: It was quite straightforward. I sort of assumed it wouldn’t be. Because, as the programme goes on, she’s in an undead form quite a lot. She’s actually one of our best zombies. It’s quite interesting because when you’re casting them you get people who can do it, and people who can’t. And she really can. I think she found it quite cathartic. She was surprisingly up for it. We just asked and she said she’d love to do it. She completely threw herself into it. You couldn’t fault her. A lot of her stuff was completely improvised. She had to do a whole interview with an evicted housemate, and improvise that. Obviously she does that every week, but it’s a weird situation – normally it’s live and she knows who the person is. But here it was an actress.

OTT: Was it tempting to make it more of a comedy?

CHARLIE BROOKER: Weirdly in doing a lot of the pre-publicity, we’ve been keen to shy away from the comedy. Although there are quite a lot of jokes in there, it’s a different angle from Shaun of the Dead. And I love Shaun of the Dead, but in that they’re kind of aware they’re in a zombie film. But with this, it’s an odd tone and even when we were making it, I wasn’t sure if it was going to work. We’re trying to be really scary, and then there are bits where we’ve got a zombie in a wheelchair. I hope we’ve managed to pull it off. The original drafts were very humourless and everyone was quite po-faced in it. It was very 24, and in that a lot of the language is very functional – apart from the soap opera bits. But, as it went on, we thought we can get a bit stupider.