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  • Writer's pictureGeorge Morris

How 'Nathan Barley' Predicted Generational Discourse (among other things...)

A few months ago I wrote a piece on my exploration of whether cynicism was dying in film and television (you can read that here). In it, I wrote ‘Charlie Brooker and Chris Morris predicted the millennial/boomer discourse almost fifteen years ago with Nathan Barley, so of course by now they're sick of it and want to tell other stories’. Whilst I stand by that blanketed statement, I feel as though now through the show’s actual fifteenth anniversary, I could look deeper into the surprising accuracy of the show’s representation of the ‘self-facilitating media node’ and its prophetic nature on generational discourse. But first, context.

Nathan Barley is a sitcom produced by Channel 4 in 2005, created and written by Chris Morris (The Day Today, Brass Eye) and Charlie Brooker (Black Mirror, Dead Set). It focuses on Barley himself (Nicholas Burns), a self-titled media entrepreneur and twat who Brooker invented as part of a fly-on-the-wall web-documentary entitled Cunt on his culture parody site ‘TVGoHome’ through the late 90s/early 00s.

Barley runs a faux-anarchistic website filled with content spewed from whatever orifice isn’t currently busy talking shit. And as he saunters his way through East London and Soho, spewing phrases like ‘awesome Welles’ and signing off with the n-word (as if he’s trying to reclaim it, for whom we’re unsure) we’re made to believe that he is the epitome of idiot. The show, whilst not a hit, was a small cultural phenomenon and featured many names that would later become comedy and cultural mainstays including Noel Fielding, Julian Barrett, Richard Ayoade, Ben Whishaw and Benedict Cumberbatch.

It's equal parts manic fever-dream on hallucinogens and blistering outrage at the incoming technological presence of 2005. It was a world before memes became a personality trait, before vlogging, hipsters and the movements of social media. We were on the cusp of change, and it took a while for Nathan Barley to come to fruition outside of the odd character comparison, but when it did it hit big. On the show’s tenth anniversary I wrote something similar before realising The Guardian had just released an almost-identical piece (I won’t link it, for childish reasons of jealousy). I promptly scrapped it over fear of plagiarism but now, with the benefit of hindsight, it appears that the prophecy depicted in the show has calmed down. But more on that later…

The British public in 2005 weren’t ready for Nathan Barley. Sure it was easy to gawk and smile at the Banksy-like marketing campaigns and the utter futility of the character’s work, but its prescience has allowed the show to age like a fine wine. Whilst it’s clear to see now how the character himself has become a societal archetype, I’d argue the interactions and relationship between Barley and Dan Ashcroft (Julian Barrett) signify what would later become the generational discourse across multiple platforms.

Some of the show’s first moments revolves around Ashcroft’s editorial on ‘The Rise of the Idiots’ in the latest issue of SurgarApe. “Once the idiots were just the fools gawping in through the windows, now they’ve entered the building. They use the word ‘cool’ – it is their favourite word. The idiot doesn’t think about what it is saying – thinking is rubbish, and rubbish isn’t cool. Stuff and shit is cool.” Barrett’s Ashcroft is the antithesis of Barley in this introduction, a scathing cynical journalist fed up with the outlandish rise of ‘the creative’ that has grown from the aftermath of the 90s rave scene. However when we’re shown him in reality, away from the trimmed promotional photo from his article, he’s revealed to be a long-haired anti-commercialism vapid stereotypical misery guts. Of course, that doesn’t mean he’s not on the money…

But then again both central characters are more than they appear to be. Whilst Nathan Barley takes the utmost joy in vaporising the preconceived ‘idiots’ in the form of Ayoade’s Ned Smanks – another writer at SugarApe, it never settles for just the one dimension. Barley represents the younger generation, whether that be millennial (which would have been relevant at the time) or gen Z (as may be the case now) and how their ways of interaction and dealing with identity differ from the supposed ‘norm’ of. If the show had been made today, Dan’s editorial would lean into twitch streamers, Instagram models and tiktok celebrity. Nathan’s misplaced confidence and assured relevance irks him because…he’s jealous of it. That much is obvious. But their ongoing relationship signifies a more defined relationship that echoes that which we all share – especially when you add Dan’s sister Claire (Claire Keelan) into the mix.

Claire is a young struggling filmmaker looking to tell ‘real’ stories about ‘real’ people – whatever the hell ‘real’ means. She’s the show’s window into normality, and it’s through her struggles to be seen and achieve that we learn of the downside to both Dan and Nathan’s personalities/lifestyles. As the creator of the ‘central urban dispatj’, Nathan is creatively free and blissfully unaware of his luck, somehow affording a studio space that allows him to spend his days coming up with new slang (typically just putting ‘well’ in front of an adjective or noun – well technical) and pranking his animator Pingu (Ben Whishaw). Whilst his idiocy knows no bounds, there’s an endearing quality to him. He gives Claire not only some space in which to work in, but gives her free use of his equipment under the guise of altruism. Of course, Barley’s status and identity has no effect on the fact that he’s a creep who uses this as an in to sleep with Claire, but that’s beside the point.

Dan on the other hand, thanks to a familial connection with Claire, is revealed to be just as bad as the supposed ‘idiots’ he spends his inner-monologue-filled-life bashing. He has no ambition but to scream futility at a system he’s decided to antagonise. He hates the magazine he works at, yet cries ‘sell-out’ at those who’ve had the sense to move on to larger things. Because he’s free of keeping up this pretence in front of Claire, she’s usually the brunt of his grovelling for money. If anything, Claire’s the true hero of the story. She puts up with both sides of the argument and understands that in order to achieve something she has to tolerate/work with them. She knows and accepts the necessary evil.

But what does this have to do with generational discourse? I’m glad you asked. From the outside looking in it’s easy to accept Nathan Barley as two writers hammering down on the idiocy around them – one that went on to define latter generations. It’s taken on this mean-spirited persona in hindsight, and the relationship between Dan and Nathan (or more accurately, Dan’s idea of Nathan) encompasses this fully. Nathan represents the newcomers. Creatively-free with aspirations that aren’t afraid to do things differently, granted it’s taken to extremes and Nathan’s methods don’t deter us away from the fact he’s a scumbag but you can’t argue against the fact that the other idiots around him…are happy.

The whole staff at SugarApe are always laughing and enjoying themselves, wearing their happiness on their sleeves. And there’s definitely elements of jealousy in Dan’s character where he finds himself losing control and enjoying a game of Nathan’s twist on ‘Rock, Paper, Scissors’ (ingeniously titled ‘Cock, Muff, Bumhole’). If I were to paint with broad strokes I’d say that Dan is the personification of elder generation’s views on the younger. Or even other cultures as a whole at a stretch. Every one of his complaints and guttural suggestions of disappointment at the world around him could be answered with a swift ‘ok boomer’.

It’s funny that there’s no ill-will from Nathan’s end either. He continuously asks for Dan’s company, unaware of the man’s contempt for him. But Barley isn’t the best representation of this new-wave walking disaster. There’s an episode where Dan falls asleep with paint matted up in his hair and fools Nathan into thinking it’s a hip new hairstyle named ‘Geek Pie’ – prompting him to get the same look for a night of publicity, only for him to be laughed out of the club later on. The fragility of Nathan’s happiness is most clear in this moment, and it’s the biggest indicator that the confidence of’t self-sustaining. If he’s the metaphorical younger generation then this is a blip to the system, a slip-up that hits closer to home for him because his image is everything. If a young person makes a mistake on social media or posts something bad, it’ll have a much larger impact on them than if a ‘more-mature’ person did the same. There’s a level of thick-skinned-ness that applies here. As Community’s Jeff Winger would say “they’re part of the adulthood-begins-at-30 generation”.

Of course there’s no real age gap between them on the show, and all of this is just conjecture applied with outsider influence and the decade-plus of events since the show’s airing. Nathan Barley has managed to live a longer shelf-life because the objects of its fascination have continued to exist. There will always be Nathan Barleys. Whether they’re a failing company’s ‘trendy’ new CEO or the entitled struggle-blind rich boy who’s inherited success. On the other hand too, there will always be the cynical voice to fight against them with nothing but words and various annoyed grunts. “Nathan always wins” star Nicholas Burns said, and it’s true. Even after the temporary embarrassment of ‘Geek Pie’ he’s quickly ambushed by a Japanese camera crew looking to interview him about his transcendent new hairstyle that sparks a fashion revolution on the other side of the world. He’s a variation of the dim-witted idiot audiences love to watch.

Whilst the intentions of Morris and Brooker may have been scathing commentary against a backdrop of classical sitcom, fans of the show continue to return to it as a snapshot of 2005. It features a simpler time, before everyone became at least partly Nathan Barley. Shoreditch and London’s media capitol were still attainable if the staff at SugarApe were anything to go by. The outlandish examples of art galleries, club promotions and technological advancements aren’t as outrageous now that everyone has the potential to call themselves an artist. Instead, Barley has taken on a precautionary existence as a sign of who not to become in this tech-savvy world where everyone wants to make a lasting impression on the zeitgeist.

When the show originally aired one review claimed it was already ‘five years too late…woefully out of touch’ due to its apparent aim at the dotcom boom of the millennium. Little did they know. Nathan Barley continues to be one of the UK’s more interesting experiments in a time where television comedy hadn’t lost the rawness of genuine oddities. So sit back, read the walls instead of the papers like Pete Dougherty says, fire up that Wasp T12 Speechtool phone with portable DJ decks, catch some sweet stencilitis and follow the barlosophy. It’s like, trash, that’s all around us yeah? And bat…

I’m off now. Gotta attend a major blitzo up at the vice centre where a bloke’s taken all the batteries out of remote controls so you can’t change any tv channel in the whole building. It’s totally Mexico.

Peace and fucking…believe!

Nathan Barley is available on 4oD and DVD in the UK. It's well switchblade...

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