Drawing tortuous parallels between music and comedy. The adherence to abrasive laughs; jokes and set pieces that challenge, that drift to the dark side – the comedic equivalent of a Sunn O))) record perhaps, or some black-hearted psychedelia from the malilluminated corners of free-form jazz. It’s eight years since Nathan Barley swaggered onto our TV screens – if “to swagger” is the correct verb; I’ll also accept “staggered”, “mooched” and “vomited”, this assault upon all things hipster. Flawed, darkly beautiful – I’d love to be able to write “ground-breaking” – which it isn’t – so I won’t. And yet what it does accomplish over each six, half-hour episode – as well as riffing upon a rich seam of twisted humour – is how it takes aim at a wide tranche of popular culture in such the bruising fashion. Metrocentricity, fashion, journalism, visual art, music, film, technology, the internet, and how we as a species relate to each; all come in for a sound thrashing (as does Dave Stewart of Eurythmics, for reasons left unexplained). As satirical contexts they’re hardly original targets (Dave Stewart aside), but to pillory in such an uncompromising fashion is rather rare in what is, effectively, mass-market, post-pub television.
Background: Nathan Barley the character – this self-titled self-facilitating media node – first appeared on TV Go Home, a parody TV listings website of the early 2000s, written by a certain Charlie Brooker. Alongside shows such as Daily Mail Island (Week 26, and the islanders fit a group of dogs with tiny uniforms and force them to parade through the centre of the village in honour of the Queen Mother’s 100th birthday, gunning down dissenters as they try to run away), Depressed Citizens Deliberately Dashing Their Own Brains Out Against The Concrete Floors Of Shopping Centres, and Downright Average Thick British Viewer Night – the latter since commissioned, for real, by various TV channels – Barley was the protagonist of fly-on-the-wall documentary Cunt; Brooker’s print persona has always been aligned to the cynical and misanthropic, and as the title of this fake show implies, Barley was a man totally devoid of redeeming features. A twenty-first century Dorian Grey; vain, self-obsessed, scruple-free. Financed by loaded parents, he ghosted around the production houses, swanky bars, and assorted media hubs of Soho and Shoreditch, the personification of style over content, hype over virtue, immediacy over the meaningful – each interaction emphasising how unpleasant a single entity could be.
As concepts, both Barley and the website itself were understandably one-dimensional; each episode’s brief summary lending the humour a brutal but essentially puerile edge. As a televisual proposition, the scope had to be far wider for any interest to stick, the comedy more nuanced; however amusing a few hundred words of outline may be (and that was all the website material ever was), no commissioning editor is going to commit to anything so uncooked. Thus the on-screen Nathan Barley, whilst still an odious creature, has many of his sharper edges removed. Instead, there’s an undertone of vulnerability attached to his persona; an essentially needy character, desperate to be at the centre of the zeitgeist but deep-down, never certain that he’s there – a subtle shift in dynamic from Barley online.
And so the wider scope. The vague adherence to the conventions of situation comedy. Of dramatic intent and narrative detail. And whilst the series may carries Barley’s name, he’s not necessarily the central character. He’s certainly present, smearing each scene with his idiot speak and idiot deeds, but that’s as a focal point for all this idiocy – he’s the King of the Idiots, the Emperor in his new clothes. Because one clever aspect of Nathan Barley lay in how the non-idiots – principally would-be film maker Claire Ashcroft and her brother Dan, the cynical features writer for hipster bible Sugar Ape magazine – fail to function in a world the idiots control. Aye, comedy as allegory, if you want to get deep about things.
Once we’ve been introduced to Nathan, episode #1 kicks off with the words of Dan Ashcroft’s state of the nation address, as published in Sugar Ape. It’s a rather famous monologue – I’ve used it before in a piece round these parts – but it perfectly sets the tone:
Once, the idiots were just the fools gawping in through the windows – now they’ve entered the building. You can hear them everywhere. They use the word “cool”. It is their favourite word. The idiot does not think about what it is saying. Thinking is rubbish. And rubbish isn’t cool. Stuff ‘n’ shit is cool. The idiots are self-regarding consumer slaves, oblivious to the paradox of their uniform individuality. They sculpt their hair to casual perfection, they wear their waistbands below their balls, they babble into hand-held twit machines about that cool email of the woman being bummed by a wolf. Their cool friend made it. He’s an idiot too. Welcome to the age of stupidity. Hail to the rise of the idiots.
I’d kill to be able to write something as well as that. Well, maybe not kill – maim, perhaps – but that’s not the point; this programme’s punch is delivered by the deliciousness of its dialogue. Acutely, relentlessly acerbic; absurd and near-the-knuckle and deeply, deeply funny. The manner in which standard English is subverted is, from a lexicographic angle, fascinating; the full quote as referenced in the title of this piece – declared by Nathan when inviting a woman to a party – is You should come, doll-snatch; it’s gonna be totally fucking Mexico. Dan, when reviewing the work of an idiot conceptual artist, finishes by hoping that someone will burn down his gallery and blow the ashes up his arse with a trumpet. Entire scenes ripple with intoxication; Dan – paint and even paint tin lids stuck in his hair – confessing to his bank manager that he’s just killed a hairdresser’s cat. Sugar Ape editor Jonatton Yeah?, replacing adjectives with theatrical facial expressions or a simple, louche etcetera. A diner in a hipster restaurant, advising that he’s communing in pleasantcy (sic)…
… and I could continue in that vein for quite a few more hours – this is being written with a smile plastered over my chops – and I think I know who to blame. Brooker shares the writing credit with director Chris Morris, and it’s the dialogue that has Morris’ fingerprints all over them. And there-in lay the central flaw with Nathan Barley; there’s two very contrasting comedic styles at work. And inevitably they clash; I’m not certain how correct I’d be by claiming that “written by Chris Morris, from an original story by Charlie Brooker” is a more accurate reflection, but both writers have such strong and distinctive presences in their material, it doesn’t take too much familiarity with either’s work to be able to identify the source of this joke, that scene, each swerve and every feint.
So yeah – the show has a disjointed quality, the plot of each episode feeling awkward and compromised. But that only matters if you’re looking for narrative truth – and you’ll be missing the point if that’s your gig. Because this is not only jaw-break funny television or the clever satire of London life; the most relevant character for the viewer remains Dan Ashcroft. It’s through the eyes of both Ashcroft siblings that we view this world of grotesques, but whilst Claire is essentially passive in how she engages with the idiots (and thus remains relatively immune to contagion), it’s Dan who travels from witness to participant – more coerced by happenstance (and his empty bank balance) than any outward attempt to integrate himself with the vogue. In fact, travel isn’t the right verb; it’s more a process of disintegration, arced across all six episodes, Dan at the beginning of the first episode a weary observer, left hospitalised by his own stupidity and very much within Barley’s sphere of influence by the climax of episode #6. Which brings me back to that allegory statement; Nathan Barley as a very modern parable. And an utterly joyous one at that. Totally fucking Mexico.
Oh – you can also watch the series on YouTube (and other places). You can thank me later.