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Charlie Brooker’s TVGoHome was a dark, subversive eye on our future

The TV guide parody site lit up the early 00s with twisted internet humour – sinister paranoia surrounded tech and media long before Black Mirror

Since its final post on April 4 2003, has sat archived and dormant. Its homepage, a pre-Web 2.0 nostalgia trip, looks like it has been torn from the Radio Times. The solitary image on the page is of TV presenter Nicky Campbell, bobbing in the ocean, surrounded by house cats. The titles of the programmes are similarly hallucinogenic – Vin Diesel’s 500 Favourite Tartans. Baghdad Comedown. Grief Digestion Theatre.

The listings on TVGoHome were the brainchild of now acclaimed writer and notorious grump Charlie Brooker, who started the TV guide parody site anonymously as a disciplinary writing exercise in 1999. Many of the things now thought of as Brooker hallmarks – paranoia about technology and the media, the twisting of TV conventions, darkly funny satire, and even his jaded stage persona – all found their genesis with the site, in the faux reality and game shows.

Using the format, Brooker, alongside others (fellow writers from The 11 O’Clock Show) took potshots at TV trends, the news media, and politics – devising their own chat shows, reality pilots and uncategorisable TV ephemera. With bizarre fortnightly columns, they summoned a hyperreal vision of the UK through what Brooker would later call the “grotesque soap opera” of the mass media. This was cutting edge stuff for the time – internet humour in the early noughties was largely crude flash animations and wildly untethered post-9/11 Islamophobia.

The concept soon expanded with Brooker’s first foray into pins and needles-inducing toilet books, and a sketch show on E4. With Brass Eye and Alan Partridge’s Tristram Shapeero on board to direct, TVGoHome’s sketches were packaged inside the eerie no man’s land of TV continuity, replete with clinical blue visuals and announcer.

Like many of the projects Brooker would go on to helm, the fictionalised shows in TVGoHome are coated with a veneer of ill-defined menace. Kids show The Flailers has more than a suggestion of adult themes, and smoky-studio chat show Victims ends with guests sobbing into buckets and committing suicide. The sketches find an odd groove between slapstick absurdity and jet black gallows humour that Brass Eye (which Brooker worked on) before it pioneered, and later works like Monkey DustTim & Eric, and Limmy’s Show carried to new depths. Or heights, depending on your tastes.

With any comedy that takes risks, the sketches on TVGoHome can be hit and miss  – youth TV / gossip mag pisstake Scorch hasn’t aged well, for example. The hits, however, still bang. With Nathan Barley, (originally appearing on the website listings in a show entitled simply: “Cunt”) Brooker ridiculed the nascent archetype of the metropolitan media prat with startling precognition. The character was given his own series, and his shadow still looms large over all the real life self-facilitating media nodes of central London, like those that err… write for online youth culture publications.

Daily Mail Island, a reality show cross between the BBC's oft-forgotten Castaway 2000 and the cold sweat nightmares of a young Jeremy Corbyn, dumped liberal contestants on an island with the newspaper as their only source of information. Things on the island start politely but soon descend into brutality and madness, like Lord of the Flies, only with more moral hypocrisy. In a kangaroo court, it’s decided that teen lovers should be tied together with sacks on their heads and beaten, and a young woman caught masturbating is forced to reenact it for a jury of men. Seeing the horrific worldview that the islanders develop, fuelled by xenophobia and misogyny, will set alarm bells ringing for anyone who’s been bored enough to argue about Brexit on Twitter. It’s a testament to both the incisive genius of Charlie Brooker and the depressing consistency of the shit-rag that is the Daily Mail that the characters still repulse – and induce nervous laughter – 16 years later.

Speaking in 2012 with comedian Richard Herring, Brooker admitted that he couldn’t have predicted a reality show like I’m A Celebrity… where “someone from Busted eating a kangaroo anus has become mainstream entertainment… that’s fucked up.” The increasing absurdity of real life television had rendered the once transgressive ideas of TVGoHome pointless to Brooker, and the web offerings petered out in 2003. In 2017, where a large slab of uncooked ham with some felt stapled to it is the President of the United States, Brooker’s views on the endlessly flushing toilet of mass media seem eerily prescient. “You’d never create a character like Donald Trump” he said in a BBC interview, “no one would find it plausible.”

“The increasing absurdity of real life television had rendered the once transgressive ideas of TVGoHome pointless to Brooker”

In the intervening years following the end of TVGoHome, Brooker emerged as a bona fide TV personality in his own right, breaking down the conventions of production, writing, and advertising in the fascinatingly meta Screenwipe series, easily one of the most unique TV shows from the past twenty years. Brooker absorbs and explains the nuances of television so adeptly, it’s no surprise he’s able to mimic and subvert them to such great effect. His work on things like 80s spoof film homage A Touch Of Cloth, and jumpy zombie series Dead Set (mostly taking place in the mid-00s Big Brother house) set Brooker apart as one of the most adaptable and intelligent writers in TV today.   

With his masterwork Black Mirror, Brooker has embodied the angry, iconoclastic creator of The Twilight Zone, Rod Serling, echoing the the standalone episodic structure of the sci-fi anthology, and using the genre and its trappings to speak about very 21st century anxieties. While Brooker has often appeared to squeam at being labelled a satirist, there’s little doubt that much of his work, like Serling’s, is injected with a seam of morality, whether it’s worrying about our possible dark intentions when using new technology, or questioning the cultural worth of vapid reality TV.

Black Mirror’s explorations of humanity’s dark impulses are, in many ways, a culmination of the themes Brooker touched upon with TVGoHome, and throughout his career. His fatalistic peeks into the near future, laced with black humour, serve as beautifully constructed reminders that we should retain a healthy suspicion of the powers that be, and the apparatus by which they now seek to distract and control us.