Thursday, September 17, 2009

"The Idiots are winning" - Brief Retrospective Notes on Nathan Barley

Nathan Barley was a sitcom broadcast on Channel 4 in the UK in February and March 2005 created by Charlie Brooker and Chris Morris. It followed the lives of a few characters involved with the hipster media in London around that period. After intense pre-screening hype, it suffered something of a critical backlash upon transmission and never really found the popular audience it might have done.

- Ridiculously prescient. Frighteningly. About New Media, pop culture, London...watching it now it feels like so much of it came true. The omnipresence of YouTube, most obviously. Mobile phones that do everything.

- The mixed reception it received at the time seems baffling in light of its obvious and outstanding quality. As is so often the case, it may have had much more to do with expectation than actually taking the work on its own terms. Because it was subject to some astonishing hype. Chris Morris, whose importance has been increased by the relative infrequency of his output, was working on a sitcom. This was a big deal. Not only that, but it was being co-written by Charlie Brooker, the hipster's favourite TV critic and creator of hilarious, way-ahead-of-its time website, TvGoHome. How could it go wrong? Surely it would be the funniest thing EVER? Not only that, it would be satirical, darkly political and multi-layered, like all the best Morris material. And splenetic and passionate like Brooker's writing. It was gonna be AMAZING!
And it is amazing. In its small scale, human way. Its focus is precise and right on target - it takes aim at a tiny subculture of hipster Londoners. They existed - back then, at any rate - in Hoxton and Clerkenwell and Shoreditch, they worked in New Media, they were fashion pioneers (skinny jeans, "Hoxton fin" hair etc) and plainly, they were loathed by Brooker and Morris. Because Nathan Barley destroys them. It observes their little world perfectly, mocks their cultural reference-points and lifestyles, and rips them to shreds.

- But it does this through an unexpectedly traditional format. This is a character-based sitcom. Every episode creates a situation and then maneuvers these people through it. There are dilemmas, there is embarrassment, there is humiliation. Nobody really grows or learns a thing. Barley himself only ends one episode as the butt of the joke, and that is forgotten by the next episode, when he is again obliviously incorrigible. Dan's pain, by comparison, builds up as the series continues, driving him more or less insane.

- Ben Wishaw as Pingu delivers a full-on method performance in this day-glo nightmare of a sitcom. He is incredible. Pingu is perhaps the most human element of the show; an open wound of anxiety, shyness and fear, tormented by Nathan, in love with Clare, too weak to do anything about either situation. Wishaw's battery of microscopic winces and barely perceptible grimaces is brilliantly deployed until his few moments of hope and happiness become heartbreaking. I've seen him be great in other things, and I'm sure his career will have its fair share of triumphs, but here he is perfect.

- Dan the Preacherman is Brooker's take on his own persona. Or Morris' take, maybe. A bitter, angry drunk who is trapped in a job he never wanted, surrounded by people he considers "idiots". Whose personal life has already slipped away. Who is having to compromise in his work, to his own disgust. Who has made a brand out of his disgust and then finds it lapped up by those who disgust him.

- A certain tiny slice of London life is generally ignored by the mainstream media, who concentrate upon the middle classes, the working classes, and the upper classes. But these young people, living "media" lives in their funky urban areas, with influence over fashion and music and pop culture in general, they are ignored. Nathan Barley, on the other hand, ignores just about everyone else and concentrates only on a single idea -that these people talk a lot of rubbish, create a lot of rubbish and don't really matter at all. But they are unintentionally funny, in their oblivious solipsism. Their clothes and hair are funny, the music they like, art they patronise, magazines they read - these are funny. The show's parodic versions of music and art aren't even all that parodic - they are so close to what they parody they could almost be real. SugaRape in particular.

- "Well random." "Well Bum," "Peace and fucking," "Michael fucking Jackson," "Later treacletits," "Well brown," "Later sugartits," "Watch the fuck out," etc etc. On an on. Almost the best part of any given episode were Nathan's inane, bizarre catchphrases.

- That cast! Both of the Boosh boys, Wishaw, Matthew Horne, Benedict Cumberbatch, Nina Sosanya and Stephen Mangan among others. Attracted by the Morris name, no doubt, but watching it now it seems (by UK tv sitcom standards) outrageously classy.

- Speaking of the Boosh boys, I've never liked Noel Fielding, since I saw him do stand-up a long time ago. Some aspect of his kooky wannabe rock star persona irritates me. And here he is cast as vaguely unlikable, which pleased me immensely, and works in the programmes favour.

- It makes me miss TVGoHome. Charlie Brooker will never be better than he was then, before he started working for the man. Hes still funny, mind. Especially in his Preacher Man mode.

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