If you’d asked me last week what I thought of Charlie Brooker, I would’ve said to you that I thought he used to be funny but that he wasn’t as funny as he used to be. If you’d pushed me for examples of what, in particular, contributed to my sense of a decline I’d say (a) the Screen Burn column in which he apologised for insulting celebrities, (b) the Ten O’Clock Show, (c) that ridiculous ‘really, dude, what is that haircut all about?’ haircut and (d) A Touch of Cloth (which was frankly terrible). Not wishing to be black and white I’d then qualify and say I really enjoyed the first three collections of his columns (Dawn of the Dumb, Screen Burn and The Hell of it All), Nathan Barley, Dead Set and Black Mirror and the various Wipe shows. I’d then further qualify my first set of comments, pointing out a column within I Can Make You Hate in which he has a go at Live from Channel 5, a rubbishy Channel 5 show fronted by Melinda Messenger, Kate from The Apprentice and Ian Wright – and ask ‘isn’t the 10 o’clock show merely the Channel 4 equivalent?’ (Don’t answer, we’ll just nod and quietly agree amongst ourselves.)
I’d then wish to introduce – in the form of an Exhibit A – the contents of I Can Make You Hate as evidence of the way in which Brooker has changed (because, arguably, he changes more within the pages of this book than he has done within the pages of the previous three). Where once he railed against celebrity (there is a column in one of the previous books in which he talks about how his anonymity cloaks him and allows him to get away with saying all of the nasty shit he had a habit of saying once upon a time), he now rails against broad, hard to define groups of the public (a great many of whom would never read him) in a way that is ever so slightly fish and barrel (people who read the Mail are daft aren’t they? etc). His vacillations are also less amusing than they used to be – so, again, within the pages of I Can Make You Hate, he rails against iPhone zealots and then becomes one, rails against people whose only topic of conversation is their kids and then has a kid (who he says he’s only going to talk about once before then writing a column having a go at the people who had a go at him for going back on his word when he then went on to write another column on his kid) and rails against sport (as he has before, to admittedly hilarious effect) before jogging. And writing a column about jogging.
Now, if you’re not mad, you’ll at least be asking by now, Jesus, so the guy bought a phone, had a kid and started jogging. It’s hardly enough to warrant a place at the Nuremberg Trials is it? And the fact is – much if not most of I Can Make You Hate is hilarious. Brooker has a great voice and can fashion a terrific turn of phrase. He has a way with a snarky line. You can pretty much turn to a page at random and find stuff that will make you laugh and stuff that will have you raising your eyebrows in an ‘I did not know that’ kind of way – which also often gives rise to reading aloud extracts to anyone who happens to be in the room. I’ve just conducted an experiment and turned to p132 which is a column from the middle of May 2010 that discusses the coalition government. Brooker writes:
‘So: the weirdest election in history has produced the weirdest government imaginable. Well, almost. If Cameron had formed a coalition with the cast of Bergerac, that might be weirder – but only by about 7 per cent.’
See? Hilarious. Lower down that same page, he writes:
‘According to the book Rendez-vous: The Psychoanalysis of Francois Mitterrand, at the height of the Falklands War, Thatcher threatened to nuke Argentina unless President Mitterrand handed over disabling codes for the French-built Exocet missiles which were pounding British ships.’
See? Interesting. The only reason you’re not reading that aloud to someone right now is because you’re a contrary sort. It’s killing you, isn’t it?
But – and it’s a big but (I know how you like them – concentrate) – there is evidence of a shifty hypocrisy at work here (check out the little NB following his column on James Murdoch in which he admits to co-writing a show for Sky before wriggling out from any assault on either his credibility or his integrity by making a joke about Faber & Faber being owned by the serial killer Dennis Nilsen). The shifty hypocrisy is in itself interesting (look at the expression he’s wearing on the cover of the book – inside he admits that when he smiles he ‘looks sinister… like I’m secretly defecating in my trousers and enjoying the warm glow more than is strictly necessary’). Brooker has opinions, no doubt, has built a career on the blighters, and given the nature of the speed with which he has to fashion topical columns often turns around on himself when he’s had time to digest a situation. At the same time, he is a human, with human wants and needs and ambitions and all the rest of it. Undoubtedly, his celebrity is on the rise and has been on the rise for a few years now. Of course celebrity changes a man. Where it becomes problematic is when (a) a celebrity continues to attempt to be a man of the people when he has stopped being a man of the people (check out the column contained herein where he talks about getting special treatment because his washing machine didn’t work) and (b) a person becomes Ben Elton.
Now. I’m not saying Charlie Brooker has become Ben Elton. I’m not. But I might be saying that Charlie Brooker is in danger of becoming Ben Elton some years from now. Put Charlie Brooker along someone like Stewart Lee. Not quite as successful as Charlie Brooker, yes. But you cannot argue with Stewart Lee’s integrity, whatever you think of the man’s comedy. At the moment, you can argue a little with Charlie Brooker’s integrity. And the teaspoon of doubt could be a misplaced teaspoon or it could be the first taste of a career trajectory that sees Brooker arguing with his detractors in the coming years about why he should be a judge on the X Factor / work with Queen on a musical about the only recently discovered farts of Freddie Mercury / be the man who ghost writes Rupert Murdoch’s bio / sells arms to an alien race hell bent on firing missiles at children.
And, sadly, I think the solution is to stop being such a reactive writer. The topical columns are killing you, man. You should bin the reactive columns as surely as you binned the TV column. Concentrate on the telly (although you can leave John Hannah and his Touch of Cloth on the back of the beermat you spent a drunken evening writing out what the Zucker brothers should have done next). You should also do less. Less is undoubtedly more. Turning around columns within the week for a quickish buck about whatever is going on in the world has you returning to the same subjects (like fucking Christmas adverts – leave that fucker be!) or lazily fashioning list pieces (whenever your mind turns to a list piece, reject it!) about crisp flavours. You’re better than crisps.
But then it’s highly likely this will sell a boatload and Faber will be publishing another collection two years from now. Perhaps by then Brooker will be defending the Tories and explaining why tax fraud is viable when you have as much money as him and Jimmy Carr have, eh?
Any Cop?: We might have taken the title of the book too literally but we don’t want to hate you, Charlie. Honest we don’t.