Raising hell

Raising hell

By Michael Pickard
May 3, 2024

The Writers Room

How did the most “gloriously odd” Black Mirror episode ever win a Bafta award? Series creator Charlie Brooker and writing partner Bisha K Ali break down season six episode Demon 79 and talk about upending fan expectations and the dangers of working with AI.

Sitting in the audience at the Bafta Television Craft Awards, Charlie Brooker and Bisha K Ali (pictured above) hadn’t prepared speeches. Not for one moment had the Black Mirror collaborators considered they would win the Writer: Fiction category against competition from Happy Valley’s Sally Wainwright, Succession’s Jesse Armstrong and The Sixth Commandment’s Sarah Phelps.

And yet when Demon 79 – the fifth episode of Black Mirror’s sixth season – was announced as the winner of the final award of the evening, they found themselves weaving their way through assorted tables towards the stage to accept the prize.

“Obviously we weren’t going to win, so we thought let’s just go and have a fun time with colleagues we really love and respect, and hope they win in their categories,” Ali tells DQ. “Let’s just go and have a nice time, have a nice dinner with our mates.”

Brooker adds: “We both thought there’s no way we’re going to win that. That’s like asking us to climb Everest with our eyelids.”

But as well as featuring in a category that boasted an all-star line-up of writing nominees, part of Brooker and Ali’s surprise at winning the award comes down to the work in question.

While anthology series Black Mirror has become known for its dystopian stories, usually with an unsettling tech twist, Demon 79 stands apart as the first Red Mirror film, one that leans more into horror and the supernatural.

Demon 79 is the first ‘Red Mirror’ episode of Black Mirror, leaning more into horror

Set in Northern England in 1979, the story introduces meek sales assistant Nida (Anjana Vasan), who is told she must commit a series of terrible acts if she hopes to prevent disaster after awakening a demon called Gaap (Paapa Essiedu), who appears to Nida as a dancer from disco group Boney M. What follows is a story of murder, racial and gender prejudice and fiery visions of Armageddon that might become reality should Nida fail in her quest.

“We definitely wanted to do something that felt unlike any other show, and it’s weird because it’s unlike – but also like – other episodes of Black Mirror,” Brooker explains. “It’s a Red Mirror film, so it’s got more of a horror tone, and it’s got supernatural elements. But it does also feel like Black Mirror.

“Hopefully people just responded to the fact it is gloriously odd. It’s also timely. It’s funny. It’s quite scary. It’s bleak. It’s dark. It’s romantic. It’s lots of things at the same time.”

Cinematographer Stephan Pehrsson also won at the Bafta Television Craft Awards in the Photography & Lighting: Fiction category for his work on Demon 79, while costume designer Matthew Price, production designers Udo Kramer and Mike Britton and casting director Jina Jay were nominated in their respective fields.

Meanwhile, Vasan has been nominated for Leading Actress and the episode in the Limited Drama category, the winners of which will be revealed at the Bafta Television Awards on May 12.

The writing award marks the first Bafta mask for Ali, while it is Brooker’s second – but his first for Black Mirror. He previously won for Comedy & Comedy Entertainment Programme in 2017 for Charlie Brooker’s 2016 Wipe, his then-annual BBC review show that cast a satirical, often exasperated eye over the previous 12 months.

The plot revolves around a lowly shop assistant who summons a demon

Coming together to write Demon 79 was the result of a long-held desire between the pair to work together. At the time, Ali was coming from working on a pair of Marvel TV series, first as a writer for Loki and then as head writer on Ms Marvel, and she was keen to partner with Brooker after living in “a completely different world” for several years.

“I was working in a space that was targeted at a younger audience. It was a bit broader, a bit more commercial,” she says. “So for me, it felt like a huge relief to work with Charlie and work on something that was a bit more aligned with my own tastes, which are inherently a bit more twisted than what’s permitted over at Marvel.

“It was really such a joy to be able to work on something where I got to be my darkest self, although Charlie did pull me back in places. That was really enjoyable for me. There was a lot of trust between us and we certainly excited each other in terms of having one bonkers idea, then leaping off the back of it and building something together. The most fun bit of this job is when you’re not completely alone, hating yourself. Because when you’re with someone else, you’re convincing each other you’re not completely crazy and this is maybe a good idea. It was a lot of fun.”

“With Bisha, people think I’ve got a bleak sense of humour, but Jesus,” Brooker says. “So we hit it off when we were talking through lots of different story ideas for this season and lots of different potential episodes we could do. Then [Demon 79] bubbled up in the conversation.

“It was like, what would happen if somebody said, ‘You’ve got to kill that person over there.’ It was a little like [1978 film] The Medusa Touch. We were just laughing about if that happened, what would you do? And that’s often where ideas tend to formulate, when you’re just kicking a funny or twisted idea around and amusing each other really with the different ways it could go. That was the starting point.”

The episode touches on contemporary issues such as anti-immigration sentiment

Yet Black Mirror – which debuted on Channel 4 in 2011 before moving to Netflix in 2016 – isn’t just about genre. Episodes often dig into contemporary issues, regardless of their location, setting or the imagined tech at characters’ disposal. The same can be said for Demon 79, as Nida faces discrimination at work from colleague Vicky (Katherine Rose Morley), while one dream sequence imagines that anti-immigration politician Michael Smart (David Shields) becomes prime minister as the leader of an ultra-nationalist party.

“I don’t think it’s unique to this episode that Black Mirror is addressing contemporary issues, whether that comes to race or gender. Those things have always been in the soup of Black Mirror,” Ali says. “Black Mirror seems to have this pulse that’s tapping into whatever Charlie’s psychically tapping into about society. For me, that is part of what a Black Mirror episode is, so it felt really natural to build out those issues.”

Demon 79 also stands out as one of the few Black Mirror episodes set in the past. “Most Black Mirror episodes up until this point had been set in the future or the near future, or if they were set in the past, they weren’t really set in the past and we’d pull out to reveal it was all happening inside a USB stick,” Brooker notes. “But this season, consciously, there was a shift. There was another episode, Beyond the Sea, which is set in 1969, for instance, so it’s interesting to do that. And of the two of us, I’m the only one who was alive in 1979 so part of the fun was, ‘Oh, you can put the Cadbury’s Smash advert in?’ and ‘Oh yeah, Nida could be watching Top of the Pops. What sort of bands would be on?’”

That conversation led to Gaap manifesting as a member of Boney M, having been imagined as a punk rocker during earlier discussions.

“Then there was a point where it became apparent to us that we were also talking about now, so the Michael Smart character who comes in, without naming names of [real] politicians, you can see parallels there with today,” Brooker continues. “He’d definitely have a very successful Twitter account and probably his own show on a particular cable channel.”

Demon 79 stars Anjana Vasan opposite Paapa Essiedu

When season six of Black Mirror went into development, Brooker hadn’t planned for Demon 79 to be the only Red Mirror instalment. In fact, the whole season was set to be comprised of horror stories until he had the idea behind Joan is Awful and found the concept – a woman (Annie Murphy) discovers a global streaming platform has launched a TV adaptation of her life – too timely to ignore.

But Demon 79 was a “conscious attempt” to continue to surprise viewers and break up the Black Mirror formula, if one even exists, while also creating something that still aligned to the show everyone recognises.

“It had an overt horror bent, but really not that much because usually a standard Black Mirror episode introduces an almost supernatural element that fucks up somebody’s life,” Brooker says.

“The way Charlie treats technology is almost a little bit like, ‘And here’s the supernatural element,’” Ali notes. “Though we didn’t do Red Mirror for the entire season in the end, there is that sense of, ‘Oh, are there different ways to approach these stories that still feel inherently Black Mirror?’ No one’s looking at Loch Henry and wondering, ‘Is this a Black Mirror story?’ That absolutely is, but there is no technology.”

As the creator of a show that comments so much on what future tech might be capable of – for better or worse – it’s natural that Brooker has also considered the ongoing television industry concern about advancing artificial intelligence (AI) and what it might mean for those who create and produce series.

The writer says he understands how AI could be a “very powerful tool” for coming up with a list of 100 different names for shoe shops, for example. “So I could see a world in which you could potentially brainstorm with it,” he says. “The problem is you’d end up talking to yourself because that’s what it’s doing, reflecting back things that other people have already written.

The forthcoming Black Mirror season will feature a sequel to season four’s USS Callister

“It’s a mimic; it’s a bit like a cartoon of two kids standing on each other’s shoulders, wearing a long coat and trying to sneak into a cinema to see an adult film. It would be foolish to use it for generating ideas because it’s not original ideas. It’s a slippery slope to the algorithm just spewing out a version of what you just enjoyed last week.”

After handing in the Demon 79 script, Brooker and Ali spent a lot of time on set during production and were also heavily involved in the edit alongside director Toby Haynes (Andor). “I’d go absolutely bonkers if I wasn’t,” says Brooker, who also keeps in touch with the set by watching dailies on his phone and texting members of the crew.

“I like being there right through to the end,” Ali agrees, “and I was in a lucky position where Charlie was like, ‘Alright then, you’ve done this before. Come along.’ I was able to argue with Charlie in the edit, I think quite constructively. We won a Bafta for it so it can’t have worked too badly.”

Production is now underway on the seventh collection of Black Mirror stories, which will be released on Netflix in 2025. One of the six new episodes will be a sequel to the Emmy-winning fourth season instalment USS Callister, about a gifted programmer who puts digital clones of his co-workers into a Star Trek-style space adventure – and takes on the role of their Captain Kirk-like leader.

Unsurprisingly, Brooker won’t reveal any further details about the new episodes, but he admits it is becoming increasingly difficult to keep surprising the show’s global fanbase with stories that can often divide them.

“I can’t think too much about what viewers want because it’s completely varied,” he says. “Some people really love something like San Junipero, USS Callister or Hang the DJ. Those are very crowd-pleasing, big, frothy episodes. And then you get people who only like the ones that are incredibly unpleasant, like White Bear. I like all of these things, so I’m aware when you’re doing a season, you do want to give people a mix of what they expect and what they don’t. It’s a really hard target to hit.

“There’s such disparate demand from viewers of what they like, what they don’t like, and you can even see it with the reaction to the season in that some people will give one episode five stars and then say, ‘Why did this other one exist?’ And the next person will flip those two completely around and say ‘This one was amazing’ but the five star for someone else is a worthless one,” Ali observes.

“That was a very interesting experience, because that doesn’t happen on most shows, because most shows aren’t anthologies. People either like it or don’t like it on some gradient, but this is so bizarre. It’s almost like a film festival curated by Charlie Brooker’s mind, which is how I’ve started to see it.”

The lesson Ali says she’s learned about writing for television, particularly those shows with passionate fanbases, whether it’s a Marvel series or Black Mirror, is that she doesn’t know how to write for audiences anymore, and doesn’t want to.

“I really have to write to what feels urgent. Urgent doesn’t have to mean dreadfully important, but that it feels important to me in this moment, or it’s entertaining to me, or I feel like I want to tell this story right now,” she says. “It has to be led by that creative urge. Otherwise it’s just too much hard work making anything if you’re not led by that. You can’t ever second-guess what an audience wants.”

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