Black Mirror: ‘The National Anthem’: The Parable of the PM, the Princess and the Pig

 I’ll make no bones about it. I’ve been a fan of Charlie Brooker’s work since I drunkenly stumbled across Screenwipe one night and laughed my backside off at his intelligent, acerbic take on some of the detritus that clutters our tellyboxes, so naturally when I heard about him being at the helm of a new ‘Twilight Zone-esque’ show that will explore the ‘darker side’ of technology and the media, my interest was definitely piqued. Thankfully this first installment, ‘The National Anthem’, didn’t disappoint.

The Premise…

National sweetheart, Susannah the Duchess of Beaumont, has been kidnapped after returning from the wedding of a college friend. Cue frantic phone-call requests for the Prime Minister Michael Callow (Rory Kinnear) to convene a borderline absurd meeting with his advisers in his fetching dressing gown and slippers.  What he’s met with is a horrific YouTube video of the captured Princess laying out the demands of her captor for her safe release, which despite their best efforts to kill it, in the 9 minutes it was freely available online it has already gone viral and begun to trend on Twitter. In order to secure her safety the Prime Minister must have sex with a pig (yes a pig), which will be broadcast live on all terrestrial and satellite channels at 4pm. If the demands are not met the young royal will be executed and her death will be broadcast live for the nation to see. AWKWARD!!!

Princess Susannah

"I am Susannah, Duchess of Beaumont. Popularly known as Princess Susannah. I am in a place you cannot find, held by one you will not trace..."

What actually happened…
After the pre-amble in the Prime Minister’s office we cut to the newsroom of the delightfully generic ‘UKNews’, where the assorted editors and journalists are discussing the pros and cons of not being able to report on the kidnapping because a ‘D-Notice’ has been slapped on British media outlets, an obvious heads up to to the numerous Super-injunctions that have been brought to the fore this year, prohibiting the disclosure of the misdemeanors of a number of celebrities and public figures. (Amusingly one of them is also concerned that OfCom will be on their backs if they discuss bestiality before the 9pm watershed). Despite this, when it becomes apparent that various overseas networks including CNN, Fox and Al-Jazeera have already picked the story up and are running it, they decide to ignore the injunction and run it in the public interest. Initially the details pertaining to the pig are withheld, but soon enough ‘experts’ are beginning to discuss its significance and place in Islamic culture as something base and unclean on the rolling news channels, quickly attributing the abduction to Al-Quaeda or another similar religious extremist group. At the same time reporters canvas public opinion, which at this point is highly supportive of Callow and he’s advised that it’s “Not what England expects. If he kills her there’s no blood on your hands”: basically if he has sex with the pig the terrorists win.

Meanwhile the Prime Minister’s advisers are cultivating Plan B behind his back; consulting an SFX company about mapping his face onto the rather chirpy porn star Rod Senseless’ body, who has seemingly been dragged into the back of a car and taken to a building in the middle of nowhere to do the deed in the place of Callow, evidently unaware that he’s been employed to get jiggy with something with more nipples than the collective of those involved in the bog-standard orgies he’s undoubtedly accustomed to. However the abductor gets wind of the plan and appears to broadcast himself removing one of the beloved Princess’ fingers shortly after he’s sent said finger adorned with her ring to the press in a small box packed with ice. In the wake of this public opinion quickly changes, and finally faced with the real possibility that he’s going to have to get intimate with a sow on live television, which will potentially jeopardize both his family and political life, the PM’s mental state understandably starts to unravel. Not hearing the news wants to, in a fit of rage he ends up slipping his hands round the neck of his Chief adviser Alex Cairns (Lindsay Duncan) in an attempt to throttle her, but just in the nick of time Plan C comes into fruition as evidence that the mastermind behind the abduction may be frequenting an abandoned campus in the middle of nowhere along with Princess Susannah, and so arrangements are quickly made for the Secret Services to storm the building. All the while an illicit text/picture message affair has been going on with someone in the press office and your stereotypical ‘maverick’ journalist, Malika, who bastion of the public interest that she is, isn’t afraid to take naked pictures of herself in the staff toilets in return for a scoop on the story. As a result, when the armed officers raid the building and instead of finding the young Royal, find a mannequin, on hearing a noise they give chase and shoot and wound the journalist who has acted on the information given to her by the idiot in the Press Office and followed them in.

With the mission a failure, and the truly hilarious and constitutionally inaccurate hue and cry from members of the public that, “We can easily live without a Prime Minister, but not a Princess”, urged on by his advisers who can’t guarantee the safety of his family or that a refusal won’t result in insurrection, Callow resigns himself to the fact that he’s going to have to go through with it: “You won’t just be a disgraced politician, you’ll be a despised human being.” In the following scenes that chart the PM’s journey to the studio where he’s to be filmed, various platitudes are afforded to him including that after midnight owning any still or moving images of him engaging in the act will be made illegal, and that shortly before the broadcast a high-frequency tone which induces nausea will be emitted in order to discourage people from watching. The scene where he walks down the corridor to the set is strikingly similar, visually, to numerous prison-centric films where the offender is led to the electric chair or the gallows, something which is underlined by Callow’s statement shortly before he drops his trousers; “I love my wife. May God forgive me.” Here the attention to detail before he actually does the deed is just as unnerving as the few glimpses of the actual act that we do get; the Viagra he’s forced to swallow to make it even possible; the ‘visual aids’ put in place to distract him; that he’s told not to “rush” as it “might be interpreted as eagerness or even enjoyment”; the fact the pig has been sedated and is quietly chomping on it’s food as he enters the studio. Strangely the surrealism of it makes it seem all the more real and horrific, as does the choice not to focus on Callow prevailing himself upon the poor sow, but instead to turn the camera on the reaction of those transfixed to their television screens. Some may be disgusted by it, others might raise their glasses to the screen at the degradation of someone in a position of power, but nobody can tear their eyes away as the streets lay empty for the hour that the broadcast lasts.

Once his ordeal is over, the Prime Minister sits slumped and vomiting in a toilet cubicle, as Cairns learns that the Princess was released half an hour before the broadcast and had been taken by Turner Prize winning performance artist, Carlton Bloom, who had not only cut his own finger off, but never had any intention of harming the young Royal. This was to be his last and most profound piece of work as shortly after releasing her he hung himself before the authorities could get to him. Realizing that her boss has just subjected himself needlessly to a heinous act, Cairns tells a co-worker to lose the last page of the report that states Susannah had been freed before Callow had even made his way into the studio, keeping him from becoming a laughing stock, and most likely both of them in a job.

So what of the PM’s state of mind after having to engage in such an act? We’re propelled exactly a year into the future and things seem to be going well as he stands shoulder to shoulder with his wife and jovially kicks a ball around in a sports hall with the generic roll-call of grinning kids, as the the news reporter announces that his popularity rating has risen 3 points in comparison with 12 months earlier. But what about when the cameras aren’t rolling? The final scene is of Callow shouting up to his wife Jane as she ignores him and continues to walk up the stairs back at their private residence. Evidently he may be somewhat of a national hero, but whilst we came in with the Prime Minister ensconced in his marital bed, the final shot is of a couple divided and a private life in tatters. As is the theme that seems to permeate ‘The National Anthem’, there’s always more than meets the eye, especially when the image we’re looking at is framed by a camera held by someone who wants to shape and influence our point of view.

The Verdict…

I’ve seen a few people criticize ‘The National Anthem’ for simultaneously being unrealistic and sensationalist. These people are idiots. Well ok, maybe not idiots, but people who fail to understand the the purpose and function of satire, which by it’s nature seeks to highlight and exaggerate a fatal flaw(s) in public life that must be addressed. Saying that Brooker’s work here is unrealistic not only fails to acknowledge it’s ‘billed’ basis in an alternate reality, but is akin to criticizing Swift for kidding people that there’s a tribe of Borrower-sized ‘little people’ who exist just a boat ride away in Gulliver’s Travels. Forget the fornicating with a pig thing, this episode of Black Mirror charted just how feckless, and at the same time, how cunning those in a position of power (both government and the media) can be when presented with a situation they don’t know how to deal with. With new media and the advent of social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook, containing the spread of information is a bit like trying to catch water in your hands;- there’s bound to be drops that get away. The packaging and bow with which it’s presented is far more important in relation to the tide of public opinion, and here Bloom the performance artist was king, anticipating and manipulating individuals to his own specification, as they ran round in circles chasing their tails in an effort to second guess him. The reason why the artist had so much influence was because he managed to wield the hefty weapon of mob mentality, which he evidently understood better than any of the numerous Public Relations officers who sought to advise Callow, turning the PM initially from a generally perceived empathetic public figure potentially into a hated monter. As his wife, tells him,”We love humiliation. We can’t not laugh”and here Brooker taps into something that extends way back to the crowd either condemning or saving the life of the gladiator with their thumbs up or thumbs down, long before we were glaring at Plasma screens for hours on end or downloading endless apps onto our IPhones. We enjoy watching other people’s misfortune, just so long as a. we’re not the ones in the firing line and b. we don’t have to take responsibility for it. The technology may have advanced, but we remain pretty much the same.

So was ‘The National Anthem’ perfect? Well no. The storyline with the journalist infiltrating the Press Office seemed a little forced and half-baked, but I’m guessing this had a lot to do with time constraints on the forty-something minute format. Also I’m not entirely sure if it ended on the strongest dramatic beat, even if it did allow us to come full-circle. Nevertheless this was an extremely promising start to a series that looks like it will offer intelligent, darkly funny and thought-provoking relief, amidst a sea of mind-numbing reality shows, repeats and generic police/medical/legal dramas.

Final Question…
I’ve been wracking my brains as to what the title actually refers to. Is it just to do with the generalized sense of national identity that allowed people to conform to the idea that a well-loved member of the Royal family alone is so precious, their premiere politician would/could legitimately be forced to have sex with a pig in order to secure her safety? Or does it relate to something more specific? Answers on a postcard to the usual address.

Next week…
They take the p*ss out of every talent show ever, (but specifically The X-Factor), and Rupert Everett makes a comeback as Jason Gardiner of Dancing on Ice ‘fame’.



About Optimistindisguise

I blog therefore I am. I think.
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