Jon Hamm welcomes Simon Lewis on to the set of Black Mirror for a very unhappy Christmas
Hauntings. Nightmares. Surreal tales of hate and paranoia. That’s what Christmas is all about, according to Charlie Brooker. After two successful series of his dystopian anthology Black Mirror, Channel 4’s sickest satirist has compiled a feature-length Christmas edition from three new tales, linked by sequences in which Rafe Spall and Jon Hamm share Christmas dinner in a mysterious, snowy outpost. I’m here to watch them filming it. So I’m slightly surprised to find myself sitting in a run-down north London pub with Brooker, Hamm and Spall as they shout about karaoke over lager and half-eaten crisps.
“You do Purple Rain?” Hamm is yelling at Spall. “That’s one of my songs! I do Little Red Corvette too. I’m terrible. You know the best I ever saw? Steve Coogan. He showed up late at a Saturday Night Live party and sang this deep cut Tom Jones song that I’d never heard, destroyed the room, dropped the mic and walked out. Fantastic.”
Hamm, sporting a scruffy beard and thick-rimmed specs, is not supposed to be in this scene. Brooker and I certainly aren’t. “Rolling!” warns a stagehand and all of us except Spall retreat to the wings. We watch as he plays his scripted part, drinking and slurring loud encouragements at his screen-girlfriend’s karaoke performance. Spall gets drunker as the scene progresses and by its end is bundled out by his mates, ranting something about his mobile phone.
“OK!” shouts the director. “Break for lunch!”
We reconvene around the pub table where Hamm tells Spall he’s doing great drunk-work: “I spent eight years acting drunk, so I know it’s hard to find the level.”
“I’ve thought about this a lot,” replies Spall. “As an actor, when you’re around drunk people you always spot things you can file away for use.”
Without blowing any plot-secrets, Brooker explains where the scene we’ve just watched fits into the story. “Jon and Rafe play characters that we first encounter in a remote outpost,” he says. “They’re sharing the stories of how they got there and this is Rafe’s. We’re shooting Jon’s later. [The third stars Oona Chaplin.] Because it’s constructed as three short stories with an overarching narrative, it’s difficult not to blow the ending for you, but I can say that one story happens in a world where you can block people in real life, the way you can block them on Twitter. It’s scary how you can just delete people permanently. If they’re trying to make amends, you’re not going to know.”
“What Charlie’s done with Black Mirror is to look at these new questions,” adds Hamm. “What does it mean to have an online profile that is more real than the real you? None of this stuff was around eight years ago. When we started Mad Men, we didn’t have these [holds up his phone]. The first iPhone came out in 2007, everyone got one and everything changed. I don’t know what eight years from now is going to look like. The challenge for Charlie is writing it and shooting it before it really happens.”
“Smartphones are an addiction,” Brooker commiserates. “With cigarettes, you knew each one was 10 minutes off your life, but it was off the end of your life. With these, it takes the 10 minutes while you’re in them. If your phone was literally charged directly off your lifespan – would you give a sh*t? How many cat videos would you still watch?” And Twitter, as Brooker notes, is just as bad.
“Peter Serafinowicz described it as a ‘sentence contest’, which I thought was perfect,” says Brooker. “It is very competitive. If I tweet, ‘My balls hurt’ and a few hours later Noam Chomsky retweets it, I’ll go, ‘Ooh, Noam Chomsky liked my balls tweet. I’ll do more balls material.’ It encourages you to behave in a particular way.”
So how did one of the biggest TV stars on the planet end up in a small-scale British TV show? “I downloaded The National Anthem [the episode in which Prime Minister Rory Kinnear has to screw a pig on live television] and suffice to say, I’d never seen anything like that in my life,” says Hamm. “In a way, it didn’t seem that far-fetched. It’s set in our time and it’s quite relatable. After that, I watched all the others in order, loved their originality and asked my agent to get in touch with these guys. There’s an intelligence and a sophistication about this stuff that I respond to.”
Brooker, however, thinks his job as a satirist is only getting tougher. “The most insane stuff now strikes us as completely normal,” he says. “Like, I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here: ‘And now on ITV, Timmy Mallett eating a kangaroo’s anus.’ Where do you go from there?”
“Rolling!” shouts a stagehand, prompting Brooker, Hamm and Spall back to work. Where do you go from anus-eating? Only these three know.
Black Mirror: White Christmas is on Channel 4 on 16 December at 9pm