THAT Chris Morris – whose curse it is to have been the single most influentially creative force in British broadcasting for the past dozen years – is breaking television cover for the first time since the notorious Brasseye special of 2001 is already enough to have the usual knee-jerkers itching to react. That he’s doing so with a piece of work adapted from something called C*** (the word still generally regarded as the most offensive in the English language), would seem to confirm such yearningly outraged suspicions. But Nathan Barley, a modestly magnificent sitcom, is stranger, more conventional, sadder and almost sweeter than anyone could have expected.
The brainchild of TV critic Charlie Brooker, Morris’s co-writer, C*** was a highlight of Brooker’s TVGoHome, a lovingly, hatefully rendered website consisting of fake, fever-dream TV listings. (Brooker came up with the fictional show Vin Diesel’s 500 Favourite Tartans; Channel 4 trumped him with the authentic Trains With Pete Waterman.)
In Brooker’s mind, C*** was a fly-on- the-wall documentary series about Nathan Barley. Described as a “media wannabe who genuinely deserves to die”, Barley was a young, moneyed, slavishly stylish web-designer, mash-up-scratch-mix- guerrilla-film-maker and all-round ovine, honking poseur. Most of all, though, he was focus for Brooker’s loathing of people like that. Although his eye for the specific hideousness of the haircuts, T-shirts, hats, trousers, phones, opinions and gadgets the Nathans of the world parade around with was deliciously acute, C*** was essentially a one-joke piece, and the joke wasn’t about Nathans so much as Brooker’s utter, near-paralysing hatred of them.
In translating him to the screen, though, something strange has happened. While Brooker and Morris undoubtedly continue to despise all the other Nathans out there, they seem to have developed a tiny, grudging affection for their own.
Make no mistake, this Nathan remains a complete toad, at times – as when, later in the series, he raps a ragga commentary on his own performance while in bed with a girl – almost too senselessly odious to watch. And yet, purely because of how he’s played by relative newcomer Nicholas Burns – fixed, sleepy eyes, gangling gait, rabbity grin – this braying git has also developed a sickly glimmer of something that could almost be mistaken for charm. In acknowledgement, Morris and Brooker have one of the show’s few entirely likable characters, Claire Ashcroft (Claire Keelan), an earnest would-be film-maker, actually mistake it for charm – and end up being rapped at in bed as a result.
Disembowelling the tragically trendy isn’t new, and fashion-obsessed media clowns present an easy target. Neither of these facts, however, means you shouldn’t have a go at them. What pushes Nathan Barley beyond this one joke, however, is a new current of despair mixed among the general, raging, loathing.
At some point, I suspect, Brooker realised a large percentage of his online audience probably consisted of Nathans; indeed, that a website of spoof TV listings was something Nathan might do. (Actually, Nathan’s website, trashbat.co.ck – “Dot-cock, right? Registered in the Cook Islands?” – seems to exist primarily to show off his new mobile phone, which resembles something William S Burroughs coughed up.)
Similarly, Morris has seen a generation of pygmies play among the ashes of themes and styles he trailblazed. In any case, a sense of culpable angst seems to have fed the creation of the programme’s real hero, Claire’s brother Dan, a writer for style-bible magazine Sugar Ape, who has found himself guru to exactly the idiots he despises.
It’s Julian Barratt’s performance as Ashcroft that really makes me want to go and watch Nathan Barley again right now. Barratt is one half of the wilfully surreal comedy duo The Mighty Boosh. I liked The Boosh a lot, but was held back from loving them by the awareness I could never really get as far into their addled fantasyland as they were. Here, though, Barratt is the realest thing in sight. He walks around distracted but acutely aware that he is drowning. Wearing a look of perpetual, fearful, bewildered disgust, he’s stranded, frozen and baffled. He wants out of the yammering Sugar Ape world, but he doubts he’s capable of functioning anywhere else. With long black curly hair and an adventurer’s moustache, he looks like a dejected musketeer.
Voiceovers collide at one point to highlight the chasm between what Ashcroft thinks he’s writing and what the people who read it actually hear. Without sticking it in your face, Nathan Barley is loaded with many more layers of information, aural and visual, than a regular sitcom. Tapestries of music throb constantly. You need freeze-frame eyes to catch all the textural details: Sunday supplements promising stories like “Nicky Campbell: The Curse Of My Brilliance”; warped graffiti graphics; despicable video-art; fly posters advertising performances by “Aborted Tom”.
At this level, if you’re looking for Morris to be doing this kind of thing, it continues the virtually-real, ridiculously heightened acid-absurd cultural assault and warning of old. But Morris’s direction is a step back from that frontline, and a leap away from the intense, slow, sucking, ambient black nightmare of his own Jam series. It’s surprisingly straight and light – and, for the first time, we have, in Claire and Dan, Morris dealing with characters he might actually care about. This could turn out to be important.
Held up as both God and Satan, Morris has been such an important figure that backlash is inevitable. He’s condemned to be accused either of producing more of the same, or of loss of edge, and even those who used to loathe him are lining up to explain why he’s not as good as he used to be.
It’s the first sitcom adapted from a website, but Nathan Barley is not a zeitgeist-surfing portrait of our age. It’s based on something called C***, but it’s not going to jam switchboards with complaints. But for anyone who considers it a pleasure to simply be around while someone like Morris is still operating – someone who understands his medium inside out, yet wants to understand it more, and follows no agenda but his own – Nathan Barley is to be explored, perhaps adored. Filled with clowns and crisis, it is, at least, a decent laugh on a TV on a Friday night. I suspect Chris Morris and Charlie Brooker want that as much as anyone.
Published in The Sunday Herald, February 6 2005