■ James Brassett, reader in international political economy, University of Warwick
THE return of writer, presenter and social critic Charlie Brooker has filled a hole in the universe of misery that has overwhelmed our TV screens of late, resurrecting his acerbic, satirical Newswipe format with a special Antiviral Wipe (geddit?) show. The lines that did it for me were the list of potential lockdown activities that included ‘screaming at the f***ng walls’ and the magisterial reference to Matt Hancock as ‘your sister’s first boyfriend with a car’.
For those affected by the pandemic (that’s everyone), being this serious, this anxious about the world, indeed cautious of the actual people around us, is awful. On a very basic level, it was nice to laugh about it for a bit, and thankfully, in the hands of Brooker, even this hackneyed sentiment was acknowledged with a maniacal look of desperation as he banged on his cardboard news desk. Good satire is nothing if not reflexive.
Like Newswipe before it, Antiviral Wipe was a series of basic, quick edit shots of news coverage, overlain with sharp writing and spliced with first person reflections from the ‘former presenter’ himself. Brooker’s method of portraying the news through the eyes of the viewer involves him sitting on a sofa and interpreting global events by talking at the TV.
Low status, ignorant even, he didn’t care about the virus initially because it was in China, a place called Wuhan, ‘never heard of it’, then Vietnam and South Korea, which are basically the same as China, then France. ‘I didn’t know France was in China.’
This is the first pandemic of the global media age and it was therefore fitting that Barry S***peas (‘Indoor Expert’) should acknowledge the real gravity of our situation: ‘It was like a disaster movie, but it suddenly became like a 3D disaster movie, which was actually happening.’
In line with satirists like Chris Morris (Brass Eye and Four Lions) and Armando Iannucci (The Thick of It and Veep), Brooker works to draw out the strange symbiosis between politics ‘out there’ and the mediatised form of politics, in which we are all active players.
In critical terms, the sophistication of the technique allows him to get away with some fairly standard observational humour, much of which has circulated for weeks on social media. Celebrities emoting from their humble mansions, the tricky social mores of zoom calls, the difficulties of home-schooling.
Indeed, the home situation even allows for some (actually decent) jokes with his wife Konnie Huq, the former Blue Peter presenter, who is able to ‘make the most out of any old shit she can find’ (which is why she married him). But this combination of the everyday with the commonplace and the global is what allows satire to work.
George Orwell famously defended the use of vulgarity in humour, a point which Brooker honours with a repeated riff on face masks, how he can’t understand what people are saying, so invents a little discourse by Mr Bum and Mrs Bum.
The anal theme is echoed in a pun about how Formula 1 drivers wipe their bums by going round and round for ages, then ‘leave it covered in skid marks’. The words ‘Toilet Humour’ flash on the screen. It is OK to laugh again.
Politics ‘out there’
Antiviral Wipe did make a strong critique of the politics ‘out there’, of course. Channelling his earlier critiques of austerity, Brooker called back to the ‘we’re all in it together’ mantra several times.
We are still unpacking the intersectional politics of Covid-19, but it was important that he contrasted the feeling of national struggle with the reality of NHS workers and carers, a group who had previously been told they were low skilledunder the UK’s recent immigration points system. Boris Johnson’s support for Brexit and promises of £350million for the NHS on his ‘magic bus’ figure strongly.
Although the show touched briefly on death stats that reveal a disproportionate effect on BAME communities, it was a little quiet about the the elderly and questions about generational abandonment.
I think the younger Brooker would have spent far longer with the panoply of graphs, statistics and death curves based on models that few people understand (and even if they do, they still broke lockdown). But I agree with the basic point that such visualisations let us ‘grow accustomed to tragedy after tragedy’ numbing us to the crisis through ’emotionless graphs’.
This was not so much a cutting satire as a message of hope to a beleaguered nation that is still in the midst of the pandemic. As a comedy fan, I wish Brooker would bring back The Wipe and forget about his world domination through Netflix (see Black Mirror).
As a human, I was touched when he put his earnest hat on (literally a hat with the word earnest written on it) and said ‘do hold on because we need you’. It was reminiscent of the address to the nation by ‘King Elizabeth the Queen’, evocative of the important role that satire plays in the everyday life of British politics.