Charlie Brooker’s trilogy of twisted tales about the dark side of technology began tonight with The National Anthem, a story of a royal kidnap plot with an extraordinary demand which cannot be kept under wraps due to the ubiquity of social media.
Roy Kinnear was superb as Prime Minster Michael Callow, who was woken early in the morning by his aides and shown a video of Princess Susannah (Lydia Wilson), held captive in a secret location and telling him that only he has the power to save her. By, umm, getting intimate with a pig. On live television. On every channel. His first instincts were naturally to keep it quiet, with a D-Notice issued to the media, but it’s too late – the video was uploaded on YouTube, it’s already trending on Twitter.
Of course, the government do everything they can to avoid the PM having to go through with it, from getting a porn star to perform the act with Callow’s head green-screened in place, to an ultimately fruitless raid on an address from where the video was thought to be uploaded. But eventually, with public opinion swaying to and fro and the deadline looming, he had to do the deed to prevent himself being mobbed by fans of the popular Princess. When the moment came, everything started to slow down (making it seem like a sketch from Jam), giving us the groggy, unreal sensation the Prime Minister would have felt. As the streets of Britain emptied to gawp at the horrific porcine ordeal, Princess Susannah was set free and the identity and motive of the kidnapper, first mentioned early in the story, was revealed – a small but satisfying twist.
As well as Kinnear, who wonderfully played the whole absurd thing straight, there were some excellent performances from Lindsay Duncan as ice-cold Home Secretary Alex Cairns and Anna Wilson-Jones, who brought some poignancy to the piece in her role as the PM’s wife. It was also good to see The Thick of It’s Alex McQueen appearing as another government advisor.
I particularly enjoyed how accurate many of the small details were – from the newsroom dialogue to the tweets from the public, everything felt absolutely spot-on. It dealt with everything from the way social media circumvented superinjuctions to the bile spouted by anonymous YouTube commenters. Much of the unease came not from the unfortunate fate of the PM and the pig, but from the way it cast a light on the lack of morals of the faceless, deindividuated crowd and the fact that, frankly, we’d all be watching and live tweeting the hell out of it if Cameron had to do this.
As genuinely thought-provoking as it was darkly funny, The National Anthem lived up to my high expectations as one of the best hours of television in 2011.
And there is still more to come – next week’s 15 Million Merits is a satire of reality TV co-written by Brooker and his wife, Konnie Huq. After that is the final part, In Memoriam, a story about a world where your every memory can be recorded, by Peep Show writer Jesse Armstrong.