Right. So before I get into the details of the incident itself, I need to fill you in on some background.
I’ve known about Charlie Brooker probably since I received a copy of TVGoHome from my friend, Alex, when I must’ve been about 17. It was a collection of absurd imaginary TV shows, put together like a copy of Radio Times.
My most vivid memory of it is certainly his description of ‘Wanking for Coins’: “apocalyptic fun as Rowland Rivron tours the seedy backstreets of London’s West End persuading the homeless to commit acts of self-degradation in exchange for pennies.” I later realised how much this particular nugget meant to Charlie too – read for yourself.
There were plenty of reasons why I loved ‘Wanking for Coins’: because I didn’t realise you were allowed to publish something as bluntly juvenile as this, because there was a solid political message hiding behind the gag, and just because it was vaguely videogamey (Mario did many things for coins, but never this).
I wouldn’t have described myself as a massive Charlie Brooker fan at that point, though I later discovered he had his mitts in a lot of things I loved: The 11 O’Clock Show, Brass Eye, Nathan Barley…
But it was only during the first season of Black Mirror that I became obsessed.
It kicked off with ‘The National Anthem’ – yes, the one with the pig-fucking prime minister – and it soon became obvious to anyone paying any attention that this show was a big deal. That short season of 3 slick, dark, viciously funny episodes came as a bit of a revelation to me. It was like a love affair between Philip K Dick and Armando Iannucci, with Kurt Vonnegut watching impishly from behind a sofa.
I knew I wanted to do stuff like this. I wanted to write sci-fi that was this high-concept and haunting. I wanted to write Black Mirror episodes. So it was then when I started in earnest to study the previous works of Charlie Brooker.
I went back over Nathan Barley and Dead Set. I dusted off my now very old copy of TVGoHome. I read everything I could about Black Mirror: its genesis, its production – even the fan suggestions for future episodes. I obsessively followed @CharltonBrooker on Twitter and tried my hardest to get into Charlie Brooker’s head.
I already had form for getting obsessed with writers, what with having immersed myself in Ludwig Wittgenstein in order to write the Wittgenstein Tweets. I’ve long realised that I have a particular interest in climbing into the skin of another person, moving as they would move, writing as they would write.
As I consumed more and more of Charlie Brooker’s material, I wrote some creepy, head-fucky sci-fi scripts. I sent them off to a large number of production companies and received back an embarrassingly equal number of rejections.
So imagine how freaked out I was when Season 2 of Black Mirror aired, and I basically saw one of my new scripts – which I hadn’t shown to anybody – brought to life in Episode 1, ‘Be Right Back’. The title was different (mine: ‘Home for Tea’), the characters’ names were different, but the ingredients were all the same: the personality of an injured man transferred to the software of a robot, by the same series of logical steps. I can picture the room I saw it in now – sitting next to my flatmate Ben, a tumbler of orange squash on the table to my left – as I saw my plot points develop and my lines (or near enough) be spoken.
The experience was uncanny, certainly, but also uplifting. Here was my script, which I’d assumed was going to follow the same trajectory of rejection and self-publishing on my website (where, it has to be said, my mum did, without fail, ‘Like’ it – thanks mum), but now broadcast to a million people. So what if Charlie Brooker had ‘beaten me to it’? I had also written that thing.
Before then, my confidence in my writing had been waning. But having found fresh validation from this experience, I plugged away harder and faster at writing another script. When the other two episodes of Black Mirror came out I devoured them.
My study of Charlie Brooker’s work ramped up. I scoured an archived copy of the TVGoHome website for sci-fi premises. I was not arrogant enough to think I could fully understand Charlie, but simply that by immersion I could emulate him. His attention to detail, his savage cynicism, his self-doubt, his scathing wit.
I sent some scripts off. No bites. It’s very hard for a new writer to make it in the industry – just look at all the hard work Charlie himself had to do, hacking away as a video-game journalist and TV journalist, until he had built a name for himself.
After about a year of determined work, to be honest I was ready to give up. A sad joke between me and my friends was that the closest I’d come to success had been not writing that one Black Mirror episode.
In a last ditch attempt, I found out where Charlie lived and I passed him a couple of times, just on the weekends. We are both Londoners so it was easy enough. I thought that maybe being close to him might set off a few final creative sparks that’d fuse together the loose wires of the stories I’d been working on. He went into London Zoo with his wife and young sons, and I followed close behind them. I felt a bit ashamed of it all so I left them after a couple of minutes, by the penguins.
I thought this was the end of a chapter of my life and I started to think about other writers I could study. But then I saw that there’d be a Christmas Special of Black Mirror and I couldn’t resist asking myself: what would I write for it?
In a frantic writing frenzy lasting just under 5 days I turned out the first draft of what I was calling ‘Black Christmas’. The show that aired the very next day, on the 16th December 2014, was Charlie Brooker’s ‘White Christmas’. The similarities were remarkable. Both portmanteau, both with the same framing device, both featuring people-eternally-living-in-household-appliances, and almost exactly the same ending. By this point I was living by myself and I had nobody to show my script to, but as I watched it I was almost reading along to my own printed words.
I didn’t find this experience uplifting, as before. It was so unsettling it made my hair stand on end. I knew from that point on that something profoundly strange was happening: that it could not be dismissed as mere coincidence or as an understandable consequence of my immersion in his works. Somehow I’d tapped into whatever he’d tapped into. There was a danger and a darkness to it, like I had at my fingertips a potent and untested new kind of alchemy.
I also started to feel the insidious creep of resentment. Why was Charlie Brooker lauded, while I had nothing?
Was this to be my destiny: to be forever one step behind Charlie Brooker, matching his movements in the shadows?
I made a few miserable attempts to contact Charlie. When finally I explained in all frankness how I’d written pretty much the same script for ‘White Christmas’, an unnamed assistant replied with a curt, “Perhaps a nice idea for an episode itself? Sorry but this isn’t for us.”
So I put everything into writing the scripts before he did and getting them published. My plan was to write the scripts and publish them on my website well before they were aired, so that I could convince anyone and everyone that they were my original scripts, just as much as his.
But alas! I was always too late. I struggled through such creative anguish up to the airing of Season 3. Looking back, I can see that it was during those two long years when all of my friendships gradually disintegrated, as I allowed a greater and greater proportion of myself to become possessed by the spirit of Charlie Brooker.
I would write a fragment of a script, know it wasn’t good enough, discard it, and repeat this process, again and again, all the while ransacking Charlie Brooker’s past for hidden insights. I was creating good sci-fi but it wasn’t good enough. I was getting closer and closer to his writing, but it never felt close enough. I didn’t just want to elicit snide comments about it being neat fan-fic. I needed people to see that I could do it precisely as well as him.
After a final burst of effort I succeeded in uploading my drafts of all 6 episodes of Season 3, just a couple of hours before their simultaneous worldwide release in December 2017. I watched all 6 without pause, alone and in darkness through the middle of the night, multiple previous drafts of my scripts strewn across my bedroom. 2 of my episodes were a little off the mark. 3 were close enough to send shivers down my spine. But ‘San Junipero’ was the closest fit. I’ll never forget the experience of watching that episode – that comforting feeling of a key fitting perfectly into a lock. It was literally exactly the same script, except two alternative lines and three typos. I’d done it. I’d provided proof that I had really written Black Mirror episodes.
I lurked in the forums where I’d uploaded my scripts. Nothing came. The few enthusiasts who bothered to check out my claims just supposed I’d had a minor role on the production team and due to some disgruntlement had leaked the scripts. No recognition, no acclaim.
The logic of my situation was inescapable. It applies in many fields, from athletics to invention: You can be very good at something, but if you are just slightly slower than somebody better, you’re nothing. I was doomed to write slightly slower than Charlie Brooker – just by a few months, considering when he must’ve finished the scripts prior to filming.
After a few long months of despondency, I idly re-attempted to get in contact with him. To my shock, he replied to an email sent via his agent, and soon we were WhatsApping. I was as clear and calm about my predicament as I could’ve been. He showed interest, but in a sort of placid Louis-Theroux-when-talking-to-a-weirdo way.
Then one very cold January morning I got what I thought was my big break: an invitation to talk directly to Charlie, and at his home no less. He wanted to meet me that evening, when his family would be out at the cinema (Disney’s Coco). He wanted to compare scripts for Season 4. I was delighted. My evidence would be undeniable.
I suppose the fact I took the knife implies I had considered that as an eventuality. After all, what did I realistically expect to happen when he saw my scripts?
When we met at his door, he was welcoming and affable. He didn’t seem on edge, or simmering with rage, like you see him on TV. We walked through a wide hallway into a living room that was clearly the home of a family. When I saw the various signs of family life – scatterings of Duplo animals, colourful sippy cups, silly family photos – the reality of the darker contingencies I’d entertained caught up with me. Before, these had just been the fantasies of a frustrated man holed up at the computer. Here, just the thought of them filled me with shame.
It has to be said we got on pretty well. We briefly chit-chatted and I showered him with praise for his achievements (which were essentially my achievements too). He got me some diet cola. He naughtily broke into his kids’ jammy dodgers, saying he’d blame me for it later.
But then we came to it. My scripts for Season 4. I brought out my versions of ‘Arkangel’, ‘Hang the DJ’, and ‘Crocodile’ (only Charlie and me know the full reason why ‘Crocodile’ is called ‘Crocodile’). As soon as he saw the titles, excitement flashed across his eyes. This excitement seemed to give way to confusion and then plain fear. He took some time to steady his nerves, and then he described my scripts as, “The weirdest fucking weird things I’ve ever seen.”
But when we went through portions of the scripts, we were soon chatting about them like those lifelong writer pals on ‘Best Of’ shows. I shared my inspirations for ‘Crocodile’: witnessing a car accident and wondering how reliable my memories of it were. Reading Crime and Punishment probably had something to do with it too. I liked the idea that if you kept something in your memory that you didn’t want anybody else to see, you might have to commit an escalating series of crimes to conceal it. Charlie did lots of murmuring in agreement. I talked about how I’d agonised over the coherence of using multiple simulated selves in ‘Hang the DJ’, and how it didn’t quite work as well as in ‘White Christmas’. Neither of us thought we’d cracked how to do something similar in ‘USS Callister’ (there was an issue with the memory of the protagonist). I confessed I hadn’t finished that one yet and he barked a huge laugh and said it was doing his fucking nut in.
This went on for some time. Throughout it all, he was sitting hunched forward in this dark blue armchair, leafing through what I presumed were his own scripts, confirming passages as I read them out and nodding in agreement.
But we came to the end of the jammy dodgers, the conversation dried out, and thoughts that had been lurking at the back of my mind crawled forwards.
My imagination fleetingly lit up with visions of Charlie and me collaborating on writing scripts like best buddies, throwing about zany ideas and preparing for our joint-acceptance speech at the BAFTAs. But the ominous silence in the room reminded me this was not to be.
“We can’t just work together, can we?” I said, grimly.
“I can’t see how that’d work,” Charlie said, just as grim.
My next move seemed inescapable. A part of me had known all along that it was the real reason why I had come. Charlie Brooker was not in need of a shadow. A walking, talking photocopier was of no use to him. And Charlie Brooker was of no use to me. He was the only obstacle in my path to acceptance.
I had emulated him entirely and now I needed to replace him entirely. He had had his turn in the spotlight and now it was time for mine. Killing Charlie Brooker seemed to me the only logical step forward that’d free me from a fate as a mere doppelgänger – a nobody.
In the dreadful silence we held each others’ gaze. There was something animalistic there: like two stags preparing for combat. I stood up ever so slowly. I held one hand out defensively and with the other I drew out the knife.
“It’s not personal, Charlie,” I said.
There was a horror in his eyes. I moved slowly towards him as he squirmed in his armchair. He held his scripts up like some futile shield.
And then something I’ll never forget. He chuckled. First lightly, quietly, a thin smile creeping over his face, but then louder. Jollier.
Confused and terrified by his reaction, I jabbed the air in front me with the knife. I was trying to be menacing. He did not react. Instead he rose from his chair and calmly waved his scripts at me. He slowly turned the pages over so I could see what was written on them.
All of his pages were blank.
Charlie’s chuckle turned into a cackle – a kind of villain-who-you-thought-was-defeated-but-has-really-won cackle. I don’t remember what happened to my knife. It must’ve slipped from my hand. I felt powerless.
“Let me show you where I do my writing,” Charlie said calmly.
He took a few confident strides over to the door of a cupboard under the stairs. I expected it to be jammed full of coats and shoes. He opened the door and took a step back so I could see all the way inside.
There in front of me was a vast unending corridor. Dark and torch-lit at regular intervals, it stretched as far as I could see. Now overcome with a sense of utter dread, I drifted over the threshold, into its narrow stone-walled confines. Charlie loomed behind me. On both sides of the corridor was an endless series of iron-barred cells.
And in each cell a person. I looked from one hollow face to another: they were mostly male, bearded, sort of geeky. Sort of like Charlie. Sort of like me. They each had a typewriter.
“Hiya Annabel,” I heard him say cheerfully into his phone, “I’ve just had an idea for a new episode. Probably complete shit, but maybe not. I call it ‘Crocodile’. I’ll send it over soon and if you’ve got a sec you can read it on the toilet or something. Ciao.”
He hung up and he led me into a cell. Looking back, it seems strange I did not put up any fight. But I was in such shock that his self-assurance was hypnotising. There was an inevitability about my motions, like the unthinking actions you perform when you are so tired you put yourself to sleep.
“The great thing for you about this set-up is you can keep writing,” he said. “Just like everyone else here.”
The inhabitants of my neighbouring cells sort of awkwardly said hi. They’d clearly met new faces here before. Many, many times.
Charlie slammed the iron-barred door shut behind me and locked it. “I’ll take anything: tweets, gags, wipes, Black Mirrors, quirky new sit-coms. I’m not fussy about what you choose to work on. Oh, but one thing – you’ve got to make a certain fraction of the viewers believe they can do it too. Inspire them, enthral them, and I’ll leave them writing out in the wild as long as possible to make them hungrier and hungrier.” He was almost licking his lips. “I was watching you for some time. Waiting until you’d peaked. And now,” he said, holding up my scripts, “no offence, but you probably have peaked.” He began to walk away, calling over his shoulder, “So don’t worry if you drop dead in the middle of writing an episode, some other twat here will write it anyway. Cheers.”
Then he left me here, along with hundreds of others just like me, who had ended up here by following similar paths to me. I was to write for him and bring him new writers. I had nothing else to do. So I wrote.
I have been in the Charlie Brooker prison for a few months now, I think. Time has lost its meaning. In the cell to my right is the emaciated frame of the man who wrote about 12 minutes of a Nathan Barley episode. To my left is a woman who wrote Black Mirror Season 2’s ‘The Waldo Moment’. She’s still filled with regrets about it having too many moving parts. Opposite me is a cell where a couple who wrote ‘Fifteen Million Merits’ used to be, but they got burned out editing ‘Black Museum’ and I think they’re dead now.
If we don’t write any good content, there’s really no reason for Charlie to keep us around. Each new writer here needs to inspire and seduce another, more cynical and bleak than the last. Moths brought to the flame, our wings are burning and drawing in more.
Thus the long-term prospects of Black Mirror are strong.
Charlie says there’s a pathetic penniless writer in Solihull who is working on some dark-as-hell self-referential Choose Your Own Adventure episode. He’s meeting them tomorrow.
Each month he runs a mock award ceremony and chooses a Best Writer. He chucks chocolate coins at the winner through the bars. “Writing for coins!” he giggles. It’s his little joke. He does like to joke.
Why has he let me publish this piece? We think he’s getting cocky. A part of him now wants to be found out. But he knows that nobody will believe a tale as ludicrous as this, which makes it all the more delicious for him. We have created so many endless torments in our fictions that this foul truth will seem like just another. Our myriad cries for help will come to nought.
We hope you enjoy the show.