Nathan Barley: old comedy turned out to be a documentary about our future

When Charlie "Black Mirror" Brooker came up with his trustafarian new media parody Nathan Barley for TV Go Home, no one suspected the character would last this long -- or be so relevant.

Barley, a "self-facilitating media node" living in London's trendy Shoreditch, turned into a TV character for the amazing, decade old Channel 4 program, was the perfect vehicle to lampoon the pre-econopocalypse preciousness of ad-supported media, post-ironic hipster culture, irrational venture capital, laddish triumphalism -- things that have only become more ripe for lampooning in the ten years since.

In a long, fascinating feature, Andrew Harrison recounts the secret history of the character, including the fact that Chris "Brass Eye" Morris played a key role in creating the show, and left it to work on his jihadi comedy Four Lions.

With his relentless sadistic pranks against office assistant Pingu – example: plugging Pingu’s ears into a lorry battery and then uploading video of his wretched twitch-dancing overdubbed with Motörhead’s Ace Of Spades – Nathan established a new normal of online cruelty and self-publicity. From happy slapping to NekNominate to Rude Tube to Vine, anything is permitted now, as long as it fits a 19-year-old idiot’s idea of what’s funny. Brooker and Morris spotted this before YouTube even existed. And Nathan Barley was scarcely less prophetic when it came to TV itself. In one episode Nathan’s friend Claire makes a comically po-faced, self-righteous but secretly rather narcissistic documentary about a choir made up of drug addicts. Nine years later, Channel 4 made Addicts’ Symphony for real.

Looking for an online guru with an open-ended nanofesto that boils down to “peace and fucking – believe!”? Sorry Russell Brand, Nathan beat The Trews to the punch by 10 years with the rambling video homilies on his website (back when websites were novel) trashbat.co.ck. Barley aficionados will surely see in Brand some echoes of the show’s Preacherman character, the burnt-out style writer Dan Ashcroft who is bullied by style mag Sugar Ape’s appalling editor Jonatton Yeah? into adopting a voice-of-a-generation role. Replace the cynical weariness with messianism and you have Russell to a tee. Brand connoisseurs might also enjoy the episode in which Nathan copies a truly asinine haircut made up of paint and bottle tops and random gloop – the Geek Pie as it is known – and then peacocks around Hosegate pointing at it and crowing, “New fucking paradigm or what?”

From cereal cafes to breakfast raves to adult ball pools, from TV shows like Sex Box to newspaper features about the “meaning” of the Man Bun hairdo to inexplicable online phenomena like Ello, our world has been Barleyed. It is uncanny. Created as a comic figure, Nathan has become an insult and a signifier and maybe even – here’s the frightening part – a role model. At 10 years’ remove the show seems less a comedy and more a documentary about the future.

Totally Mexico! How the Nathan Barley nightmare came true [Andrew Harrison/The Guardian]