Nathan Barley (2005), a six-episode show, containing a variety of famous actors and comedians before their time, retains its quality and relevance to the modern day. This author will look back on just how strangely talented the cast of this under-the-radar series was.
“The Rise of the Idiots”
Nathan Barley remains an anomaly in the canon of British television. Not unusual in that it was a one-series show, nor unique in being co-produced by cult showrunner Chris Morris. Its plot is absurdist and cynical, predicting much in the rise of influencer culture and Andy Warhol’s prophecy that “in the future everyone will be famous for 15 minutes”. What’s interesting as much as, if not more than, the entire outline of the show, is what the show represents as a springboard for a whole generation of British acting talent.
There are of course other shows that fall into this category. For example, many of the comedic actors in Nathan Barley were part of the same circles: in particular they would revolve around other big shows of the time such as The Mighty Boosh and later The IT Crowd. But what sets this show apart from all the others is the added appearance of award-winning serious acting talent, whose very presence in the show pushes its already bizarre tone even further.
From Pingu to Paddington: Ben Whishaw
Ben Whishaw, now known primarily for his theatre work, playing the affable Paddington Bear, and of course the new Q in Daniel Craig’s James Bond films, started out in minor roles in television. It was only a year away from his starring role in Perfume: Story of a Murderer, but Whishaw’s performance here is one that well and accurately represents the kind of character he would become used to playing in later performances: the shy, nerdy, and well-meaning man who is almost certainly out of his depth at all times.
In Nathan Barley, Whishaw is one of the top supporting cast, playing the titular character’s media man Pingu. His job is in name only, as Barley bullies him with humiliating pranks, almost always caught on camera for Barley’s own amusement and the amusement of his followers. It is these antics against Pingu that lead the show to its very (un)satisfying climax, and Whishaw’s portrayal gives our two main characters, Barley and Dan Ashcroft, a pathetic figure to conflict with each other. Pingu is pitiable here, but not affable. He is simply the victim of an irresponsible jackass that is our anti-hero Nathan Barley. And it is Whishaw who in the end has the last laugh.
The Preacher Man: Julian Barrett
Barrett is an interesting player in all of this. He is the least successful and least known of the four actors discussed here, and yet Barley was partly his idea. As the show’s central character Dan Ashcroft, he is the antithesis of Barley, and yet so ironically close in station that their relationship represents the central conflict of this tragicomedy show. Barrett excellently portrays the struggling and hopeless journalist whose sole aim is to escape the misery of his empty-headed life and join the world of normality, only to be sucked back in again at any and every occasion.
It is in the portrayal of Ashcroft, not dissimilar to Barrett’s character Howard Moon in The Mighty Boosh, that our lead takes the everyman and puts them in the place of empathising with someone who more than anything else wishes to leave their miserable life behind in search of something new, and who must vainly fight for every shred of dignity left inside him.
Barrett’s career might be said to have peaked with this show, which is a crying shame considering that his character, played straight, is so powerfully empathetic. His colleague from The Mighty Boosh, the still-famous Noel Fielding, plays his sister Claire’s flatmate Jones, whose appearance is more for appearance’s sake than anything else. And yet it is Fielding who remains the more known of the two. That trajectory wouldn’t be obvious from Nathan Barley’s sake alone.
On the Up-and-Up: Richard Ayoade
Any watcher of British television will hardly have trouble recognising a comedian who is now effectively part of the furniture. Rising through the comedy ranks in the mid-2000s, he would hit his big break as Maurice Moss in The IT Crowd, before moving onto international films and directing his own (such as the excellent Submarine), before settling on a steady cheque of appearances as guest or host on Britain’s endless treadmill of panel shows.
In Nathan Barley, Ayoade was just on the cusp of stardom – his reputation had been greatly boosted by his starring role in Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace, a cult television show if ever there was one – and Barley was one of the many shows he was dipping his feet into. Here he plays a more minor role as a vapid, self-centred (more of that to come) socialite with an undefined role at Julian Barrett’s place of work. A great admirer of the eponymous Nathan Barley, Ayoade is one of the few characters Barrett has any advantage over: he is at just the level whereby Dan Ashcroft can draw the line and stand his ground. He is counterpointed publicly by Ashcroft on many occasions, giving a bittersweet glimmer of hope as our lead character rails against the nightmare of the new society.
The Man in the Corner: Benedict Cumberbatch
This one is perhaps the most bizarre appearance. Not only is two-time Academy Award nominee Benedict Cumberbatch a supporting character in Nathan Barley, but his lines are so few and his personality played so straight, that it is surreal to compare this to the man who so shined as the confident, brash, arrogant and nonplussed Sherlock Holmes a few years later. Here, Cumberbatch plays Robin, a timid, stuttering nobody whose sole job is to support his boss Doug Rocket. Rocket is an ageing, self-obsessed vapid former celebrity who fritters away his money day by day, admired only by the equally vapid and self-obsessed youngsters this show lampoons so well.
Cumberbatch on the other hand, hardly has a character to work with. Robin’s whole purpose in the show is to look bewildered and gobsmacked at his boss’s choices, with very little dialogue and very little reason other than to further the point of his boss’s foolishness from a rare, sane perspective in this show. It is hardly a role worthy of Cumberbatch’s abilities, and indeed it is hardly a role at all. It is a role that would not even be noticed in retrospect if it weren’t for the fact that a two-time Academy Award nominee for Best Actor was in it! All that can be said about Benedict’s part is that, as Ned Beatty once famously remarked, one should never turn down day work – you never know just where it might lead you.
A Show of its Time – and Ours
Nathan Barley really is a focal point for a lot of things in British televisual culture. It was made at the peak of an entire comedy troupe’s careers, before they were to all go their separate ways within a few years to varying success. Its creators were stars in their own right: Chris Morris was at this point all but banned from UK television after the controversy surrounding Brass Eye, while his co-writer Charlie Brooker would go on to make a little-known cult series known as Black Mirror. The show’s serious actors would go on to worldwide acclaim, though having minimal presence at the centre of the show that gave them the leg up in the first place.
Nathan Barley therefore retains intrigue for its time and place in the canon of British television. Some of the most loved comedic names of the time, who are mostly obscure to the present generation, overshadow some of the country’s top acting talent, all while being quietly and efficiently directed by some of the sharpest minds in the television business. Truly it is a meeting of worlds.
Editor & Artwork: Richard Williams
Images – as credited under Creative Commons Licences
I have been writing and creating since I was a kid, and decided when I grew up to put some of those words onto paper. I speak a bunch of languages and enjoy doing most of the things I do when I'm not stuck in the house.