TV: Nathan Barley – Series One

The cast/crew bit: written by Charlie Brooker & Chris Morris, starring Nicholas Burns, Julian Barrett and Claire Keelan

The 10-word synopsis: Sombre journalist wages his own private war against ‘The Idiots’.

There’s a part of my brain that thinks that Nathan Barley may be the best sitcom ever made. It’s a buoyant, bizarre concoction of wandering ideas and stray characters. Every second of Nathan Barley feels out of place, like the show isn’t suppose to fit together. Each actor seems to give a performance that feels like it’s in a different program to the next. There’s a lack of consistency that seems to characterise the series. Almost everything good about Nathan Barley can equally be seen as a criticism and, for this feat alone, you can’t help but praise the team behind it.
Written by Charlie Brooker (Doing the complete opposite of the already-reviewed and quite brilliant Black Mirror) and Chris Morris (AKA Denholm from The IT Crowd) and directed by Morris himself in 2005, the series was spawned from a Radio Times parody created by Brooker on the turn of the millennium. Following downbeat writer Dan Ashcroft, (Played by Julian Barrett of Mighty Boosh fame) Nathan Barley is more focused on being a satire of the dotcom boom than a ‘proper’ sitcom. The knowingly intelligent and talented Ashcroft is stuck writing for bottom-of-the-pile magazine Sugarape, a publication whose idea of a smart cover story is a series of pictures featuring over-age unclothed girls who they’re pretending are under-age because it’s funny. The series kicks off as Ashcroft has just had a column published entitled “Rise of the Idiots”. There’s no point me trying to describe the majesty of Brooker & Morris’ spot-on take on a certain cross-section of society. Said column is acclaimed by those whom it is trying to ridicule, which is almost everybody else in the series, including the titular Nathan Barley.

Barley is a surreal character. Portrayed by Nicholas Burns, he proclaims himself a “self-facilitating media node”, and that’s one of his tamer lines. Too stupid for his own good, he runs a website called (Registered in the Cook Islands, natch) that posts pranks and all kind of nonsense. He has a strangely likeable aura about him. He’s not a Father Dougal figure, providing comic relief in response to plot developments. He is the plot. It’s a series that takes create liberties with its narrative. While there is a progression from point A to B in each episode, to call each one a ‘story’ would be very generous. That’s part of the beauty of it. There’s a lot of Barley trying to somehow charm Dan Ashcrofts’ sister Claire (Claire Keelan) into something resembling a relationship, which is probably the real downpoint of the series. The wondrous thing about Nathan Barley is that it is surreal. It doesn’t have to try and do comic romance. It’s better than that. While it never gets laborious or cliched, it just feels a bit more sitcomy than anything else in a program that’s otherwise a refreshing take on the genre.

The rest of the cast is terrific. While the Ashcrofts take an irony-free approach to things and Barley is like nothing on this earth, lead idiots Rufus and Ned run riot. Played by Spenser Brown and the IT Crowds’ Richard Ayoade respectively, the latter especially stands out, playing the exact opposite of Moss. Starting virtually every sentence ‘Like’ and ending with ‘Yeah?’, they’re well-observed characters, really hammed up for comic effect. And it is very funny.

Benedict Cumberbatch is also involved- The star of Sherlock plays a middling, shy accountant, who takes his small part very well. Meanwhile, Q from the next Bond film, Skyfall, Ben Whishaw, finds himself being bullied and beaten in almost every episode by Barley. He’s also very good at that whole ‘being a bit pathetic’ thing. In fact, it seems a shame to single anybody out, as the breadth and width of performances on show over the six episodes is remarkable, and a credit to director Morris.

While I would completely understand somebody claiming that Nathan barley is one of the worst things they’ve ever seen, I can’t help but disagree. The show is different. That’s a word that seems to get bandied about, but the manic energy that seems to propel the show from scene to scene seemed to draw me in. The only constant value is the lack of consistency. It’s a program thats’ satirical routes are buried deep within the uncohesive dirt in which its’ seed was planted. The oddball, off-beat nature of the show is deliberate, the show being shot as though it itself is one of the ‘idiots’ it refers to. There’s a structured opening and satisfying ending. There are likeable characters and plenty of gags. Nathan Barley works as a television program no matter what way you look at it, but it may well be the case that some of you don’t understand what you see. That’s alright, that’s fine, but the part of the brain that ‘gets’ Nathan Barley is one that I, personally, would find irreplaceable.

7 websites registered in the Cook Islands out of 10

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