Although Charlie Brooker and Chris Morris have called this show ‘Nathan Barley’ in order to attract those who know the character from Brooker’s TV Go Home website, they’ve realised that Nathan – an upper-middle-class London media dilettante and fool – may be a great creation, but he isn’t a lead character. Anything that happens to him is inherently meaningless, so it’s impossible to care.
Instead the show is anchored around Dan Ashcroft, who seems a lot like an identification figure for Brooker: Ashcroft’s creative vitriol and cynicism are appealing to precisely the kind of person he despises, and the more he hates them the more they love it. He also realises that just because he is aware of the idiocy of this self-obsessed media-fashionista world, does not mean that he is not an idiot himself. It’s this fascinating process of self-loathing that drives the programme, rather than Nathan’s intermittent gibberings.
It’s easy to see why Morris (originator of ‘The Day Today’, ‘Brass Eye’ and ‘Jam’) has been drawn to this project, because watching ‘Nathan Barley’ involves a sort of self-reflexive masochism that eventually drives you insane. As a cult programme which will be watched most enthusiastically by the sort of people it portrays, the very act of liking it raises the question of whether you too are one of the ‘idiots’. The act of writing about it and trying to be clever about it (yes, as I’m doing now) only raises the question even more forcefully, as does the act of trying to separate yourself from any notional ‘idiot’ portion of the audience because that’s exactly what an idiot would do. Ow, ow, ow.
Ashcroft is brilliantly portrayed by Julian Barratt, one-half of comedy duo The Mighty Boosh: coincidentally, I’ve had the Boosh’s old radio series on constant rotation for the past two weeks and have started to suspect that Barratt is an excellent comic actor. ‘Nathan Barley’ proves it, as he plays Ashcroft with an expression of dull pain and a sense that he suspects, every minute of the day, that his soul is rotting away.
When Ashcroft realises that he’s screwing up the job interview which could be his ticket out of the smug, juvenile offices of Sugar Ape magazine, his broken delivery of ‘I don’t want to go back, because they’re idiots… and they ride around on little plastic tractors, so… please?’ has remarkable pathos, so much so that one barely considers pointing out that he’s got a nice, cushy job and there are worse hardships than putting up with some braying morons for a few hours each day. This is the trick which ‘Nathan Barley’ must repeatedly pull off in order to retain the viewer’s sympathy. Morris’ oppressive, over-lit visual style therefore suits it very well: the world in which this all takes place seems completely isolated, turning it into a strange little inescapable hell.
Some have suggested that ‘Nathan Barley’ is likely to mean little to anybody who has never encountered the world it portrays. If true, the show again falls victim to accusations that it is like its own characters – self-important, wrongly assuming that anybody else gives a toss about what their cliquey little circle is interested in. Personally I think the show works because Ashcroft provides a sympathetic access point. However, given that I once did some freelancing in an office which had table football, I am possibly not the best judge of this.