The National Anthem (Black Mirror)
|"The National Anthem"|
|Black Mirror episode|
|Episode no.||Series 1|
|Directed by||Otto Bathurst|
|Written by||Charlie Brooker|
|Cinematography by||Jake Polonsky|
|Original air date||4 December 2011|
|Running time||44 minutes|
"The National Anthem" is the first episode of the first series of the British science fiction anthology series Black Mirror. The episode was written by series creator and showrunner Charlie Brooker and directed by Otto Bathurst; it first aired on Channel 4, on 4 December 2011.
In the episode, the British prime minister Michael Callow (Rory Kinnear) awakens to be told by the Home Secretary Alex Cairns (Lindsay Duncan) that Princess Susannah (Lydia Wilson), a much-loved member of the Royal Family, has been kidnapped, and will be killed unless the Prime Minister has sexual intercourse with a pig on national television.
The episode received very positive reviews. It was later compared to Piggate, a real-life scandal which occurred in 2015.
British prime minister Michael Callow is woken during the night to learn that Princess Susannah (Lydia Wilson), a much-loved member of the Royal Family, has been kidnapped. For her safe return, the kidnappers demand that the Prime Minister must have live sexual intercourse with a pig on national television, following a list of technical specifications designed to make it impossible to fake. Callow adamantly opposes fulfilling the demand. His team, led by Home Secretary Alex Cairns (Lindsay Duncan), reluctantly inform him that the ransom video was posted on YouTube and has been viewed and downloaded by thousands of people. Although the UK media initially agrees to comply with a D-Notice to not report the story, clones of the video are available on YouTube and public discussion is taking place on Facebook and Twitter. Later, UKN breaks the D-Notice by discussing the kidnapping, though censoring the kidnapper's demands; other news media also begin to report on the story. The public's response is initially one of sympathy, and the majority do not expect Callow to go through with the demand.
Special Agent Callett (Alex Macqueen) attempts to arrange a method for footage to be faked using an actor with Callow's head digitally imposed in place of his. The kidnapper discovers this and sends a severed finger, ostensibly Princess Susannah's, to a UK news station as a response. The story is outed, and public opinion turns sharply against Callow; a majority now expect him to follow the kidnapper's demands, though his wife Jane (Anna Wilson-Jones) begs him not to go through with it. Callow orders an immediate rescue operation on the building where they believe Susannah is being held. Meanwhile, UKN journalist Malaika (Chetna Pandya) has been sending sexually explicit photographs to an associate in return for details about the government's actions. She learns of the rescue operation and films it on her phone. However, the building is a decoy, and Malaika is shot as she tries to flee the scene.
Cairns convinces Callow that he will be despised by the public, and threatens that his family may not be safe, if he refuses to comply with the kidnapper's demands. He reluctantly agrees, being informed that possession of a recording of the event will become illegal at midnight, and an unpleasant tone will be played to discourage viewers from watching. Gravely, Callow has intercourse with the pig while an audience of 1.3 billion watches; some people are disgusted and others amused.
Princess Susannah is discovered unharmed on The Millennium Bridge – she was released 30 minutes before Callow's sex act began, though Cairns covers this up. Turner Prize winner Carlton Bloom commits suicide by hanging; he was the kidnapper and it is revealed that the finger he sent to the news station was his own. As speculation circulates that Bloom planned the debacle in order to convey the message of people's obsession with the media, Cairns tells a distraught Callow, as he vomits into a toilet, that Susannah is safe.
A year later, Susannah is pregnant and Callow's approval rating has improved as he and his wife are shown smilingly entering 10 Downing Street. Behind closed doors, his wife's demeanor shifts and she coldly walks away from him as Callow plaintively pleads with her to talk to him.[a]
Conception and writing
The initial conception of the episode involved a celebrity carrying out the sex act; years earlier, series creator Charlie Brooker had had the idea for a short story where Terry Wogan would have to go on live television and have "full sexual intercourse with a sow" in order to secure the release of a kidnapped princess. Brooker then watched an episode of 24 and considered parodying it. Whilst working on the story, he realised it would not be humorous. Like his previous work Dead Set, a 2008 horror series about zombies, he decided to "take something preposterous but make the tone very straight".
The episode was partially inspired by a controversy where Gordon Brown called a member of the public "a bigot" after speaking with her, and also a Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers comic where "as he remembers it, a police chief is required to have sex with a hog". Another inspiration was reality show I'm a Celebrity...Get Me Out of Here!, after Brooker watched an episode where a celebrity was tasked with consuming a mixture of disgusting animal parts. Executive producer Annabel Jones describes the episode's topic as "humiliation and the public's appetite for humiliation".
Brooker notes that other animals similar to a pig were considered for the sex act that Callow is forced to perform. A duck was considered too small and absurd, whilst a horse or donkey would be too difficult for filming; Brooker also objected to a chicken. Even considered was "a giant wheel of cheese", but a pig was chosen to "[straddle] the line between comic and horrifying." A scene in which Callow spoke to Rod Senseless, played by Jay Simpson, was removed as its comedic style was out of place. Another cut scene showed Malaika taken to hospital and left on a gurney as the staff watch Callow have sex with the pig; removing this meant the setting of a hospital for some scenes was unexplained.
Rory Kinnear stars in the episode as Prime Minister Michael Callow. Lindsay Duncan plays the Home Secretary Alex Cairns and Alex Macqueen plays Special Agent Callett, whilst Anna Wilson-Jones had the role of Callow's wife Jane. During the casting process, Jones was keen to avoid comedy actors so that a comedic tone could be avoided. Director Otto Bathurst comments that "We got our first choice for every single role". Callow's political party is not stated, though Brooker says his blue tie implies he is a Conservative. Jones comments that it would have been easy to make the audience hate Callow, but the focus was on the public's appetite for humiliation.
Filming overlapped with the London riots of August 2011. Brooker and his wife Konnie Huq were on the set watching during the filming of the scene where Callow has sex with the pig. He reports that in the first take, Bathurst did not call "cut", and instead let Kinnear carry on getting closer to the pig, putting his hand on the pig's back, until Kinnear refused to go further. The scene was done in only a couple of takes and was never designed to be more graphic.
The scene in which Callow attacks Cairns was written to be "visceral", with Brooker noting that he was unsure how a Prime Minister would act, and Bathurst commenting that though Callow should be "kicked out of politics", his actions go without consequence. Commenting on the scene in which Callow's wife is upset that the public are picturing Callow having sex with a pig already, Brooker registers surprises that some viewers are angry at her character. The scene was intended for her to "[communicate] how upset she is".
During UK pre-publicity, the central conceit of a pig was deliberately unmentioned; the Channel 4 trailers, which were briefly run on ITV and in cinemas, also avoided mentioning this. This led to some viewers expecting a political thriller. The episode aired in Australia in June 2013 as part of Studio's "Festival of WTF!" A billboard featuring Callow about to have intercourse with the pig was shown in Kings Cross, New South Wales in May 2013, but soon removed, with a spokesperson for the channel apologising and plans to show the image in print and online suspended.
The A.V. Club gave it an A, writing: "The genius of Black Mirror is how subtly it builds, keeping you from ever questioning the insanity of the premise or any minor plothole. Every twist seems organic, every decision rational. Every effort is made to find the kidnapper, of course, but that necessarily has to fail. The press initially struggles with how to report on such an insane story sensitively, but its hand is forced by social media and the ineffable power of the internet." The Telegraph rated it four out of five, commenting: "Virgin territory indeed. This was a dementedly brilliant idea. The satire was so audacious, it left me open-mouthed and squealing. Rather like that poor pig." The Independent said: "This carefully crafted and compact drama is engrossing, with the tension rising by degrees as the time moves ever closer for the PM to meet the kidnapper's demands. It comes across as being anti-Twitter but also serves as a cautionary tale about the power of the collective 'hive mind' that is social media. It takes no prisoners, particularly those in the public eye." The Guardian wrote: "To the untrained eye, the first [episode of Black Mirror], National Anthem, looked suspiciously like political satire – and a very superior one – rather than a sci-fi vision of technology's power to distort the world. All the gadgetry seemed only too familiar and the voyeurism all too credible: there's more dystopia in an episode of Spooks."
Comparisons to Piggate
In September 2015, allegations were published that David Cameron, who at the time was British prime minister had, as a student, placed a "private part" into the mouth of a dead pig as part of an initiation rite. Charlie Brooker denied any prior knowledge of this claim, although both the story and Black Mirror became topics of popular comment; #snoutrage, a hashtag that appears in "The National Anthem", was one of the several popular hashtags used on Twitter to refer to the story. Brooker has called the event a "coincidence, albeit a quite bizarre one", and was quite perturbed when he first heard the allegations: "I did genuinely for a moment wonder if reality was a simulation, whether it exists only to trick me", he said in an interview.
- Stolworthy, Jason (28 October 2016). "Black Mirror season 3: Episodes exists in the same universe and here's the proof". The Independent.
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- Brooker, Charlie (2005). Screen Burn. Faber and Faber. pp. 191–192. ISBN 0-571-22755-4. Originally published in The Guardian, 5 October 2002.
- Brooker, Charlie; Jones, Annabel; Arnopp, Jason (November 2018). "The National Anthem". Inside Black Mirror. New York City: Crown Publishing Group. ISBN 9781984823489.
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- Charlie Brooker [@charltonbrooker] (21 September 2015). "Just to clear it up: nope, I'd never heard anything about Cameron and a pig when coming up with that story. So this weirds me out" (Tweet) – via Twitter.
- Stewart, Dan (21 September 2015). "Why David Cameron's 'Pig-Gate' Scandal Isn't Going Away". The Times. Retrieved 7 September 2017.