Exactly 10 years ago today, Nathan Barley premiered on UK TV. Exactly 10 seconds later, you wanted to punch him in the face.
Created by Charlie Brooker and Chris Morris, Nathan was a horrible person to behold. He spent his days uploaded pointless, offensive crap to the Internet – his website, which still exists, is called Trashbat.co.ck – and then going around shouting at people to visit it. “Trash bat dot cock!” he grinned, before getting on an East London bus with his kids’ bicycle.
At the time, it was irritating and mildly obscure; a jab at a culture that was as annoying as it was niche. Nathan Barley was making fun of hipsters before it was cool.
In the opening episode, journalist Dan Ashcroft (The Mighty Boosh’s Julian Barratt) pens a think piece for Sugar Ape magazine dubbed “The Rise Of The Idiot”.
“They babble into handheld twit-machines about that video of the woman being bombed by a wolf,” he writes. “Their friend made it. He’s an idiot too.”
Lashing out at what he sees as a growing culture of meaningless spectacle, his article is read by everyone, including Nathan. They all love it.
“The idiot doesn’t think about what he is saying,” spits Ashcroft. “Thinking is rubbish. Rubbish isn’t cool.”
Nathan agrees, despite being an idiot.
Fast forward 10 years and even more people have either read an article like it or thought exactly the same thing – because Nathan Barley has, scarily, come true. He’s all around us, posting cat videos on YouTube and spewing his opinions everywhere. What once was a small satirical target is now the mainstream.
That growing point of reference means the sitcom is funnier now than it used to be – and, bizarrely, more topical. Looking at Barley, with his mobile phone that opens out into twin MP3 decks and a giant button for the digit five – “because it’s the most common number” – is like watching something written yesterday. It’s rare that a TV show gets better with age. It’s even rarer that one becomes more relevant.
Just as incredible is that it’s not the first time Chris Morris has done this. The Day Today achieved exactly the same thing but with the news – which has descended into the sea of graphics and CGI that the show once predicted. Morris is less a satirist and more a soothsayer.
Barley’s influence has seeped into media too. We live in an age where the most influential online publications consist of listicles and GIFs, while newspapers publish articles about tweets by celebrities. It’s an endless cycle of shallow click-bait and material designed to offend just for the sake of it.
As Nathan assembles a party of like-minded idiots who all dance and cheer nothing, Ashcroft finds himself dressed as a preacher on stage, prophesying the rise of the idiots. But Brooker and Morris’ brilliant script leaves Dan’s cries falling on deaf ears, while Nathan always comes out on top; Ashcroft becomes a voice that depends on the system as much as it rallies against it. In one standout scene, Dan goes for an interview with the Weekend on Sunday, who ask him for ideas for features. Flummoxed, he realises he has none.
A decade on, and that trend, you suspect, has only continued. The show’s supporting actors, from Benedict Cumberbatch – yes, really – to the poorly victimised Ben Whishaw, have gone on to become more successful. But the stupidity has grown too. As the editor of Sugar Ape puts it – after changing the logo to read “Suga RAPE” – it works because stupid people think it’s cool, while smart people think it’s funny, which is also cool.
As you laugh and wince at just how prescient the 2005 series is, you realise that ranting about the dumb decline of civilisation is, like the rest of it all, only echoing what Channel 4’s programme has already done. You’re Dan Ashcroft, rewriting The Rise of the Idiots for another generation. The funniest – and most disturbing – thing? That makes you one of the idiots too.
Nathan Barley is still available on 4oD for free. You can also watch it on Amazon Prime, as part of a £5.99 monthly subscription.