The British sitcom Nathan Barley is ten years old, and it is still painfully, searingly relevant.
The titular character of Nathan Barley is what people might be tempted to call the “proto-hipster.” He describes himself as a “self-facilitating media node” and he is the alpha male of massive tech-fetishist Shoreditch twats. (That’s “Williamsburg twats” to you New Yorkers.) His main method of transport is a child’s neon yellow bicycle. His mobile phone splits in half to become “mp3 decks” so that he may obnoxiously scratch records at the back of the bus. His ringtone is a chainsaw noise to the sound of a man screaming. He is obsessed with putting facile shit on his website trashbat.co.ck (which still exists online), is an incredible sadist, a voyeur, and is devoted to the use of offensive or disgusting language. He is a man who will appropriate almost anything from culture to stay relevant. When he is in bed with a woman (a miracle) he puts on Dub and grinningly raps about the sex acts he is about to do on her. He is a white man who calls other white men “my n*****” because he thinks it makes him relevant. He is simply the most offensive person I can even think of, and this program exists solely to point out how terrible he is and how that seems to pay off. It’s such a powerful character that if I met the actor who portrayed Nathan Barley, I’d immediately feel annoyed.
We are living in an era in which you can make money from asinine videos of petty japes and racist and offensive language on Youtube more easily than Nathan Barley creators Charlie Brooker (Black Mirror, Newswipe) and Chris Morris (Brass Eye, Four Lions, The IT Crowd) ever envisioned. I also live in an era, and work in a business, in which people fervently watch “unboxing” videos of special edition videogames—where someone will just take a new game out of a box and show you what is in it and you tune in to watch. I personally will sit and watch ten second videos of cats falling off tables for hours for very little reason other than they’re pointless and amusing and at my fingertips. You can put almost anything up there and there will be a person out there who thinks your obnoxious shenanigans are great. There are more Nathan Barleys these days than ever before and everyone is an accomplice to him.
I’d be kind of remiss if I didn’t say that since my first viewing of Nathan Barley, I have both interviewed and worked for Charlie Brooker, the co-writer and inventor of this show. But I was pretty much already indoctrinated by the virtues of the show by the time those opportunities arose, because the first time I met Charlie Brooker I asked him about Nathan Barley. He told me that he thought that the show had predicted the rise of Youtube. No one back in 2005 was really using Youtube: it was too slow to load, and the video diary hadn’t really taken off in the way that Nathan Barley is portrayed as investing in. This is probably one of the reasons that the ratings for the show were low at the time (but sales of the DVDs would turn out good). It has become more relevant as time has gone on.
The thing is, if I didn’t know a fair amount about Brooker’s career I’d think that Nathan Barley is purely an attempt to lampoon young people in a brush-off of epic proportions. The reason I know that isn’t true is that, well, he told me he saw a lot of rich twats writing screenplays in cafes in Notting Hill, which is what inspired it, and because the Nathan Barley character Dan Ashcroft exists.
Dan Ashcroft is an arse who is aware that he is an arse and is just really bad at getting a job that doesn’t require him to be an arse. He writes for a magazine called Sugar Ape, although the lead creative has redesigned the logo so that it deliberately looks like the more offensive Suga Rape. There is much to suggest that this publication is meant to be a piss take of VICE magazine, to the extent that there is an episode where Dan Ashcroft forces himself to have “straight-on-straight gay sex” with a builder in a pub toilet to write a piece for the “Vice edition”.
The first episode sees Dan Ashcroft write what would now be called a “thinkpiece” (but back then was probably just an opinion) entitled “The Rise Of The Idiots”, in which Ashcroft outlines his hatred for the Nathan Barley figure (“they babble into handheld twit-machines”) and his joke-obsessed, teen-mentality Sugar Ape colleagues. The piece ends with the sentence “The idiot doesn’t think about what he says, thinking is rubbish, and rubbish isn’t cool.” It skewers everyone in the spectacle-obsessed culture he sits in.
The piece, in modern parlance, “goes viral”, and everyone knows Dan’s byline. But essentially he has made Sugar Ape more popular just by writing about how much he hates the Sugar Ape culture. Ashcroft tries to escape Sugar Ape to write for the Weekend On Sunday, and the interview is probably one of the most painful interview scenes ever committed to television; Ashcroft realizes that writing about anything other than the facile culture he is already immersed in is way, way out of his depth. At the culmination of Dan Ashcroft’s interview for a prospective column on wine they ask him which wines he likes. He lists regions, ending in “Dutch.” At this moment I always want to pour some ketchup on my knuckles and proceed to eat my own hand.
I write about videogames for a living. Charlie Brooker used to do the same. Dan Ashcroft’s attempt to escape is much, much too close to home.
The privileged, tech-obsessed, neophile boys-with-toys culture perpetuates itself. You survive by assimilating. By the end of episode one, Dan Ashcroft has begun to play Nathan Barley’s reinvention of the game “rock paper scissors,”, called “cock muff bumhole,” and when the receptionist, his only ally, catches him playing it (“I thought that was for idiots?” she says) he suddenly realizes that maybe he isn’t above it all after all. Crestfallen, he realizes he is one of them, and all he can do is participate in the culture of oneupmanship by trying to take down the worst of the competitive, jerk-obsessed culture’s culprits: Nathan Barley. The culture becomes centered around what Nathan, a man child, does and what he thinks. “He’s a genius, but he’s an idiot”, Dan Ashcroft says at one point.
Early on the head of Sugar Ape “Jonatton Yeah?” (he got the question mark added by deed poll) describes what sort of “content” he is looking for: “Stupid people think it’s cool, smart people think it’s a joke which is cool”, and this sentiment is echoed throughout the series. The character played by the now incredifamous Richard Ayoade suggests that “cock muff bumhole” is “good because it looks like it’s good because it’s rude.”
The division between the tech-fetishist Nathan Barley, a character who is hugely unaware of how transparent and hollow he is, and the disinterested Dan Ashcroft, who is completely aware of how transparent and hollow he is but sees no way of making money outside of the weird symbiotic relationship he has with the culture around him, represents a kind of horrible reality. You realize that when you write about Nathan Barley, you are writing The Rise Of The Idiots. And that makes you into the kind of arse who is aware that she is an arse and is just really bad at getting a job that doesn’t require her to be an arse. You spend your life being aware of the sort of divisive shit that gets traffic, and trying not to write it (“good because it looks like it’s good because it’s rude”) only to understand that if you don’t do it, someone else is going to get rich off it. Really, you are never financially rewarded for being a good journalist and person, though people like to think that you are. You are usually financially rewarded for being an absolute knobend to people. For cruelty, for putting people down, for “exposing” someone as a fake, or for an interview in which you might be hostile or sarcastic to the interviewee. You are financially rewarded for providing the spectacle of the purest lows of the human condition. Charlie Brooker’s later work also explores this theme: in the Black Mirror episode “15 Million Merits”, the main character earns his fame from a desperate breakdown and impassioned rant live on television.
Most of the time when you watch Nathan Barley you tell yourself that you are Dan Ashcroft, or Claire Ashcroft, the wholesome, earnest documentarian in the show, but really everyone wants to be a Nathan Barley, because he doesn’t need to make money and his arrogance makes him untouchable. He’s never unhappy or unfulfilled. He’s silly, childish, outlandish, and because of that everyone wants to be around him. There aren’t many British people my age and in my line of work who wouldn’t have a chuckle if you said “Totally Mexico”, “Well weapon”, “Peace and fucking, believe!” to them. Nathan Barley is a kind of hero, in that because we are paying attention to him we don’t have to examine why we are playing the Dan Ashcroft role.
If you’ve never seen Nathan Barley, on this, the tenth anniversary of its birth, you really should watch it. It hasn’t dated at all, apart from the fact that you would no longer get £1000 for a cover feature. It is enrichingly funny in a kind of Peep Show manner, it is silly and weird and has the sentence “we checked and pigs have absolutely no idea” and the word “creativilisation”. It’s what British comedy should be: a hilarious and incisive dissection of humanity’s worst parts. Have a look if only because of early appearances of Richard Ayoade, Julian Barratt, Noel Fielding, Benedict Cumberbatch. Stephen Mangan even turns up to do a comedy turn as a man in a cheap porn video.
Chris Morris and Charlie Brooker, the British TV equivalent of a supergroup, basically made a sitcom about what it is like to work in media in 2015. And they made it in 2005. Keep it livid. Peace and fucking. Believe.
Cara Ellison travels around the world on a dime and writes about games for places like The Guardian, Rock Paper Shotgun and, yes, VICE (keep it livid, yeah?). She tweets at @caraellison.