Monday, 11 July 2011

Retrotastic - Nathan Barley

It's well weapon.
Nathan Barley was ahead of its time. It came too soon and faded away in a puff of obscurity and audience apathy. I think it's one of the greatest sitcoms to have spawned during the 2000s. Let me break down and pitch this 2005 sitcom to you, the savvy 2011 audience.

Nathan Barley was written by Charlie Brooker and Chris Morris. Yes, the UK’s favourite critic and curmudgeon, Charlie Brooker. A man who in 2005 was lesser known than he is now but no less grumpy and brilliant. And Chris Morris. THE Chris Morris of The Day Today, Brass Eye, and Jam. A comedy genius and demi-god.

So we have two fantastic writers, PROVEN writers, men capable of making us laugh our lungs out – what’s the concept?

Nathan Barley is based on an item from Brooker’s TV listing spoof site, TV Go Home. Nathan Barley was listed as a reality show that followed the eponymous Barley around and broadcast his weekly activities for our derision. It’s all available here (it contains lots of sweary words so watch out):

Nathan Barley the TV show is a sitcom that drops the reality show idea and instead follows the life of perpetually skint journalist, Dan Ashcroft (played by a pre-Mighty Boosh famous Julian Barrett). Dan hates his life, hates his social circle, and spends his days writing articles he doesn’t want to write for an editor who clearly delights in torturing him (played with wonderful, sneering, malevolence by Charlie Condou). Then one day Dan encounters Nathan Barley, a self-facilitating media node, or idiot as Dan repeatedly calls him. Nathan runs his own website,, a place where he uploads prank videos, urban art (inspired by Banksy but with none of the intelligence), and terrible flash animations. Nathan is a loud, swaggering, insecure, cock, desperate to impress anyone and everyone with his 'art'.

The problem with this concept is that in 2005 YouTube didn’t exist as we know it today. YouTube didn’t exist. Twitter didn’t exist. Facebook was in its infancy. Bloody hell. Can you imagine the primitive hell hole we all must have lived in then? So the idea of someone being ‘internet famous’ and having a social profile online was an alien concept for the majority of the primitive, stupid, 2005 audience with their books and outdoor living. I bet some of them still used dial up connections. Or MySpace. Poor bastards. The world of Nathan Barley must have come across as some bizarre fantasy world, alienating and frightening. Of course now everyone is plastering their stuff all over every social media site in the universe, and we have all seen a YouTube video and are no longer confused by moving images on a website. Anyone who lives in a metropolitan city has seen the idiots in action, in their natural environment. And while print media and the lifestyle magazines lampooned in the show are slowly dying, they're now all over the internet so now there's no real reason to feel alienated or not really understand who the show is mocking.

Another problem for new viewers is that there are no sympathetic characters. Dan Ashcroft is the closest to a viewpoint character but he’s a hard man to like. He’s miserable and hypocritical with a superiority complex. Nathan Barley is an obnoxious, nonsense spouting, idiot. Claire Ashcroft is less dislikeable than her brother Dan but it becomes clear that her moral principles can be easily compromised in her struggle to publish her work. But then, isn’t that realistic? Isn’t it good that a somewhat larger than life, exaggerated sitcom has characters with actual personality traits and recognisable behaviour? Other supporting characters in the show are broad comedy figures but then most of them are supposed to be ‘idiots’ (apart from Jonatton Yeah? the editor of SugarApe magazine and someone who seems to be above, but also revels in, the idiot culture).

To offset the strange characters and setup, the cast is uniformly excellent. Here’s a list of some of the very talented people in the show:

Nicholas Burns (in the comedy performance of his life as Nathan Barley)
Claire Keelan
Julian Barrett
Noel Fielding
Richard Ayoade
Charlie Condou
Nina Sosanya
The Actor Kevin Eldon
Rhys Thomas
Benedict Cumberbatch

All very capable, funny, comedy actors. Hell, one of them became Sherlock Holmes.

2005's problems aside, Nathan Barley is very, very funny. From the ludicrous fashions that the idiots wear to the unique dialogue spouted by Nathan Barley and his new media peers, it's all weapons grade silliness. Dan's repeated attempts at escaping the idiot lifestyle are hilarious and excruciating at the same time and become ever more desperate. I would guess that Dan is an uncomfortably familiar figure to a lot of frustrated misanthropes.

I would recommend you buy it on DVD because the menu is amazing in its own right. Each menu page has a sketch or scene of its own running in the background, specially made for the DVD menu. Here’s a compilation of the various menu bits that’s really fantastically well cut together:

The entire series is available on YouTube if you’d like to dash off and check it out. Episode one of Nathan Barley is here.

Here’s an interview with Chris Morris and Charlie Brooker, looking back on Nathan Barley. Check it out, it's well fucking futile.

Also, here's Jonatton Yeah? being a tosser (I love it):

Keep it foolish.

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