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The idiots are winning
Morris Dancing with Christopher and a review of the region 0 DVD of NATHAN BARLEY by Camus
 
Editor: "It's Swift as 'Jackass'!"
Nathan Barley: "Or… even faster!"
Channel 7's commissioning Editor attempting to
imbue Nathan's media inanities with satirical bite.

 

Nathan Barley is a six part Channel 4 comedy (!) series requiring a relatively narrow parametered pop-art passport to appreciate. Unless you recognise the odious principal inhabitant of Barleyworld and the society in which he operates, you will not find his antics in the least bit amusing. If, like me, you sat down to watch episode one and then found yourself horribly and almost reluctantly glued to the sofa for all three hours and the unaired 45 minute pilot, then maybe there's hype for us all. The words 'Nathan' and 'Barley' and indeed the character of 'Nathan Barley' are "a derogatory word for rhyming slang's Elizabeth Regina." All that, a euphemism for a four letter word. And as this four letter word, he is as complete as one can be. And, yes. I will actually be using this word later on.

His quoted reply – "Or… Even faster!" – is telling beyond measure. Yes, read the exchange quickly and it makes some sort of sense but at least reading it we can see the capital 'S' of Swift. Of course Nathan cannot see it but then again if he's even heard of Jonathan Swift it's by cultural cross-fertilisation. The chances he's read Gulliver's Travels are practically zero. In fact the chances he's read a book at all are hovering too precisely around that mark too. To quote from his origins in co-Barley writer Charlie Booker's deliciously foul Radio Times parody tome TV Go Home, "Nathan Barley… …whose very existence indelibly tarnishes the world's already questionable track record."

My son started to sing 'Daisy' in the car a few days ago. I non-sequitur for my country by the way (and I don't miss penalties). You know the tune. It ends with "but you'll look sweet – upon a seat – on a bicycle made for two." Its most famous appearance in art, to my mind, was heard over Hal losing his own in Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. Dave Bowman, floating in zero-G, disconnects the super computer which resorts to singing the song as a dying exhalation. My son even knew all the lyrics. I had to ask – and did. "It's from The Simpsons," he said as if this was ridiculously obvious. I reminded him that pop-art existed before The Simpsons and in some ways it shores up the animated series with Groening's overt movie parodies and pot shots at almost everything in the writers' cultural orbit. This casual acceptance of the misplaced origin of reference has filtered down to what disgruntled fictitious writer Dan Ashcroft in Nathan Barley calls 'the idiots'. Yes, it's a polite word for the name of the parodic TV show listed in TV Go Home – I'll say it once and then go easy on it. 'Cunt'. Such an emotive word with, if I'm right in saying, no specific meaning in the pejorative sense. And yet, we all know what's meant when we witness Nathan Barley. The word perfectly gathers together a whole host of derisory adjectives (notably selfish, uneducated, vain, arrogant, lazy, shallow, dismissively cruel, you name 'em, Nathan qualifies). What an effortlessly complete one he is. The fact that Nicholas Burns does such a great job of being a complete one is a testament to his awful talent at being so excruciatingly obnoxious.

So.

Was making three hours of television about such a man a work of entertainment, a plea for radical extermination or a social comment aching for violent redress? If there is anyone out there who would make a TV show just to show his adoring fans what he thinks of them, Christopher Morris is the man. I've been hooked on Morris' worldview since the hysterical On The Hour. Funny. Funny, how? Funny how many talents cut their teeth on BBC Radio 4. It made its way to TV courtesy of The Day Today (just remembering the endless graphics and corporate themes thumping into my skull can make me laugh and of course this is where we all got to actually see Alan Partridge for the first time). Morris's use of language ("News felch!" anyone?) is sublime. He uses English as a limitless mosaic, often combining words that would never mix in polite company and the pairing results in something not only funny but gob-smashingly original. I often have to pull apart a Morris rant just to appreciate the barbed and vicious poetry under, and indeed pierced by, the lampooning satirical harpoon.

His own performances are comic gems whether he lays prostate to the God of the news studio at the end credits, or if he's just Paxmanned a guest into violence. One thing Morris has that is not to be found in plentiful supply on TV – he's dangerous. OK, he's not a cuddle-bunny in the Eamon Holmes mode and he's not Charles Manson. But he does something to a outlandish degree that Python pioneered. He uses his intellect to rattle cages and his ground breaking 'comedy' series Jam used the comedy of unease and squirming embarrassment to almost christen a new genre. The guy who played the doctor reassuring his patients while pissing on the floor should have got a BAFTA. This was TV that challenged. And Anneka was nowhere to be seen.

Yes, that was Morris as Denholm, the boss of the company in Graham Linehan's less than stellar reviewed The IT Crowd, but of those performances, I can only surmise that even media terrorists/genii need to eat. Morris does deranged authority with (ahem) deranged authority. The sound work on his shows is also noteworthy. It's not insignificant that Morris co-writes the music to Nathan Barley. Morris was most loudly heard one summer's evening five years ago when the shit hit the paedo-phan.

Brass Eye, a sequel of sorts to The Day Today, took all the usual suspects, the 21st century's principal bugbears, and trotted them out for (s)laughter. And even as I write that, I see Morris' sneering face (even when he smiles, it's scary) thinking he'd despise that casual wordplay. The special (even Morris conceded that approaching the subject of the media's handling of paedophilia needed special treatment) was one of the few half hours of TV that Fed Ex'ed tears to the eyes at the speed of something really quite Jonathan. Sorry, swift... Of course, on that balmy July evening in 2001, the excesses of 9/11 were still on their way (I was in a Penzance B & B when I saw it – don't ask) but Morris's sideswipe at the media was utterly inspired. The fact that one complaint from the Daily Star sat to the right of a story and picture of a 15 year old Charlotte Church with the by-line "She's a big girl now…" I mean, for Christ's sake. Having your CAKE and eating it? Hypocrisy? Rhinocrisy! Mammothocrisy! Newspapers know that the greater percentage of the great unwashed are undiscerning and regard MENSA with a terrible and dark suspicion. But did they think their effortless duplicity completely undetectable?

And so Nathan Barley was born, well... congealed – and he really wasn't only in existence because of the democratisation of software and technology. If Nathan lived in Victorian times, he'd have the penny-farthing bicycle and derisively wonder why you poor fuckwits hadn't got one. He's the little rich kid with no awareness of actual working, of being part of a society, just owning a nagging sense of needing to be at the top of the pop-art. He blindly follows the perceived cool, emulates and simulates his heroes even when those heroes detest everything Barley is and everything he stands for. Morris places himself in Barleyworld as Dan Ashcroft, the disgruntled writer whose fan base is made up of the simpering idiots he despises. The entire six part series can be summed up as a question and answer:

"How do these idiots actually manage to function in society?"

The answer (scary as it may seem…)

"Frighteningly well."

So things, they are-a-changing. I had a conversation with an old friend who's a photographer and he came up with something apposite. In our Barley years (gosh, the eighties), to produce a good photograph, you had to know lenses, film stock, lighting, composition, chemicals, enlargers, photographic paper attributes – in short all the paraphernalia, all the craft. Today, you just need a Mac because all the tools to achieve everything you had to achieve practically is now done with a few mouse clicks. My friend didn't pronounce positive or negative (!) judgement on this, he merely remarked on it. The 'mouse-click' world fits Barley like a condom. He's the ultimate consumer who gives nothing back (maybe he does if he's wearing the condom but who'd want to grow more Nathan Barleys?). Yes, we all have the technology to make movies now. Yes, we all have the most powerful photographic editing tools a mouse click away and yes, Garageband has given us the opportunity to be musicians. Virtually.

But where's the talent that has to be allied to these tools? What does Barley do? He makes mini-torture videos (his assistant Ben Whishaw as Pingu, brilliant at suffering, suffers a lot – "…as a joke, yeah?"). Pingu's trials are painful to watch because Nathan is such a Regina that you want to bitch-slap him and I don't even know what that means.

Julian Barrat (probably better known as the serious, less hair conscious half of The Mighty Boosh), plays Dan Ashcroft almost as a broken man. There is no redemption or real 'revenge' on Barley to be gained, though you almost hope there should be. Dan's soul is nicked and chipped away by Barley's Reginess and it's credit to the writers (Morris and Charlie Brooker) that we actually care about him. His dreary arrivals at the magazine 'Sugar Ape' – played for repetitive laughs – are half as satisfying as seeing Thunderbird Two launching each week in the sixties. Now that's saying something. Barrat's Boosh partner, Noel Fielding, he with the sculptured features and a barnet to defend with Klingon ferocity, also features as a too-easily put-up with practising DJ sending all but Barrat mad with his untimely DJ'ing. Richard Ayoade also makes an appearance (Moss of The IT Crowd) as a toadying 'Sugar Ape' employee.

In essence; Nathan Barley is a cunt. (Sorry, that was number two). But if you are truly interested in Chris Morris's work (as all should be because he has valid points to make in everything he does unless he doesn't, up to him) then don't dismiss Nathan Barley as a worthless exercise in media one-upmanship. It's much worse than that! It's the TV equivalent of "Springtime For Hitler," a musical that had to bomb, crash and burn in a rational and sane world. Guess what… It did but it died trying to avert some sort of cultural apocalypse.

If I had the money, I'd commission Morris to do a mock-doc (yuck) on religion. Of the Bible on Brass Eye, he once said; "We had this book analysed. It reads like the ramblings of a drunken horse." Oi vey. And we all know how dangerous a drunken horse can be. And that horse has been pissed for such a long time. Isn't it time we either remove the booze or shoot it?

sound and vision

Nathan Baley, originated on anamorphic Digibeta video, has been through many filters and effects to look this good. Yes, a three hour series plus extras is going to put a compression strain on a single disc but it wasn't that evident or that obvious if you've along for the ride. And the grading (colour and contrast management after shooting) is artistic – and covers technical sins and artifacts. You'd never be able to shoot raw video like this. And for once the grading has added to the effect – it enhances the show artistically. Yes, the answer to the statement "I want it to look like film," is "Then fricking shoot it on film..." has become prohibitive due to expense but Morris does a great job making his series look pretty damn good. Blacks aren't just grey outs and the contrast has a pleasing depth to it. The soundtrack is a basic Dolby Stereo but there's never any problem with clarity.

extra features

Oh. In keeping with the theme of the almighty Regina, the DVD Menus for a start are practically non-navigable in the sense that you have to wait while options become available to you. It's still a great menu – driving techno with Nathan riding his utterly ridiculous bike, holding up his Wasp T12 Speechtool to the camera (you really ought to check out the DVD ROM feature that includes Nathan's Trashbat website to see an ad for this jacked up Mobile/iPod. Some of its features are just wonderfully insane. "And did you know The T12 is its actual size?" That's the same Morris who once said "Over 85% of rapes go unreported…" Think about that one).

Pilot
But when the options come around (Play All, Sounds and Video) you find that the Pilot is also in here. It's a 45 minute pick and mix of the best of the series. The gag with the cat at the barber's is going to be funny wherever you find it. But what's curious about the pilot is that it's pretty much un-touched post production wise. It's quite interesting to see how it looked once shot raw.

Sounds – Redub
God knows what the point of this is – scenes from one of the episodes re-dubbed with different actors' voices. It's funny but in the crudest way. It's an extra but it's not extra-funny...

Sounds – Radio
Nathan Barley types in Radio format spots discussing phone calls to mothers (the ultimate in non-cool). It's just awful but then that's the point. Isn't it?

Video
This contains six Deleted Scenes. The extended version of Claire's interview with Doug Rocket, is a virtual embarrassment of riches. Doug believes he is John Lennon's torch bearer. How sad is that?

Under Trails are the original Channel 4 trailers for each episode of Barley.

Galleries is divided into three sections: (1) a textual reproduction of 40 pages' worth of "Cunt" (the original TV Go Home TV listings – some laugh out loud stuff here, I can assure you); (2) stills which feature both pictures of the cast and reproductions of various visual elements used as props in the show; and credits for the DVD, and the cast and crew. The Weather Girl (and her make up) deserve a mention when you try to access the subtitles.

I must mention here a nod to the actor, Stephen Mangan, as Guy Secretan ("It's Swiss,") from Green Wing. He appears all too briefly as Rod in the porno "Daylight Roddery".

As a DVD-ROM feature, there's a copy of Trashbat.co.ck, Nathan Barley's web site. This includes information on the Wasp T12 Speechtool (his mobile iPod thingie), as well as the same images that are featured in the booklet included in the DVD.

Finally, (as mentioned) the DVD also comes with a 48-page booklet from Nathan Barley himself. It's a collection of his photographs, very much in keeping with the humour of the show. But I did like the 'Turdis' gag...

summary

If you want to see where we are heading, then buy this disc. Oh, no. Let's fight this future with tooth and nail...

Nathan Barley

UK 2005
144 mins
director
Christopher Morris
starring
Nicholas Burns
Julian Barratt
Claire Keelan
Ben Whishaw
Richard Ayoade
Spencer Brown
Noel Fielding

DVD details
region 0
video
1.78:1 anamorphic
sound
Dolby stereo 2.0
languages
English
subtitles
none
extras
Pilot episode
Redubbed episode
Nathan Barley's internet radio extracts
Deleted scenes
Galleries
Nathan Barley web site
Deleted scenes
distributor
Channel 4 DVD
release date
17 October 2005
review posted
17 July 2006

See all of Camus's reviews