Dead Set - can you briefly sum up what it's about?
I guess it's a fairly standard nightmare scenario - Britain is overwhelmed by a kind of zombie apocalypse which wipes out pretty much everyone in the country, from hot dog sellers through to the people who pay the wages of hot dog sellers. Just about the only people who aren't aware of it, initially at least, are a bunch of contestants in a fictional series of Big Brother. It's inspired by Dawn of the Dead, which is set in a shopping mall. I guess you'd say it's a horror-thriller with satirical, darkly comic undertones. But mainly it's a horror-thriller.
Are you a fan of the real Big Brother?
I'm ambivalent, really. I've written about it a lot, and made hay slating various contestants. I've got a slightly odd relationship with all reality TV, in that I watch a lot of it and get drawn into it, and yet at the same time you're slightly appalled. It's a similar thing to playing video games - you get drawn in and enjoy yourself, and then when it's over, you feel like you've wasted a lot of time. You get people who define themselves by how much they hate shows like Big Brother. They'll practically tune in and then sit with their back turned to the set just to underline how much they hate it. I'm not one of those, and nor am I one of the people who turn up waving a placard on eviction night. I'm somewhere in the middle. I suppose most TV is a distraction from something or another. That's kind of a theme in the show, we're kind of distracted by a lot of entertainment in this day and age, and obviously in vaguely making that point, what I've really done is create a zombie-romp that will further distract people from whatever might be more important in their lives. I've basically made the problem worse.
In choosing the Big Brother setting, are you satirising reality TV, or is it just about the fact that it's quite a good setting for a horror series?
It's kind of in-between. In the original Dawn of the Dead, which was sort of a model for this, the setting has obviously got satirical undertones. I would say the same about this. But while you could spend your time watching it thinking ”Mmmmm, yes, a satirical point”, most of the time you're going to be thinking ”Help! Here come the zombies!“ It's kind of a scary romp, first and foremost. It's not a chin-stroking exercise.
Were you concerned with making it a realistic version of Big Brother?
Yes. And we wanted the backstage stuff to be as accurate as possible in some respects. So we went along to an eviction a long while ago now - this shows how long ago the idea began. I went along to George Galloway's eviction. I snuck along, and got to go behind the scenes. I went in the camera run, which was very instructive. It's very creepy there - it's like being in an aquarium. It's a very quiet, dark environment, and you're looking through the glass at these creatures that aren't really aware of your existence. And sometimes these people would stare directly at you, and a little frisson would go through you, and then you'd realise that they were looking at their own reflection in the mirror - which obviously, being celebrities, they did a lot. I realised that the camera run was a really creepy place, so you start to think how scary it would be if there was something in the camera run, and you didn't know it was there. So it could see you, but you couldn't see it.
You've talked of your love of zombie films. What is it about zombie films that capture the imagination?
I really don't know. I've thought about this, because I'll watch anything with a zombie in it. But I just don't know. What I like about zombies is that they are thick. I don't like watching horror films about, say, a serial killer, where the villain is a brilliant intellectual, and could also double as the controller of Radio 3. The serial killer is always one step ahead of the police, and taunting them. Whereas most serial killers, in reality, are so mentally deranged that they wouldn't be like that. And I don't really relate to vampires or ghosts. I don't find them particularly frightening.
But zombies are different? Yeah. In the original Romero movies, zombies were this big dumb mass of stupidity. The protagonists always get complacent, because these things are shambling around quite slowly and can't keep up with them. And then by sheer weight of numbers they get overwhelmed. So if you live in a city, you're surrounded by people constantly. If you imagine something suddenly afflicted them all, and they were all coming after you, then you're in big trouble. It's a fear of an anonymous mass coming after you. Except, of course, modern day zombies have evolved. They learnt to run in about 2002. Which is probably good, it gives the genre a new lease of life. We considered having your old-fashioned, stumbling zombies in this, but it felt more in-keeping with a fast-paced TV thing to have running zombies. There's something visceral about having a bunch of zombies running at you. And it means you don't need a huge mass of zombies for effect to start with, and then when you do see a huge mass of them, it's particularly horrifying.
Is it true you appear as a zombie in Dead Set?
Yeah, I have a little cameo. What was frustrating was that I couldn't be a featured zombie, I had to be a B-list zombie. I was supposed to be a featured zombie, but my eyes are too weird and bug-like. They couldn't put the contact lenses on me - they tried shoving them in for about 15 minutes, and every time I blinked they came out. My eyelids are too thin or something.
There are quite a few cameos from former Big Brother housemates, aren't there?
Yeah. They've not been cast in huge roles, where we expect them to act from beginning to end in each episode. They are cameos. There's a logical reason for them to be there. We have them all down at Elstree for a special edition of BBLB, and it's on eviction night, which just happens to be when the zombie apocalypse thing really starts to happen. We wanted people from various different series of Big Brother. We had a load of old housemates, and they were all exceptionally pleasant, even the ones I've been really rude about in print. In fact, I think the rule is, the ruder you've been about someone in print, the nicer they turn out to be, and the bigger an arsehole you feel for having been unpleasant about them. Anyway, we've got a great mix - Bubble, Helen, Kinga, Eugene, Makosi, Ziggy and Brian - a real mix of people from various years. Those bits are almost documentary style - we just put them all in a room together and got them to chat while we walked around with our cameras. Then we did some nasty stuff to surprise them, and recorded their reaction.
Davina McCall is in it as well. Did she get stuck in with her usual gusto?
Yes, she did. You couldn't have something set at a Big Brother eviction night without Davina. I don't want to give too much away, but she's in it quite a bit, playing quite an unexpected role, and she's brilliant. She hurled herself into it, and I think she'll really surprise people. I don't think they'll quite believe what they're seeing.
You filmed scenes with the crowd outside the Big Brother House. Was that a real eviction crowd?
Yeah, we filmed outside the house on the night Belinda was evicted from this year's show. So before she came out, we 'evicted' a member of our cast. And we'd previously shot a post-eviction interview with her and Davina. The whole thing was improvised and authentic. Davina was just brilliant. She charmed everybody. And wouldn't you know, I've been rude about Davina before - that's a classic example of someone turning up who's so incredibly pleasant that you just feel 'Who is the arsehole in this scenario? It's definitely me!