Well then. Fifteen Million Merits last night, right after the X Factor final. Who watched? What did you think? For me, it made me realise how good I’d found The National Anthem, how disturbed I’d been by it and how thought-provoking I’d found it, whereas Fifteen Million Merits (FMM for short, because I’m not typing that every few minutes) left me cold, for the most part. And not in a cold sweat, which is what happened after last week’s. I think because I reacted so extremely to The National Anthem – too upset to sleep, flashbacks throughout the week (especially when a particular sound effect came on in The Archers, oh Jesus), and I was still thinking about it yesterday and making connections; it was going to be tough for anything to compete with that.
Funnily enough, the general consensus seems to be the other way round, that this week was genius, and last week was…well, something to be consigned to a pig sty. All I know is, during TNA, I was gripped for every single ghastly minute. During FMM I kept pulling up the TV guide on screen and making sure I wasn’t missing any good films. Then I spent most of the time on Twitter, which is both exactly what Charlie Brooker probably wants but detests me for at the same time.
So, FMM. Where to begin? We start with scenes of Bing (the amazing Daniel Kaluuya) waking up in his screen-bound world, losing merits for every time he ‘takes’ something – toothpaste, skipping an advert, eating some food – and gaining them by just pedalling on a bike for hour on end, presumably generating the energy needed to run the technology that is keeping everybody prisoner. We see a selection of the ‘entertainment’ on offer, and let me tell you, there’s no such thing as ‘Frasier’ in this dystopian future. Nope, it’s all fat people stuffing their faces, computer generated bike rides, and X Factor style ads for ‘Hot Shot’ (a talent show) – oh, and the ‘Wraith Babes’ channel. Bearing the example from TNA in mind (i.e. everything you see means something), I knew to keep an eye on this ‘Wraith Babes’ malarkey, and that this wouldn’t be the last we saw of it.
Bing is in love with a girl called Abi (Jessica Brown Findlay), but in a world where everything is controlled and manufactured, can their love exist? So far, so 1984, as I’m sure everybody said. Being TV illiterate, I haven’t seen either Downton Abbey or Fades, which is what the two leads are known for being in, so I had no frame of reference for them as actors. I thought they were fantastic, and not unlike the way Rory Kinnear and Lindsay Duncan made TNA by playing it gruesomely straight, these two carved something from the script by injecting a very natural, very real romance into a world where everything is false.
PLOT TIME! It takes ages for the plot to get started, unlike the ‘PIG SEX’ precisely one minute into TNA. I think it’s to build up a picture (or, screen) of the eye-bleeding monotony of their lives, where everything, including porn, is prescribed. The edge has been taken off everything – fruit is all too perfect; the Wraith Babes seem to be performing a very clinical, softcore, Britney Spears backing dancer-esque set of wriggling about; anything created is chucked. Abi constantly makes little origami penguins, which the yellow-clad cleaners throw away repeatedly. ‘Debris’, they mutter as they swat the little birds from around her. So Abi and Bing slope onwards in their pointless lives, watching crappy TV, and listening to a guy who REALLY reminded me of comedian Lee Mack yelling at the screen and at the cleaners.
I am the MTV generation folks, whether I like it or not. My attention span isn’t the best. I was flagging around 40-50 minutes in, wondering where the scathing dissection of the X Factor was that I’d been promised. Christ, the only reason I’d sat through the bloody X Factor final was to provide some context for this show! Dear Mr Cowell, I will be invoicing you for the two hours of my life that I shall never get back. Anyway, Bing hears Abi singing in the bathroom and tells her she should enter ‘Hot Shot’. She explains that she lives ‘hand to mouth’, that she can’t throw away the merits needed (the Fifteen Million of the title.) Bing promises he’ll give her his. It’s a sweet scene, both actors play it very innocently, making it all the more unbearable when the huge screen opens up next to Bing broadcasting the Wraith Babes to all and sundry. Oh, didn’t I mention? The screens are like those hideous targeted ads that stalk you around the internet. You know, when you accidentally scroll your mouse over them and they open up and pelt you with loud noise and you can’t turn them off. Well, imagine that following you around. On all your walls.
Bing is embarrassed, because the screen clearly projects what you’ve been watching previously, or something similar. Now this is the KEY POINT. You’ve got to watch Abi’s reaction when the trashy looking Babes come on. She sweetly averts her eyes and looks at the floor until it’s gone, then raises her head awkwardly. This is the reaction you need to remember as foreshadowing of what’s to come.
Read Part Two here: