Nathan Barley – Why being cool is overrated
We take a look back at Charlie Brooker and Chris Morris's seminal sitcom Nathan Barley with Charlie Condou, who played ridiculous magazine editor Jonatton Yeah? in the show
Can it really be 11 years since Nathan Barley first screened on Channel 4? Arriving one year after the launch of Facebook, and one year before the arrival of Twitter, Charlie Brooker and Chris Morris’s six-episode sitcom chronicling the misadventures of an obnoxious webmaster and guerrilla filmmaker with a penchant for inane hipster lingo (“totally Mexico”, “well Jackson”, “peace and fucking”) was not a ratings success, and in the eyes of some critics, was too niche to travel beyond the boundaries of Shoreditch (renamed Hosegate, here).
Watching in 2016, it’s clear how prophetic it was. The idea of becoming a “self-facilitating media node” is now a viable career option – how else to explain the existence of David Shing? AOL’s 'digital prophet' describes himself as a “creative inventor of ideas for the future, influenced by the now.” Like Nathan Barley, 'Shingy' is prone to spouting gibberish: “pizzled” lies somewhere between “pissed off” and “puzzled” and according to Shingy, “is a whole other scene.” The world has been well and truly 'Barleyified.'
“I shudder to think how many Shingys there are in the world,” says Andrew Harrison of the Guardian. “Anyone who's been in any creative industry for a while eventually spots people who've managed to turn their self-designated cool factor into a self-justifying asset. For most of us Nathan Barley was a comedy but for a sizeable minority of viewers it seems to have been an inspiring text for future businesses and start-ups.”
'Self-facilitating media node' Nathan Barley (Nicholas Burns)
This month, there’s a retrospective screening of Nathan Barley at HOME, part of the inaugural Pilot Light TV Festival, brain-child of co-directors Craig Barton and Greg Walker (who has previously worked for Grimmfest). “Pilot Light came from my love of TV really,” explains Walker. “I do love film but in recent years, with stuff like Mad Men and Breaking Bad, TV has just gotten utterly amazing. So this led me to the question, 'If TV is so big, why aren't there more TV festivals?'” The screening will be followed by a panel discussion, hosted by Harrison.
Nathan Barley initially appeared on Charlie Brooker’s early noughties spoof listings website, TV Go Home, which featured imaginary programmes like Widdleplop Farm and the gasp-inducing Mick Hucknall’s Pink Pancakes. Barley was the star of an ongoing TV docusoap, charmingly entitled Cunt. The character was described as an 'odious 20-something toff, and media wannabe who genuinely deserves to die.' Chris Morris had written secret listings for TV Go Home, and suggested to Brooker that they develop a show around the character; the ideal prism through which to view and satirise East London’s pretentious art/fashion scene.
Great Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch in Nathan Barley
The television Barley is selfish, shallow and self-obsessed. But there’s also something oddly endearing about him, due in no small part to the irrepressible enthusiasm Nicholas Burns brings to the role. One of the joys of the show is its superb cast. There’s Ben Wishaw as bullied assistant Pingu, Richard Ayoade as gormless graphic designer Ned Smanks, David Hoyle as ludicrous music impresario Doug Rocket, and Noel Fielding as a caffeine-jacked DJ. As jaded hack Dan Ashcroft, Julian Barrett gives a superbly nuanced performance – a man drowning in a sea of stupidity. “That's what makes Dan a great central character,” says Harrison, “he's the anti-Nathan, trapped in a world he hates, but he'd rather snipe and complain and be superior than do anything about it. Nathan, on the other hand, loves Hosegate and everything about it. He is, in his stupid way, an idealist.”
Charlie Condou – better known these days as Marcus Dent in Coronation Street – played quietly-terrifying magazine editor, Jonatton Yeah? (Yes, the character had a punctuated surname). “We workshopped everything for about a year,” recalls Condou. “Everything was based on these workshops; we’d work on different scenes that Chris and Charlie had been writing. Some would be discarded, some would be changed and everything was constantly being developed. We didn’t actually get final scripts until we started shooting.”
Charlie Condou as Jonatton Yeah?
Jonatton Yeah? occasionally wore a military helmet, and had a drug dealer who happened to be a crow. Not your average sitcom character. “There were various things that informed the choices I made around Jonatton,” Condou explains. “I watched a couple of documentaries: one on Vice magazine and one on Dazed & Confused. It’s fair to say Jonatton is very loosely based on Jefferson Hack and Rankin. The question mark, I seem to remember, was nicked from my mate, the DJ Stewart Who?”
Brooker and Morris are especially good at highlighting and pricking notions of cool. The need to keep abreast of the latest trend has spiralled out of control: witness the speed with which the hideous ‘geek pie’ haircut goes viral across Japan. Being cool has turned into a pandemic. “The show captures the fact that most these characters are always on show and on brand, desperately trying to create their identities and be cool, whatever that means,” says Harrison. “Even Dan Ashcroft is trying to outcool the idiots at SugarApe magazine by looking down on them. Everyone's paranoid desire to be edgy is what drives the comedy.”
Dan Ashcroft (Julian Barrett) invents the geek pie style
“Being cool is massively overrated, and yet people seem to aspire to it still,” adds Coudu. “It’s all about ego; you’re getting affirmation from the outside, rather than within, which is why those with big egos tend to have low self-esteem.”
There were plans for a second series, which sadly never happened, but Nathan Barley is ripe for reappraisal. There aren’t many sitcoms crammed with this much supporting detail. A lot of stuff (shop names, graffiti tags, fashion wear, i-dents, film clips) happens around the edges, and are easily missed on a television screen: a poster for documentary Nazi Experiments in Colour; a book on feline aesthetics entitled Why Cats Paint; a pop video for a song called Terrorists are Gay. Maybe the cinema screen is the best place to fully appreciate the hyperreal brilliance of Nathan Barley.
As the man himself once said: “Today, ridicule. Tomorrow ... really cool.”
Nathan Barley screens in full at HOME, Manchester, 6 May. The screening is followed by a Q&A with Charlie Condou chaired by Andrew Harrison.
For more details of Pilot Light's lineup, go to pilotlightfestival.co.uk