After our popular look back at AD/BC: A Rock Opera back in March, we continue our series of retrospectives with Babyonfire’s focus on the cult classic Nathan Barley.
You could say that the list of hidden television gems that root from The Boosh is endless, but one that stands out from the rest is Nathan Barley. Made in late 2004 and broadcast on Channel 4 the following February, the show was the brainchild of the legendary Chris Morris (of The Day Today, Brass Eye, Jam and more recently The IT Crowd fame) and the popular television and newspaper critic/ranter Charlie Brooker.
The show follows its titular chavesque character (Nick Burns – who also cameo’d in The Mighty Boosh as the King of Xooberon) who runs a popular website, trashbat.co.ck. Barley, and those who circle around him are are a representation of the young modern society, believing Freddie Starr is the original Bill Hicks, playing filthy variants of Rock Paper Scissors, and taking gadget whores and narcissists to the extreme (see Nathan’s phone, the fictional ‘Wasp T12’ which has a handy projector, mp3 mixing decks and a business card printer!).
And Barley is not the only one. From the writing team on trendy magazine SugaRape (including a regular appearance by Richard Ayoade), to the recurring character of hyper DJ raver Jones (a brilliant turn from Noel Fielding), the show is a fantastic look at how teenagers (and indeed, people in their twenties and thirties!) are so obsessed with being different, that they end up simply blending in with everyone else is attempting the same thing. One look at Camden life today, for example, where you can’t walk through the market without seeing someone with a hair style that doubles their height, or see pub dwellers in sunglasses, draped over their chair with a false air of self-importance and ignorance in equal measure, demonstrates that as ever, Chris Morris understands society better than most of us.
So too, does Dan Ashcroft, played by Julian Barratt. Dan is a writer who looks down on Barley’s type, and writes an article entitled ‘The Rise Of The Idiots’, ranting on about the idiocy of the younger generation who ride around on bikes small enough for clowns or wear flip-flop shoes on their head (quite literally). It’s a piece that is teeming with Charlie Brooker’s sledgehammered nuances, and much like Brooker and Morris’ work is probably too clever for its own good, as Barley and his website Trashbat claim Nathan local fame amongst his fellow ‘Idiots’, and cite Dan as a journalistic God whilst oblivious to the fact that Ashcroft would rather gouge his eyes out than associate himself with the lot of them. It’s a show filled with hard-core cringe moments where you cannot bear to watch but can’t look away at the same time. It clearly has the Morris stamp on it.
The Nathan Barley character originally sprited from Charlie Brooker’s spoof Radio Times listings website TVGoHome. The thought of Morris stepping up to co-write and also direct the show had its doubters. The question of his inexperience at handling a sitcom was a concern for many, whilst others naturally feared what he had in store next – understandably after the furore over his spoof news show Brass Eye, and its final special episode on paedophilia in which he convinced several celebrities, including Phil Collins and Gary Lineker, to fully support the charity “Nonce Sense”, warn against the dangers of “Hoecs Games” on the internet, and infamously got radio personality Dr Cox to claim that paedophiles have more genes in common with crabs than with the viewers at home. The special caused an uproar, with hundreds of complaints made and questions brought up about its suitability in parliament… so the anticipation behind Morris’ next project was very high indeed.
Yet when the show was aired, at around 10pm every Friday night (Post watershed, shock horror!) it didn’t exactly peak in viewers, despite a spoof-product advertisement campaign in which Nathan plugged his Wasp T12 phone. Those who watched, however were treated to a highly intelligent study into life in modern Britain, that was also hilariously funny and was bursting with cameos. As well as Fielding and Ayoade, there were other nice little treats for comedy fans: The Fast Show star Rhys Thomas appeared as a recurring character, Mat Horne was a rewarding surprise as a shopkeeper, Julia Davis has the shortest cameo known to man, and there’s a hilarious appearance from The Actor, Kevin Eldon, who is almost unrecognizable but a great laugh in his only scene – I’ll let you guys spot him!
Despite low ratings, the show developed a cult following to say the least. As word spread about, the DVD rose in popularity. And it’s a great package – including the pilot episode, deleted scenes, and a few hilarious radio podcasts with the Idiot boys from SugaRape and Nathan. There was also a little booklet of Barely’s handy work around London. A lot of the images are very obviously Banksy inspired (such as the kissing policemen), which is appropriate, as Nathan Barley has been compared to the rebellion of the street art movement a fair few times. The set is also region free, so anyone can watch it worldwide!
Noel Fielding has mentioned a good few times that he has been working with Chris Morris on a project, though no more details have surfaced. I think it’s safe to say that the prospect of a Fielding-Morris collaboration is mind-boggling and I’m sure many are anxious to see the result! As for Nathan Barley, Morris and Brooker have both stated they plan for the character to return, though the last mentions were over two years ago, and whilst in several interviews with Nick Burns the actor has said that he would love to return, he suggests however, “now there are too many people in real life like that“.
The show probably wouldn’t make the same sort of impact as it did in 2005, and now, 5 years later I wouldn’t suggest anyone holds their breath. But Brother Nathan speaks the truth, no?
The DVD is still available to purchase at various stores and online. If you haven’t checked it out yet it is highly recommended, especially if you’re a fan of Morris’s previous work or love a bit of dark, cringe comedy. Not so much if you’re a cat lover though…