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Nathan Barley (10 Years On)


"I'm an Idiot and so are you"

On its debut in February 2005, Channel 4's new comedy Nathan Barley was met with a shrug. Despite being a collaboration between Chris Morris and the then hot, young thing Charlie Brooker it received poor ratings and a lack of interest from critics. Many saw its satire on a desperately hip, moronic sub culture dripping with irony outdated, as attacking the Cool Britannia of the late 90s that had passed with 9/11. Nonetheless, written by Morris and Brooker, and starring Julian Barrett the show had plenty to laugh at and found a loyal following on DVD.
A decade on, the show has been given a major reappraisal by the broadsheets and others. This is partly due to the current stature of those involved, namely Charlie Brooker (Chris Morris meanwhile has remained unchanged for twenty years, as a deeply private and somewhat feared comedy auteur). Having risen from the gloom of his settee on late night BBC Four, Brooker has been involved in plenty of high-end programmes you're well aware of, crowned by Black Mirror. Increasingly popular on Netflix in America, the show seems ready to catapult Brooker to transatlantic stardom as a serious curator of speculative fiction.



The other reason for Nathan Barley's new found acclaim is the appearance of everyone's favourite hate figure, the hipster. The show is now considered not outdated but prescient. Dan Ashcroft (Barrett) finds himself surrounded by people he labels “the idiots”, who delight in the superficial, the controversial and the narcissistic. They dress in bizarre clothing and hairstyles to be unique, creating a uniform. They greet each other with ironic insults and drink strange cocktails in gentrified pubs with names like the Nailgun Arms. Art, whether retro or cutting edge is ransacked to create mash ups that require no meaning or purpose, as long as they are cool. King of the idiots and focus of Dan's loathing is Nathan Barley (Nicholas Burns) a webmaster/guerilla film maker/DJ/“self-facilitating media node”.
The parallels to hipster culture are obvious but to simply high-five the writers for noticing a distinct group of twats first would be doing the show a disservice. The series begins with Dan writing a brutal article attacking the idiots while working for Sugar Ape, an unendingly ironic magazine seen as the bible of cool for these proto-hipsters. Naturally they assume he is laying into other people and it raises him to hero status amongst the idiots as the “preacher man”, complete with a black Lee Van Cleef getup. It's a rich comedy vein and Julian Barrett is at his bumbling, misanthropic best as his anger is mistaken for sarcasm and his despair for detached cool. However this world view, whether it's Dan's original or the interpretation made by his unwanted fans, of a sane few against a specific gaggle of morons, quickly collapses upon inspection. I think this is the real through line of the show and what makes it good satire.



We meet Dan when he is at his wit's end, loathing his co-workers and all the inhabitants of his fictional, trendy corner of East London. Yet he's obviously lived there for some time, has established a career within that world, and socialises with these people in their stupid bars. He focuses his hate on Nathan Barley because he is every dislikeable idiot trait turned up to eleven but Dan is the one being hailed as their new god. In fact Nathan idolises him more than anyone. The running joke that the idiots have no self-awareness is not something our protagonist is totally innocent of either. In different scenes, we see Dan become addicted to a cruel Bum Fights-style betting game (that the idiots consider hilarious because the brutality is obviously ironic) and orchestrate a filmed Jackass prank. The latter is to humiliate Nathan but the end result is no different from the videos that have given Barley his limited celebrity.
Finally, in a small scene, Dan orders a hideous coffee at a cafĂ©, filled with breakfast food, knowing Nathan will ape him. The gag backfires when the media node enjoys the drink, leaving Dan to yell helplessly “No! I beat you! I beat you!”. I mention all these examples because recent anti-hipster news was dominated by Cereal Killer, only to be trumped by Simply Crispy, with both being attacked as childish novelty restaurants by and for posing twats. Thing is, Simply Crispy, home to all your Belfast crisp butty needs, was created as a “satire” of Cereal Killer, an in-joke for the owners. Unlike the Fruit Loop-flinging trust fund babies of Shoreditch, these guys are veteran restaurateurs, mocking the ridiculousness of it all. Yet the result remains the same. I have no doubt most of their customers are free of waxed moustaches and fixed-speed bicycles, and many have visited simply to see this stupid hipster place for themselves. This leaves you with a spiral of ironic intent in which the staff and the customers are laughing at each other. Though there is an obvious winner in this case, as sarcastically-given pounds are still legal tender.



If Nathan Barley provided any prediction of 2015, it's not of an elite cadre of pillocks, it's the complete saturation of a generation in pointless, unceasing irony, pop culture references and fear of sincerity. You might loathe hipsters but if you're a millennial there's a good chance you've visited an artisan burger bar. You've laughed at Frankie Boyle's jokes about disabled people even though you're a right-on liberal. You own skinny jeans. You've sipped spirits from a jam jar while sitting in a bar/storage container. You bought a Super Mario alarm clock from a charity shop. You've worn a distressed t-shirt with Darth Vader quoting Snoop Dogg. Hell you've probably got Mumford & Sons followed on Spotify, right? I've heard all of these (or variations) used as signs of a hipster, more often than not from people who fill some of the criteria themselves. I know I do.
Dan is a protagonist we can relate to not because he is the only sane man in Nathan Barley but because of his confused hypocrisy, his mocking jibes and the trouble he has separating himself from the idiot culture around him that he claims to hate. I don't think Brooker and Morris were aiming for some 5 minutes into the future prediction. They rightly mocked some stupid cultural trends but also pointed out a timeless lesson – getting on your high horse is a dangerous game.


Nathan Barley's six episode run is well worth a watch for the dark, often vicious comedy Brooker and Morris are known for. The whole thing is available to view on 4oD.

 
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