Charlie Brooker is back with a new sitcom that sinks its claws into TV crime dramas. ShortList’s Andrew Dickens visits the set and becomes an accomplice
As I stand behind a police cordon, just yards from the mutilated body of a young woman, the man in front of me, who has been attempting to film the horror on his phone, begins laughing. I look at him with disgust. Not because of his callous disregard for the value of human life, but because he is the worst extra in the history of television and some of us are trying to be professional.
This, you see, is the set of Charlie Brooker’s new spoof crime drama, A Touch Of Cloth, a show mercilessly slaying this staple of British television by stabbing every cliché and drowning it all in a sea of jokes and daft names. It’s a copycat attack in the greatest traditions of Airplane! and Police Squad! and I have landed as what I like to call an ‘essential background artiste’, but that’s not important right now. What is important is that this joker isn’t taking things seriously. It doesn’t matter that the corpse’s father has just had an involuntary orgasm on hearing the news of his daughter’s demise, or that a detective has just uttered what I think is probably a quadruple entendre, as Brooker points out, this kind of comedy shouldn’t be played for laughs.
“What I like about Airplane! is that they play it straight,” he says during a break in filming. “That’s why Leslie Nielsen is so good, because he plays it as though he is absolutely oblivious to the humour in what he’s saying or doing. The good thing about parodying something like this is that it’s a type of TV that inherently has to take itself incredibly seriously. Everyone walks around in detective dramas with a face like their arse has just been stolen and they don’t know where the toilet is. I don’t know what I’m saying. It’s nice to do something to undercut that, but where the actors are staying in that mode.”
Not, you’d imagine, a stretch for a man who has made a living from sending up the news in Newswipe and satirising pop culture with the zombie-meets-
Big Brother drama Dead Set. Plus, there’s his three-pronged (and recently recommissioned) poke at technology obsession, Black Mirror. What he’s not known for is another essential ingredient in a good spoof: sheer weight of gags. But Brooker and his writing partner, TV Burp’s Daniel Maier, haven’t shied away from this. They haven’t even tentatively hugged it. They’ve fully embraced it, with slapstick, puns, subtle – and not-so-subtle – visual jokes coming at you in such waves that mean, even if you don’t blink, you’ll miss some. It’s encouraging news for DVD sales.
“There are lots of jokes going on in it,” agrees Brooker. “That means there are ones that don’t work, ones that do, ones you won’t notice. Certainly you’re not watching it to find out who’s done it, so in that respect it bears re watching, even if somebody just despises it and wants to remind themselves of the pain of the first sitting.”
Help from the experts
Back on set, my problem with laughing boy behind the cordon isn’t that he’s scuppering a potentially career changing moment for me, but that he’s ruining the third crucial element of spoof: near plausibility.
For maximum impact, first impressions need to be just the odd side of believable, and this tittering clown’s performance is pretty much the only unrealistic element of the scene. It actually looks more convincing than many more sincere productions. We all love a crime drama, but let’s face it; they can be silly at times. So silly, in fact, that the writers had to tone some elements down.
“I watched an episode of Wire In The Blood where the killer had a razor-wire-covered electrified cone,” Brooker says. “He was killing people by sticking it up their arse and pushing a button so it would revolve and carve them out. Weirdly, within a spoof, that would look elaborate and sadistic, but it was considered a reasonable killing in Wire In The Blood. Robson Green and Hermione Norris must have been p*ssing themselves filming that.”
To ensure such warped credibility, Brooker has enlisted some crime drama heavyweights. The script is a comically vandalised version of a deathly serious serial-killer story by Messiah writer Boris Starling, and the director is Jim O’Hanlon, a man with several episodes of Waking The Dead to his name. The lead actors, John Hannah (who plays the troubled, alcoholic, misanthropic and perfectly clichéd DI Jack Cloth) and Suranne Jones, have longer criminal records than the Kray twins – in TV terms – with titles such as Rebus and Scott & Bailey to their names.
“Amelia Bullmore and Lesley Sharp [from Scott & Bailey] came to see me,” says Jones. “I explained what I was doing and Amelia said, ‘Well, when you’re done taking the p*ss out of what we take very, very seriously, please will you join us again?’”
“I’m sick of detectives,” adds Hannah. “Most actors are sick of doing cop shows. It’s all people seem to do. You get a cooking detective, magician detective… I think the audience must be bored senseless by it. You talk to any actor, anybody involved with it, everybody’s fed up with it. The chances are no one’s ever going to employ me in one after this, anyway, which is probably no bad thing.”
I’m released from the police tape and head toward a large white building. We pass another film crew shooting a scene from Endeavour; I can’t help but think that the young Morse is investigating a case of grievous bodily irony. If only he knew that the perpetrators were so close. I catch up with Brooker again to ask if the former TV critic fears criticism.
“It doesn’t bother me,” he says. “Having been a critic, it’d be the most monstrous humbug to complain if people slag off something I’ve written. You could get annoyed if you think they’ve slagged it off in the wrong way, but other than that it doesn’t bother me. There’s nothing that anyone can say that I wouldn’t have screamed at myself in my own mind a thousand times while doing it.”
This building is also the location of my next scene. I’m so versatile that I’m going to play two parts, and this one is right up my street. I’m about to act at being a journalist, drawing upon more than a decade of ‘method’-style preparation. The setting is a press conference and I act my socks off – raising my hand as if to ask a question, improvising kerfuffle at appropriate moments. Then I hear something.
It’s snoring. Someone behind me has dozed off and ruined the take. I turn around and, to no great surprise, laughing boy has become sleeping boy.
I think how Brooker must feel watching on. Surely, there can only be one thing on his mind…
A Touch Of Cloth starts on Sky 1 HD on 26 August at 9pm and concludes the following evening
(Image: Rex Features)