The comedian looks to a utopian year 2067 in Britain, where no one eats meat any more.
(Top photo: BBC)
Simon Amstell was flying home from Thailand once and a monk was on the plane.
"I decided that he seemed like he had a calm that I could do with, and thought maybe it was Buddhism. When I got home I read a book about the religion but didn't become an actual Buddhist because it seemed like a lot of work, so I just stopped drinking alcohol and eating animals instead."
Did that work? Did he feel calmer? "Well. I'm in therapy, which helps," he laughs, loudly.
We're in the BFI cafe ahead of a screening of Amstell's new BBC vegan mockumentary Carnage, and he's understandably nervous, prayer beads in hand under the table. Whether he found calm in becoming a straight-edge vegan or not, I doubt he'd have had as much insight into what he's been writing about had he not. Take, for instance, the plot point involving men meeting women in dark alleyways to pay for breastmilk after animal products have been outlawed.
Some context: Carnage is a mockumentary set in a utopian 2067, full of enlightened young people disgusted at the idea that their grandparents ever ate meat and drank milk. Almost everyone is vegan. By looking back at Britain's bloodbath of a past, the documentary makers aim to break the taboo of talking about a time when eating animals was normal, while also showing compassion for the complicit masses – poor grandad, he just ate beef because society told him to – who didn't know any better. The obvious comparison is drawn to our awkward relationship with war atrocities and those who committed them.
The cast is a who's who of British TV legends, featuring Joanna Lumley, Lorraine Kelly, Vanessa Feltz and Eileen Atkins, among others, as well as a cameo from JME, a vegan. In short, it's extraordinary and, perhaps surprisingly, to non-vegans and veggies, so hilarious you might cry.
"I had to watch myself at parties because I was ending up quite unpopular. If at any point Carnage became on paper preachy or annoying, we made sure something really funny was really near to that bit so people would be laughing rather than feeling judged."
"I watched a film called Earthlings years ago and it helped to upset me into veganism, so I thought what I could do was direct a film that was funny about the same subject so that people could watch it and feel wildly entertained as well as feeling mildly upset," Amstell laughs again. "I had to watch myself at parties because I was ending up quite unpopular. If at any point Carnage became on paper preachy or annoying, we made sure something really funny was really near to that bit so people would be laughing rather than feeling judged. It is quite a compassionate film."
After setting the scene in this woke new era with ethereal young people being touchy feely and kind to each other, it jumps back to real footage of the first British vegans, daring to be different. They're twee, country-dwelling, carrot-munching dweebs – everything the old vegetarian stereotype used to conjure. "Looking through the 70s archive it became apparent that vegans trying to convince people to be vegans was very funny, and so we realised that we needed to take the piss out of vegans more than anything for this to work. So if you are a person who currently eats animals and you think vegans are ridiculous, then this is the film for you."
The film pans through decades of adverts, TV shows and cultural artefacts, which – in the context of this new vegan world – look very strange. One standout moment is a clip of Nigella Lawson preparing a chicken; she makes a smiley comment about admiring and respecting the bird, then casually smashes her weight down onto its body, making a horrible loud crunch. From there on, the film explores Amstell's imagined cultural and economic battleground, where the vegan movement grows in Britain and manages to overthrow a country that's always adored its meat-and-two-veg. The furious middle-class white man who feels unsettled in a changing world is played brilliantly by James Smith, AKA The Thick of It's Glenn Cullen, who livestreams himself ranting and going into vegan cafes, saying stuff like, "So depressing, the first thing I see is a lentil," mocking the customers with: "Does this make you interesting?"
Regardless of Carnage not being judgmental, I wondered how he convinced the BBC to let him do a film about veganism – which, for all its laughs, does make consuming animal products look completely ridiculous and, at times, gross. Turns out the BBC invited him. Producer Janet Lee asked if he had anything in his bank that would be suitable for a film that was peculiar and daring enough to cause a fuss. "Years ago I had a bit in my stand-up where I talked a bit about being frustrated with living in the present, and how I'd rather be in the future looking back at this time so I could rant about all the things that I find upsetting or appalling or horrific. I remember when I wrote that thinking, 'Well, this is a good angle for something at some point.'"
And so Carnage's year 2067 was born.
"If you don't feel empathy for the cow or the pig who is having its throat cut or being shot in the head even though these are animals which definitely feel pain, then I just don't know"
What does Amstell think it would take to make this utopia a reality? In the fake history, the final push in a changing climate is a technological advance that allows animals to speak to humans (in Joanna Lumley's prerecorded mechanised voice). It takes something as drastic as having to hear their pain in the English language coming from their lips for Brits to not be able to ignore what they are doing any more. "Is that what it will take?" he muses. "I hope not. I hope that by the point we have Joanna Lumley saying, 'Why do you keep trying to make me ejaculate?' it is already so obvious that this bull's sexual preference would not be to be masturbated by a human male. Will Joanna Lumley saying that be enough?"
He's laughing so much to himself that he's forgotten the question, but has a more serious point to make – as sincere as the footage of slaughter houses sparingly dropped in among the laughs. "If you don't feel empathy for the cow or the pig who is having its throat cut or being shot in the head, even though these are animals which definitely feel pain... if you don't feel that and aren't concerned or upset by what is happening on a mass scale, then I just don't know. I think that a lot of the world's problems could be resolved through empathy, through letting go of the idea that you are the most important person in the world. Which is a very difficult thing to do because we definitely think we are. The answer is, most definitely, compassion."
Carnage is available from 19 March, 9pm, BBC iPlayer.
More on veganism:
Clean Eating Is Giving Veganism a Bad Name