Friday, February 11, 2005 by TJ Worthington
Last time the general viewing public saw Chris Morris, he was riding a bike in shorts and refusing to talk about the Brass Eye special. That was almost four years ago now, and apart from one short film that went out late at night on a minority channel, he’s barely been heard from between now and then. No interviews, no appearances to pick the up prestigious awards he’d won, not even a commentary track for the DVD release of his finest stuff.
Of course, if your work has as big an impact as Morris’ tends to, then this sort of enigmatic silence can be highly effective and leave people eagerly awaiting your next move. But it can also leave your potential audience bored, frustrated, and with their interest rapidly diminishing. From his campaign against satanic “backmasking” in pop records on GLR in the early 1990s right up to the low-key murmurings of the late night Radio 1 show Blue Jam, Morris’ various radio and television shows of the 1990s were never less than thrilling, exhilarating and brilliantly funny. Each pushed the medium into unprecedented areas that left other performers struggling to keep up (Smack the Pony star and former Morris collaborator Sally Phillips once remarked of Brass Eye that “you spend years and years rearing this horse that you’re really proud of, and then Chris drives past in a tank”).
His more recent output, though, has been slightly less vital. jam, a worthwhile but uneven sketch show that veered between amazing highs and monotonous lows, met with a muted reception and was generally a poor relation to its far more exciting radio-based forerunner Blue Jam. The Brass Eye special was high on controversy but short on actual comment and indeed laughs, polarising his fanbase and alienating viewers who had just stumbled on it by chance. Despite its award-winning status, My Wrongs #8245 – 8249 & 117 was simply a retread of artistic techniques and sketch material that had been around for five years by that point. His stock in the industry may well never have been higher, but the average viewer will have either forgotten who he is (well, as much as anyone can forget after all of the attendant tabloid furore that has dogged practically all his shows since the early 1990s) or just got fed up with waiting for further helpings of material that they hadn’t particularly enjoyed in the first place.
If ever anyone had needed to capitalise on their proven ability to pull something exciting and thoroughly unexpected and innovative out of the bag and shake everyone awake just when they were least anticipating it, it was Chris Morris.
After an unusually prolonged genesis and a rumoured two pilot editions, Nathan Barley has finally arrived. Directed by Morris and written in collaboration with Charlie Brooker, the series is a storyline-driven sitcom about a character of the same name who first appeared in Brooker’s internet-based TV listings parody TV Go Home. Barley was conceived as a vicious parody (indeed, the “programme” he ostensibly appeared in was a fly on the wall documentary entitled Cunt) of the vacuous, over-privileged technology-obsessed and painfully fashion-conscious media types who had recently taken to living in and around Hoxton. Depicting a bland world of bootleg White Stripes CDs, comedy sketch “webisodes” created in RealPlayer, “drum’n'bass subtitles” and drugs taken by the shovelful, the Barley vignettes were infused with a genuine and tangible embitterment at the way in which the media was being driven by such halfwits.
Nathan Barley the series is essentially an expansion on this original format, creating and lampooning the entire universe that he and his equally hopeless associates and contemporaries inhabit, as seen through the eyes of serious-minded brother and sister journalist team Dan and Claire Ashcroft. As both Morris’ recent work and TV Go Home have been fêted and indeed widely copied by the real life Nathan Barleys, though, this is not so much sounding a note of excitement as one of concern.
Yes, the “Hoxton Trendies” probably do have a mild stranglehold over the media. You can see the tired and tedious hallmarks of their creative preferences slapped all over newsagents’ racks and the average night’s television schedules. It’s nothing new, though – The Housemartins were lampooning the same type of people, only with slightly different “hip” obsessions, in Five Get Overexcited in 1987, and in many ways behind the hairstyles and mobile phones they’re just the spiritual heirs of the doddering, creaky voiced caricatures that populated Kenny Everett’s vision of the BBC. It’s simply one set of media types desperately out of touch with their audience who have replaced another with the passage of time. There’s no particular reason why it should be more important to lampoon them now than at any other point in time, and in any case the sadly overlooked Victoria Wood With all the Trimmings (made in 2000) took a particularly savage swipe from the embittered, disdainful and righteously angry perspective of an established star who had suffered the indignity of being shunted to and fro at the whims of aimless young “creatives”, rather than that of someone who has been allowed to do practically whatever they have felt like (arguably precisely because of the predominance of such trendy types in the media) for the past decade.
In any case, there is reason to suspect that Nathan Barley may have missed the boat. It is now well over three years since rumours of the collaboration first began to emerge, and pushing six since the character made his first appearances in TV Go Home, and the likelihood that arty hairstyles, flash animations and ringtones will still be the in-thing with his imaginary “set” is about as remote as, well, the James Dean posters, wet-look gel and early Motown that Five Get Overexcited had railed against still being the order of the day in 1992.
During the time that it has taken for the new series to come about, there has already been one attempt at mocking the scene in the miserable Comedy Lab pilot “Shoreditch Twat”, and indeed a previous and almost equally unsuccessful attempt at transferring TV Go Home to the small screen, albeit without Barley. The fact that the publicity machine had gone so far into overdrive so far ahead of transmission (with near-subliminal trailer stings on television and hoax mobile phone ads on practically every billboard and bus stop in the country) when a simple flurry of “Chris Morris is back and he means business” headlines the week before transmission would have done the required business is hardly a good sign, suggesting the perceived need exists to “educate” the wider audience about the subject matter in readiness for transmission.
Which of course gives rise to another concern – what possible relevance can all this have to the average viewer? They might well appreciate the stylistic hallmarks of this present-day media malaise being savage, but why should they care so much about the actual people behind it?
By backing itself into such a narrow conceptual niche, not to mention being the work of someone with a phenomenal reputation and a largely impressive track record, Nathan Barley has both a lot to live up to and a lot to prove. Unfortunately, in the first installment, it doesn’t manage either.
Putting it quite simply, Nathan Barley is extremely short on laughs. That’s not to say the laughs aren’t in there at all – there were a handful of inspired moments such as the record that “knocked itself off number one in France” and the judicious, fleeting insertion of a photograph of Vernon Kaye to illustrate the cult of “The Idiot” – but most of them ended up smothered by the stylistic approach. Somewhere along the line, the seemingly all-pervading desire to make even the most inconsequential television programme look like a feature film found its way into Nathan Barley, and its effects have not been beneficial. Behind the slick, glossy look of the production, it seems cavernous, echoing, empty and flat. Like a two-set play being performed in an aircraft hangar or – perhaps more telling – the big screen version of The Avengers. Characters may well drop the odd reference into dialogue, but in a visual sense it gives no suggestion of any kind of normal, everyday humdrum world existing outside the website office-strewn streets occupied by men in daft “ironic” hats and girls in obscenely low-cut jeans. When you’re dealing with a scenario that might well cause a large percentage of viewers to mutter “so what, convince me that I’m bothered about all this”, it can hardly be a good sign.
Ironically the trailers, which were clearly culled from tapes put together before the filmic effects had been applied, looked far more impressive. Even worse, these visual techniques are exactly those favoured by the real-life Nathan Barleys (who are even putting chat show performances by Girls Aloud through the same visual filters now), which kind of defeats the purpose of the exercise. Of course, there is the possibility that this may be a deliberate statement of irony in itself, although if it is then it’s on a frequency so high that not even Tony Parsons can hear it.
Then there’s the additional problem of the “naturalism” of the performances. The characters in the show are supposed to be believable grotesques, and this is presumably why they are performed with such understatement and subtlety. However, the history of television comedy is littered with thoroughly believable grotesques – a random selection including Alf Garnett, Anthony Aloysius Hancock, Basil Fawlty, Mr Fowle from Hardwicke House, Arnold Rimmer, Richard Richard and Eddie Hitler, and, as if to labour the point, Timothy Claypole – for whom “understatement” and “subtly” were only rarely and judiciously employed; when the laughs actually called for it in other words. There was some great acting going on in Nathan Barley, but unfortunately it seemed that was the focal point rather than the need to play up to the jokes. The show would almost certainly work fine as a lightly humourous drama in the same mould as Teachers, but casting it as a comedy is just plain misguided.
So, aside from all of that, was the script itself any good? For the most part, yes. There were moments that appeared uneven or incongruous, in particular the jarring exposition of why the staff of Sugar Ape found various concepts to be ironically amusing, but in all fairness these were probably down to the poor realisation noted above. Again, maybe this is simply another indication that Nathan Barley has simply been pitched in the wrong format, as this would doubtless work very well on the printed page. There is, then, a solid and worthwhile foundation that somehow got lost in translation, but then again stretching this comic scenario over six half-hour slots seems a little excessive and maybe even pointless when considered in relation to the fact that, had it been Not the Nine O’Clock News or Spitting Image in its prime having a go at such a subculture (as they often did), they would have hit their target with a great deal more venom in three minutes flat and then moved on to something else.
Nathan Barley is not spectacular television, but neither is it appalling. It simply fails to do what it clearly set out to do. It has ended up in entirely the wrong bracket, resulting in a dull thud when it should – an indeed quite easily could – have sounded a loud fanfare. The real-life targets of the show are unlikely to start questioning themselves (if anything, most of them would probably quite like it), and in the meantime everyone else is left walking away unsatisfied from a show they might well have greatly enjoyed had it been pitched to them differently. Some might argue it’s unfair to judge an entire series on the basis of the first show. There is probably something in this, and certainly there were a couple of pointers that Nathan Barley might pick up pace over the coming weeks (although a quick glance at the preview tapes indicates otherwise), but on the other hand first episodes of series with a running storyline are often all that most sensible viewers will happily sit through. Leading with one as wide of the mark as this will inevitably cast a shadow over the entire proceedings.
Of course, the best and most effective way of showing up and ridiculing the real-life counterparts of Nathan Barley would have been to make a documentary about them and allow them to highlight their own stupidity. And the best way of shaking their creative grip loose would have been to make a programme that wilfully ignored all of the “modern” programme-making conventions they hold dear (something that Morris, in his position, would probably have little trouble securing support for), and make a runaway success of it. Nathan Barley, however, is not so much highlighting, attacking or subverting the current malaise as it is, presumably unintentionally, becoming a part of it.