“I have written and directed a film about veganism,” says Simon Amstell of his directorial debut, Carnage. “I’m sorry.” That’s all you need to know about the film, which is now available exclusively on BBC iPlayer. Before you steer clear of a heavy-handed lecture, though, hold your horseradish, because this is a witty, entertaining watch.
Set in 2067, when the human race has apparently converted entirely to veganism – an alternate universe to rival The Man in the High Castle and SS-GB for unnerving chills – the mockumentary looks back at the years when people slowly began to realise the horror of consuming meat, eggs and other produce sourced or derived from animals. The film purports to explore the strange, alien idea that humans and animals aren’t equal, aiming to break the taboo surrounding Britain’s carnivorous past.
It’s a neat way to tackle an oft-derided concept, by deliberately presenting what’s considered normal as the absurd – but Amstell, crucially, doesn’t lose sight of the ridiculousness of his own concept. And so he juggles the serious stuff with the less serious, laughing at the early evangelists of the vegan movement as much as he laughs at those slowest to be won over; a delicate balancing act that will keep non-vegans in the audience from tuning out.
That’s not to say Carnage goes easy on its viewers; in order to explain the idea of eating meat, the film has to explain the gruelling ways in which the meat is made. And yet that’s not most disturbing part, as Amstell gathers a whole host of familiar faces to talk in convincing, compelling, conflicted tones about milking cow being tantamount to raping them.
Carnage intersperses this footage, some of it alarmingly graphic, with an impressively diverse array of archive material – and an even more impressive knack for faking footage that can be spliced seamlessly among the facts. There’s Paul McCartney recording a song for “Meat-Free Mondays”, a holiday that Amstell’s future narrator describes as “almost as offensive as Ethnic-Cleansing-Free Tuesdays”. If you giggled at that, you’ll be chuckling throughout, as Gemma Jones and other shell-shocked celebrities all sit around in self-help groups guiltily reciting the names of cheeses they used to like.
The real star, though, is John Macmillan, who plays Troye King Jones, a fictional activist, singer, writer and hero of the vegan movement, who manages to be as daft as he is charismatic. He recounts this fake history with a bluntness that recalls Chris Morris in his Brass Eye and The Day Today prime, helping to sell such claims as a supposed Fun House-style kids’ show – propaganda sponsored by Birdseye. The spectacle of children grabbing novelty, over-sized sausages and getting sprayed with dairy is simultaneously laugh-out-loud funny and unsettling – and, most of unsettling of all, is the knowledge that, deep down, you may even feel yourself being won over by Amstell’s viewpoint.
The only problem is that once you raise the spirit of Armando Iannucci and Chris Morris, you immediately pale in comparison. Carnage is a slim 65 minutes, which means it doesn’t outstay its welcome, but you may end up wishing it was a shorter, sharper TV episode or a slightly more in-depth feature. While Amstell’s voice owes a lot to Morris and, more recently, Charlie Brooker, though, it makes up for that with brash intellect and sheer commitment to its cause; the comedian never flinches from his message, but never ducks a punchline either. The result sits naturally alongside BBC iPlayer’s growing library of experimental original films, from horror patchwork Fear Itself to Adam Curtis’ ambitious essays Hypernormalisation and Bitter Lake. Like those, Carnage feels like something too unconventional for traditional TV. Unlike those, this has Martin Freeman talking about cows.
“I have written and directed a film about veganism,” says Amstell. “I’m sorry.” If you laughed at that, you’ll love this. A thought-provoking, rib-tickling, stomach-churning satire.
Carnage is now available exclusively on BBC iPlayer.