Shoreditch Afterlife: Nathan Barley Revisited
Posted on Wednesday, 11 February 2015 | No Comments
Like The Guardian, but with words.
This piece originally appeared on The Spiral Groove at the start of 2014 - as that site is currently down (and since The Guardian seem to have done a bad re-write of the thing now), here's my take on the curious afterlife of Chris Morris and Charlie Brooker's Nathan Barley:
For a show that met a fairly tepid (at best) critical reaction and low viewing figures when it was first aired, Nathan Barley has done a good job in slowly amassing a cult audience. It’s hardly the first show to suffer commercially during its first run then slowly build momentum through word-of-mouth: just think of Arrested Development, Firefly or Freaks & Geeks. The difference though is that these shows already had a small but fervent fan base that actively recruited new members, thrusting box sets at those who missed out before. Despite being the child of Chris Morris and Charlie Brooker, Nathan Barley never had this groundswell of support. Hell, the Chris Morris fan base actively loathed the thing – just check this fake trailer for a second series for proof.
It sank virtually without trace at the time, and even the DVD took years to emerge, but somehow, Nathan Barley started on the road to rehabilitation. If you want something to try and stick itself into the popular psyche, then its well worth making sure that the ‘creative’ classes are fully on board, and let’s face it, it’d be hard to do so more efficiently than Nathan Barley. It might have been a satire of an arrogant, witless, closed-shop media world squandering its wealth and opportunity on childish drivel, but anything to do with the media is going to get anyone in that food chain rubbernecking for a look. Indeed, part of the show’s appeal must be that, no matter how ridiculous your look or your work may be to others, you can always point to someone else and go “see them? Now there’s a real Nathan Barley for you…”
The creative classes have always wanted to know how they look to those outside the bubble, so Nathan Barley’s focus on a small group of man-child hipsters in Shoreditch would always claim that crowd. Yet by the time of the series’ debut in 2005, the scene it was mocking – electroclash, proto-nu rave fashions and the final gasps as web 1.0 turned to 2.0 – already seemed out of date. Neil Boorman, editor of the bluntly-titled satirical magazine Shoreditch Twat, dismissed the programme on broadcast as arriving “five years after the fact, [mocking] trends which any 18- to 25-year-old stopped aspiring to some time ago.” Something of a failure for a man as renowned for cutting-edge satire as Chris Morris, surely?
Barley as a character had existed since 1999, as the protagonist of Cunt, one of the recurring fake programmes in Brooker’s TVGoHome. Having started off life as a truly repugnant, self-centred horror of a man, the eventual transfer to (real) television saw the character softened into more of a rich buffoon whose crass behaviour and consumerism is more than of a thirteen-year old boy with too much money and time available. Between the broad-brush approach to characterisation and humour of Brooker and Morris’s script and the overly-murky, of-its-time direction of Morris, for many watching the programme it felt like what had originally been apt, spiteful comedy had been rendered toothless in its pursuit of a zeitgeist it had fallen behind.
Obviously, the relative failure of the show didn’t do its main creative any harm. Chris Morris’s next project would be the superb terrorist satire Four Lions, a film that blended savage jokes and genuine pathos with rare precision. As for Brooker – between the various incarnations of his Wipe shows and his drama work like Dead Set and Black Mirror, it’s unlikely that Nathan Barley appears on his CV that much these days.
In some ways, Nathan Barley has honestly aged very badly: the visuals which looked dated then look positively pre-historic, while the attempt to muscle in on the post-Office trend for naturalistic acting ended up smothering a script that really needed big, obvious old-school acting to really work. It’s very far from the best work of anyone involved: watching Richard Ayodade or Benedict Cumberbatch in this, it’s hard to imagine that they would subsequently become an award-winning director and a hugely successful star respectively. There’s funny characters and good sight gags along the way, but watching all six episodes back quickly becomes turgid work indeed.
Curiously though, some of the satire here actually works far better in 2014 than it did in 2005. Instead of crumbling after the end of the dot-com boom, the cultural industries turned Shoreditch, Dalston and Hoxton into a virtual enclave: much of Hackney these days is home to the cultural hegemony of culture-as-product, with actual artists finding themselves priced out and upping sticks to new areas like Peckham, currently part-way through the gentrification cycle. The recurring shots of Nathan shouting obnoxiously on the phone while on the bus, to the discomfort of his fellow passengers, if anything seem almost quaint – get on a bus in East London these days, and the Nathans might well outweigh the normals. The idea that part of London has now become a playground for the terminally rich and deluded isn’t one that would meet much disagreement these days.
Surprisingly, much of its depictions of technology turned out to be ahead of the curve. The atrociously designed phone that Barley used, the Wasp T12 Speechtool, came complete with enlarged number 5 key, mini turntable decks and a whole host of other unnecessary features smothered in an unappealingly lurid design, was a misfire of a joke in the Age of Nokia, when the race to shrink the mobile down to a sub-atomic level was at its height. Now though, we live in a new era of Apple, and big is better once again. You can now DJ from your phone with an ease that Barley would surely declare ‘well weapon’, should you get bored of of planning your commute via jetpack or making your phone shag other phones. In the last few years, technology has gone round again from a font of sleek cool to a tool of mass irritation: a Trashbat app would surely sell rather well these days.
Nathan Barley as a show is also a comedy that, with hindsight, appears tailor-made for a culture of memes and Tumblr blogs. The poorly-detailed characters are often little more than catchphrases or ideas, but then that’s just enough to squeeze a series of gifs out of 15Peter20 or another game of cock, muff, bumhole down at the SugarApe offices. Littered throughout the series too are a clutch of blink-and-you’ll-miss-them visual gags and easter eggs, rarely noticeable on a normal viewing but tailor-made for DVD rewatching and screen capturing. It’s also worth noting how some of these gags remain depressingly topical.
Perhaps the greatest legacy of Nathan Barley remains the jaded, cynical editor of SugarApe, Jonatton Yeah? His smug, superficial editorial style is another broadside aimed at contemporary magazines like Sleazenation and Super Super, a publication which birthed a series of mini-documentaries that beat Nathan Barley at its own game.. Yet the presence of this figure, clearly older than his peers, driving culture down into the gutter looks very different now that Richard Murdoch has pumped $70 million dollars into pseudo-counter, pseudo-culture magazine Vice. Yeah? is the one truly sinister figure of the show, someone at once comic yet clearly operating according to his own agenda and willing to manipulate all those around him to achieve it. Perhaps the final, stinging joke of Nathan Barley is this: that middle-aged men working to ulterior motives always have and always will try and guide creative energy and passion to fulfilling their own ends, and that in the age of new media, it’s become easier than ever for them to make useful idiots of us all.
The idiots, of course, did not rise. Even while elements of hipster fashion and sensibility have bled into the mainstream of our discourse, they still remain too much of a figure of fun to ever be taken seriously, and Nathan Barley surely has a role in that. It’s still a frustrating mess of a show, with great comic moments and funny ideas wasted on a narrow premise and an uncertain tone, as if Brooker and Morris weren’t quite sure whether they wanted to make a knockabout sitcom or a scathing attack on media stupidy and ended up not quite managing either. Yet, as I’ve hopefully outlined above, many of the details and concepts mocked in the show feel more of the present now than they ever did in 2005. Either the show was far ahead of the curve or, more depressingly, all of our recent technological gains are merely sending us backwards. Or – and here’s the most worrying prospect of the lot – someone’s watched this and thought “yeah, I’d quite like to be like that Nathan guy…”