Charlie Brooker on Dead Set

Jaime "daughter of Ray" Winstone stars as Big Brother runner Kelly.

Adore Big Brother? Despise Big Brother? Either way, you’re likely to be hooked by the high-concept of E4’s new five-part zombie drama Dead Set, in which contestants in the reality show get caught up in an undead apocalypse. It’s the brainchild of acerbic TV critic Charlie Brooker, presenter of Screen Wipe. Brooker already has writing credits on shows like Brass Eye and Nathan Barley, but don’t expect his first “straight” drama to be a laugh-a-minute spoof.

“The thing that came up a lot was Shaun of the Dead, obviously”, Brooker tells SFX. “I thought that was great, but what we didn’t want to do was to do that again. Weirdly, because our set-up is so inherently comic - the Big Brother house – it’s actually probably best to play it quite straight. So with our characters, nobody says, ‘Oh, this is like a zombie film!’ or anything like that. It’s a world in which zombie films don’t exist, they don't call them zombies, they don’t really understand what they are and they’re very frightened. Whereas in Shaun of the Dead (which I thought was brilliant) it’s very much an out-and-out comedy. We're not played for laughs in that sense. We’re hopefully genuinely frightening and very gory and quite bleak. And then on the other hand, because of the setting and because of some of the characters we’re not that straight-faced. So I hope that the tone sticks with people. You never know how these things will go down.”

Ray Winston’s daughter Jaime plays the central character, a runner on the show called Kelly. The other main character is Patrick, a Big Brother producer. “He becomes more significant as the series goes on”, explains Brooker. “I think people who are aware of my tone are expecting things to be written in a certain way, and when he opens his mouth they will start going, ‘Oh yeah, that’s Brooker!’, I suspect.” He's played by Andy Nyman, a regular collaborator with Derren Brown. “He wears various hats”, says Brooker. “He’s a magician, and he directs Derren Brown’s live shows writes on a lot of his programmes, so he’s a very interesting character in real life. Hopefully, if the programme is a success I think this would bring him to a lot of people's attention, because he approaches the role of Patrick with relish...”

You might be thinking that Brooker has hit on a way to get lots of fantastic production value for free. Unfortunately, the Dead Set team wasn’t able to use the real Big Brother house. “We hoped we would be able to use it at one point”, admits Brooker, “But it became apparent that it simply wasn’t going to be feasible for all sorts of scheduling reasons and practical reasons. We had to build it at great expense in Chertsey, where they shoot Primeval. It costs a lot to build a Big Brother house, we’ve discovered! The art department did an amazing job. The thing about building a Big Brother house is it’s always different but it’s also somehow the same, so they had to create a house that instantly looks like Big Brother but also doesn’t look like a Big Brother. At the time we were building it, this year’s series hadn’t gone out, and we had no idea what they were gonna do, so we were also slightly wary. Like, we’ve put a big biodome greenhouse in the garden. Luckily, they didn’t do that this year!”

The production team of the real Channel 4 show were immensely helpful, however. “We’ve got an eviction scene in the first episode where we needed our actress to leave the Big Brother house and be evicted in front of a big crowd”, reveals Brooker. “The only practical way to do that was to go down to Elstree, put her in the Big Brother house and evict her on an eviction night - which is what we did! No viewers would have noticed cos the broadcast went out with a delay. It was the night that Belinda was evicted from this series. That night, after Belinda came out and Davina had interviewed her, she then evicted Pippa, who’s our actress. Obviously, to do that we had to cooperate with all the Big Brother people and they were insanely helpful - especially because you could read our show as an attack!”

Dead Set will also feature a host of cameos from former housemates. “What you don’t want people to think is, ‘Are they all gonna have major speaking roles?’” clarifies Brooker. “No they’re not! They were all faultlessly pleasant as well - like Saskia, who was in Big Brother several years ago. I tell you what, she scrubs up well! And she makes a very good zombie, and she was unfailingly pleasant and, y’know, I've been very rude about her in print! That’s the other thing: you meet a lot of people that you’ve been horrible about and then you realise they’re incredibly nice and you feel like an arse – it’s really disappointing!”

The zombie films of George Romero are known for having something of a political subtext. Brooker is a big fan, especially of Dawn of the Dead, in which survivors hole up in a shopping mall. “There’s the famous speech they have from the roof where they take about the shopping mall being an important place in their lives, and that’s pretty much as overt as it gets in that film - the rest of the time it’s just an enjoyable extra twist. That’s sort of what we're going for with this. So it’s there, definitely, but it’s not like a Media Studies lecture! It’s not as overt as people will expect.”

Horror lovers can also expect some fan-pleasing in-jokes. “There are a couple of references to get zombie aficionados going, ‘Oooh!’”, confirms Brooker. “There’s an explicit reference to Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue in there, that’s just a bit where somebody says, ‘Look at that - she’s got a face like a Manchester morgue!’ Not the most subtle, but the average viewer watching that is just gonna think that’s a florid way of describing someone’s unpleasant face, whereas a zombie aficionado is gonna go, ‘Oh yeah!’. We didn’t go quite as far as Shaun of the Dead - they had people eating at an Italian restaurant called Fulci’s - but there’s definitely the odd nod. We’ve got a kind of homage to that scene in Dawn of the Dead where they stand on the roof and go, ‘Why are they coming here?’”

Brooker admits that he’s intrigued to see what kind of reception the show will get when it airs. “It’s not really a mainstream show in some respects, and in others... I don’t know! In a lot of ways it’s a very straight, populist show. The model was things like 24, so it’s not chinstrokey or trying to be clever a lot of the time - it's pretty dumb in a lot of ways! A lot of people who are looking forward to it hate Big Brother and are looking forward to it because they wanna see all these people getting their heads ripped off, so I think in a lot of ways people will take from it what they want. So I’ll be interested to see what people make of it.”

Dead Set airs on E4 from Monday to Friday on the week beginning 27 October. You can read much more from Charlie Brooker (including a discussion of his favourite zombie films) in issue 176 of
, on sale now.

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