Nathan Barley: A retrospective review, the self-loathing of Charlie Brooker, and the elusiveness of Christopher Morris

Nathan Barley‘Stupid people think it’s cool, smart people think it’s a joke; also cool.’

Nathan Barley aired in 2005, consisted of six episodes, received mixed reviews, bombed in the ratings and then disappeared. Since then, the show has become a cult hit celebrated for its prescience, and it regularly works its way into the vocabulary of cultured, TV enthusiasts. I think it’s worth taking a fresh look at the show, its relevance and themes, and the careers of those involved.

[You can watch the whole series on 4oD, or alternatively, on YouTube; Episode One, uploaded by Channel 4, or if that’s blocked for non-UK users, its also up in various parts]

Set in media trendy parts of London, the series is about Nathan Barley, a moneyed, obnoxious young hipster with a website; Dan Ashcroft, a writer for a counter-culture magazine who despises the people he writes about and the culture he is a part of; and Dan’s sister, a documentary maker trying and failing to get her serious issue films produced.

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At the time it aired, the show was criticised for having a very narrow focus. It satirised a specific type of London-based culture, as shown in the above video, and the critique from the London-based journalists was that only those familiar with the culture would get the joke. I’d argue that Nathan Barley was actually broader than that, but in any case, the show has had more success in recent years thanks to the growth of the culture evident in the show, and the fact that everyone is now familiar with it, thanks to the internet. Hipsters are now ubiquitous not just in London and other large cities, but everywhere, to such an extent that there’s even a backlash against the word hipster.

The show mocked these people for their desperation to be cool and their desire to appear to be creative and smart without having to put any work or thought into it. And it mocked the media for falling for such bullshit, and conferring inherent worth on anything with ‘.com’ attached to it and anything that tapped the ‘zeitgeist’. Nathan Barley embodied these types of people, and their pathetic attempts to be at the forefront of any ‘cool’ trend regardless of how idiotic.

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Nathan is actually a pretty empathetic character in the show. He’s not malicious in his dickishness, and you often feel sorry for him. Your shift in attitude towards him is mirrored in your attitude towards Dan Ashcroft. In episode one, he is portrayed as the audience’s surrogate, moored within a sea of stupidity. But as the series progresses, you realise that he is just as much of a dick as everyone else, but worse, because he thinks he’s better than them. He is completely complicit in the world, and more at home in that culture than any other. In one hard to watch scene, Dan attends an interview at a proper newspaper, only to fail miserably because he doesn’t have any ideas to pitch.

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‘I don’t want to go back. Because they’re idiots. And they ride around on little plastic tractors. So…please.’ Man, is that a hard scene to watch. It illustrates though the difference between many counter-culture – nowadays, mainly internet – journalists and newspaper journalists; the latter actually have ideas and do actual journalism, the former tend to write opinion, and there is often little beneath the surface. The magazine in the show, SugerApe, is based on Vice magazine, and its often smug, irony-laden reporting which can be guilty of having this lack of depth.

Nathan Barley was written by Chris Morris – one of the best UK satirists of recent years – and Charlie Brooker, famous now for Screenwipe and Black Mirror and various other shows, but at the time pretty unknown. I think there is a lot of Brooker in the miserable and misanthropic Dan Ashcroft.

Much of Charlie Brooker’s work has a streak of self-loathing in it. The Waldo Moment – an episode from the second series of Brooker’s Black Mirror – features as the main character an insecure TV satirist, who starts to think his comedy is empty and offers nothing constructive. Brooker himself is a TV satirist, who has made similar points in his Guardian columns about political criticism. In the Black Mirror episode 15 Million Merits, there is a character who gives an angry, genuine speech about the nature of society and entertainment, only to be given his own TV show where he spouts such opinions each episode for money. It’s basically Screenwipe; Brooker is openly criticising himself.

In Nathan Barley, Ashcroft works for a magazine he hates, writing articles that are celebrated by the people they are mocking. He is hailed as the ‘Preacher Man’ by the idiots he hates. Brooker once worked for lad’s mag Loaded, which is crazy considering his seeming dislike for that type of laddish, misogynistic culture. Here’s a quote from Brooker’s Wikipedia page, about his work for a different magazine:

In February 1998, one of Brooker’s one-shot cartoons caused the magazine to be pulled from the shelves of many British newsagents. The cartoon was titled ‘Helmut Wrestler’s Cruelty Zoo’ and professed to be an advert for a theme park created by a Teutonic psychologist for children to take out their violent impulses on animals rather than humans. It was accompanied by Photoshopped pictures of children smashing the skulls of monkeys with hammers, jumping on a badger with a pitchfork, and chainsawing an orang-utan, among other things.

That is like something straight out of Nathan Barley. The quote at the top of this article – ‘stupid people think its cool, smart people think it’s a joke; also cool,’ – from Dan’s editor in the show, could apply to Brooker’s cartoon, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Brooker found the satire in the cartoon – of video game violence, apparently – was lost on many.

One of the main themes in Nathan Barley is how people are co-opted by the stupid culture in the show. Ashcroft finds himself drawn consistently back to the world he despises, and his sister Claire takes money, equipment and jobs from Nathan, despite wanting to make serious films. Nathan Barley was in large part Brooker venting his frustration at the industry he worked in, and his frustration at himself for working in that industry.

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The other writer is Chris Morris, of Brass Eye, The Day Today and Four Lions fame, and one of the best satirists the UK has produced. The thing about satire is that it can often be misconstrued. Watch one of Al Murray The Pub Landlord’s shows to see an audience of people failing to grasp irony. There’s a scene in Nathan Barley where a TV commissioner – rumoured to be based on an exec at Channel 4, the channel Morris made most of his programmes for – talks in pretentious language about Nathan’s video pranks on a colleague. ‘It’s Swift as Jackass,’ he says. ‘Or…even faster,’ Nathan replies. You can imagine Morris himself attending such meetings, being told of the genius of his work by people whose opinion he doesn’t value.

The difference between Morris and Brooker is that Morris has purposefully avoided the media glare and celebrity, granting very few interviews and staying away from most mainstream television. I suspect it’s a deliberate attempt to avoid the trappings of such fame; of becoming a part of the things he satirises. Brooker on the other hand couldn’t resist the temptation of mainstream shows like You Have Been Watching and has made numerous appearances on popular television panel shows. Rather than avoid publicity and the mainstream like Morris, Brooker takes part in it and then vents his feelings via his writing – 15 Million Merits, for instance. Both he and Morris are concerned with the ability of the idiotic part of our culture to co-opt the intelligent parts, even the parts that are explicitly criticising the stupid bits. Nathan Barley is the most complete expression of this idea.

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As I mentioned above, the show is as relevant now as it was when it originally aired. There’s a great, very clever song on YouTube called ‘Being a Dickhead’s Cool’ which mocks a type of modern Londoner who wouldn’t be out of place in Nathan Barley. And here’s a video of the song being played live, in London, with an audience of people who dressed up ironically for the gig, to see a band mocking a culture they are probably a part of. It’s so many layers of irony you get lost in it and forget who you’re supposed to be hating. This is what Nathan Barley sought to capture; a culture of stupidity that everyone is complicit in, where it’s hard to tell who is genuinely creative, who is posing as being creative and who is being creative ironically. ‘Ironic porn purchase leads to unironic ejaculation,’ is the headline on an article from The Onion, which sums up the idiocy in ironies domination of popular culture.

The show’s themes are incredibly interesting, and if Nathan Barley falls down anywhere it is in more routine areas. The series wasn’t, for instance, hilarious, but the unique argot of the characters – ‘You should come, dollsnatch. It’s gonna be totally fucking Mexico’ – is funny throughout, and mirrored in modern day idiotic phrases like ‘totes amazeballs.’

The characters are very well written, evoking empathy and distaste in equal measure. The acting is so good it’s surprising that the actors aren’t better known now. Nicholas Burns and Julian Barratt are outstanding as the two leads, Dan and Nathan, and Claire Keelan is so good as Claire it’s baffling that she hasn’t had greater success since (same could be said for Nicholas Burns).

It’s often argued that Nathan Barley was ahead of its time, but I think it applied just as much in 2005 as it does now; it’s just that the culture it satirised has grown and spread and so now more people are aware of it. The show perfectly mocked the media’s childish desire to be cool, to be at the forefront of whatever is new. It brilliantly illustrated how intelligence and talent can be consumed by the idiotic mainstream elements in the media, and in society in general, and it depicted the smug and ironic attitudes of new media which still dominate a lot of online journalism today. The characters are so well rounded, the world so satirically over-the-top and yet accurate, that eight years after it aired it has stayed with people who watched its original run.

Nathan Barley deserves to be more than a cult hit, but I’m glad it isn’t; that way, I can be one of the cool guys tapped into the zeitgeist, writing online articles about the intelligent, cool shows most people have never seen. It’s only appropriate. Peace and fucking, yeah?

3 thoughts on “Nathan Barley: A retrospective review, the self-loathing of Charlie Brooker, and the elusiveness of Christopher Morris

  1. Awesome review. I myself didn’t take to Nathan Barley at first but after the second time I got it. It definitely ranks among my all time favourite TV and as with all classics it keeps getting better with time.

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