In search of the real Nathan Barley

Chris Morris's savage satire of media types prompts the question: are these guys for real? Ed Caesar hits Shoreditch to find out

British sitcom history is littered with narcissistic, vacuous leading men, of whom Alan Partridge and David Brent are only the most obvious examples. But none is so bile-inducing as Nathan Barley, the eponymous "hero" of Chris Morris and Charlie Brooker's savage Channel 4 satire of London's East End media village. The Bluetooth-headset-toting screenwriter-cum-webmaster describes himself as a "self-facilitating media node". What viewers have called him is unprintable.

British sitcom history is littered with narcissistic, vacuous leading men, of whom Alan Partridge and David Brent are only the most obvious examples. But none is so bile-inducing as Nathan Barley, the eponymous "hero" of Chris Morris and Charlie Brooker's savage Channel 4 satire of London's East End media village. The Bluetooth-headset-toting screenwriter-cum-webmaster describes himself as a "self-facilitating media node". What viewers have called him is unprintable.

Nathan lives in a world of Zappuccinos, of loft-living and iMacs, of lopsided haircuts and cross-generational fashion statements. He texts on a Wasp T-12 phone, which has a larger number-five key "because it's the most common number". He reads Sugar Ape magazine - a thinly veiled parody of Dazed and Confused - in particular, the columns by his disillusioned and unwilling thirtysomething mentor/ nemesis, Dan Ashcroft.

In Brass Eye and Blue Jam, Chris Morris deftly coruscated celebrities and public figures. In Nathan Barley, however, his source material is the man on the street - and a very particular street, at that. So how does it feel for the East London media set to see their lives lampooned on prime-time television? Do they even recognise themselves on screen? Only a day out in Shoreditch could answer these questions.

Candidate number one is Nick Turner, the 33-year-old owner of Small Fish Records on Old Street. His shop sells only independent labels - "anything non-commercial, really"- it was impossible to ignore his bizarre choice of clothing; short-sleeved T-shirt over long-sleeved T-shirt, shorts over tights. "I think people see me in my shorts and tights and think I'm a fashionista," Turner says, with a broad grin. "When I'm on the street around here, people turn and look at me and think, 'He looks all right.' But I wear these clothes because I ride a pushbike." But everywhere one looks, around here, there are Turner lookalikes to be seen.

So it seems that what separates Turner from the trendies, given his sartorial exuberance, is attitude. He's perfectly amiable, not at all like Nathan. But if he's not what I'm looking for, he must know some of them. "They come in quite a bit," he admits. "That Nathan Barley stereotype is spot on. You think they're taking the piss with their clothes and haircuts, but they're genuine. Sometimes I have to hide under the counter until I've stopped laughing.

"But we didn't set up here because it was Shoreditch. I had no idea the area would develop in the way it has. The nicest thing people say about us is that when they're in the shop, it doesn't feel like Shoreditch any more. But, having said that, we do stock the London Review of Books and The New Yorker in the café downstairs, so we're probably pretentious in our own way."

I head south to Shoreditch proper, in search of bona fide self-facilitating media nodes. Jon Colson, a post-production audio editor at Strongroom Studios in Curtain Street, seems perfect. He wears a media-issue green combat jacket with a white hoodie, low-slung faded jeans, white belt and trainers. He could be a Sugar Ape staffer. Is he Nathan Barley? "I don't know, I'm a bit of a hybrid. I can kind of take it or leave it with the whole Shoreditch scene. I can hang out here, or hang out in Fulham or Notting Hill, and have fun wherever. That whole Nathan Barley thing definitely rings true, though, especially with that stupid lopsided hair thing," says Colson, 30.

Colson is sufficiently aware of the stereotype not to fall totally into the trap. As he says, he's got a foot in both camps: he's a kind of ironic Nathan. He also admits that Shoreditch is "getting a bad rep". He says: "Everyone's gone a bit over the top. I can't take anyone seriously who dresses like a fool. You know, those media types just get sucked into it all. It's this thing where people think, 'I'm going out in Shoreditch, I'd better shave off half my hair, and wear half shorts and half trousers.' I live in Fulham, and if anyone walked round like that there, they'd be pelted with tomatoes."

The search continues north of Old Street, where Shoreditch High Street turns into Kingsland High Street, and the sprawl of bars and boutiques thickens. Outside the massive Global nightclub, my next suspect almost walks right past me. This is because his three-quarter-length camouflage jacket has blended into Global's astroturfed exterior. I collar my urban guerrilla.

"Yeah, there's definitely a Shoreditch media type," says Maxwell Smith, looking down at his camo jacket, tartan scarf and standard-issue plimsolls as if for confirmation. Smith, 31, an independent-film producer, has lived in the area "for ever", which I take to mean "before it was cool". He seems torn between wanting to love the influx of media trendies, and hating them for turning his niche into an arty hotspot. "The migration's been happening for the past five or 10 years, but it's reaching a climax. Everyone's discovered it. It's like Notting Hill 10 years ago. That's so over now."

But if it's over, why hasn't he left? "I don't know," he shrugs. "I suppose I've always lived here, and all the friends I've met through work, or who have similar interests to me, live in this area or near by, Shoreditch or Bethnal Green. It is sort of a centre for those kinds of people. But they're my kind of people, too."

Maxwell has more in common with Barley's nemesis, Dan. Dan's funk is caused by a wish to escape the guffawing hordes of techno-trendies, but he realises that, after years in the East End circus, this is the only world he knows. Similarly, you can't help but feel sorry for Maxwell, who's seen his media utopia crumble before his eyes. Then again, he is an over-thirty wearing a camouflage jacket. Sympathy will only go so far.

It's mid-afternoon, and the action is in Brick Lane, south-east of Shoreditch. Sassy-looking professionals pop in and out of the couture shops nestling between the curry houses. Don't these people have jobs? I catch Luke Richardson, a 25-year-old sound engineer who works at the music venue 93 Feet East, hurrying back to work. He's clad head to toe in Libertine-chic. Tweedy trousers and brown loafers are given the Hoxton treatment by adding a hoodie, leather jacket and scruffy hair. Luke lived here two years ago while a student, and came back to join in the East End party. What's the attraction?

"You do encounter a lot of victims around here," he mutters. "A lot of Nathan Barleys. This was a cool area that sprang up around the artists who were here first, you know, and they had nothing. They came for the cheap rents, but now there's this second wave who followed because it's trendy or whatever."

Surely Luke is one of that second wave? He may not wear Bluetooth headsets or talk in text-speak, but hasn't he hopped on the bandwagon all the same? Luke thinks that's a bit unfair. "There are a lot of Shoreditch twats here, especially DJs, but this area's still cool, you know. It may have lost that original cool, but there's still a wicked music scene. That's why I'm here. I'm not really in the media scene, as such, but rather the music scene." The enthusiasm with which Luke talks about the new bands he has seen at 93 Feet East makes it difficult to begrudge him his contribution to the "scene".

With dusk descending, I'm starting to despair of finding the real Nathan Barley when a vision on a skateboard trollies on to the pavement. He turns out to be Jeremy Gilley, 35, a denizen of the Shoreditch media village. Jeremy works in a brewery in Brick Lane, but would rather be known as an independent-film director. I mark him as a Barley-esque Hoxton pseud who calls himself a "director" but has never touched a camera in his life, but I 'm horrified later to discover that Gilley is an accomplished film-maker and campaigner for world peace.

"Yeah, I've been making my independent film, Peace One Day, for the past six years all around the world. But I've been based here for three years," he says from under his New York Yankees cap. "You should check out the website, Peace One Day dot org."

Shoreditch is clearly Jeremy's Shangri-La. "There's lots going on. It's really friendly, really vibrant. There are more artists than anywhere else in Europe, I hear, so that's pretty cool." But how does he feel about his paradise being mocked by Barley et al? "That stereotype? I don't know. I'm a film-maker, too. I definitely don't take myself too seriously. I think it's great there's so many creatives around here. I don't know any of them who take themselves too seriously. Everyone's just doing their thing, you know, being artists and film-makers. And those kinds of people tend to congregate. That's what happened here."

I've found my man. That impression gets stronger when he talks about the way this part of East London has mutated beyond recognition. "Yeah, I think the area has changed, but I was never here before," he says. "I suppose there might be issues about the community that lived here - you know, rising rents and stuff - but that's city life. I'm sure the locals have been OK with that." A chat with a lifetime resident driven out by a self-facilitating media node might tell a different story. But Jeremy's off, weaving in and out of pedestrians on his skateboard.

It's curious that Gilley, the only person I met who actually bought into the stereotype parodied by Nathan Barley, was also the only one who is an established media player. But a day on the East End streets has confirmed that Nathan Barley and mates are the work of skilled caricaturists.

And if we haven't found the spitting image of Barley in the East End in February 2005, it's because most media trendies who live here have been receiving and relishing the satirists' attention since the "Hoxton revolution" of the early Noughties. There's only so long you can take yourself seriously when everyone is laughing at you. As Maxwell Smith says: "Shoreditch is over." But try telling that to Jeremy.

'Nathan Barley' is broadcast on Channel 4 at 10pm on Fridays

News
Jacqueline Bisset has claimed that young women today are obsessed with being 'hot', rather than 'charming', 'romantic' or 'beautiful'
people
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck stars as prime suspect Nick Dunne in the film adaptation of Gone Girl
filmBen Affleck and Rosamund Pike excel in David Fincher's film, says Geoffrey Macnab
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Dunham
booksLena Dunham's memoirs - written at the age of 28 - are honest to the point of making you squirm
Sport
Frank Lampard and his non-celebration
premier leagueManchester City vs Chelsea match report from the Etihad Stadium
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
A bit rich: Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey
tvSeries 5 opening episode attracts lowest ratings since drama began
News
people
News
i100
Life and Style
A new app has been launched that enables people to have a cuddle from a stranger
techNew app offers 'PG alternative' to dating services like Tinder
Sport
Greg Dyke insists he will not resign as Football Association chairman after receiving a watch worth more than £16,000 but has called for an end to the culture of gifts being given to football officials
football
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden sings his heart out in his second audition
tvX Factor: How did the Jakes - and Charlie Martinez - fare?
Sport
premier league
Arts and Entertainment
Rachel, Chandler and Ross try to get Ross's sofa up the stairs in the famous 'Pivot!' scene
tv
Arts and Entertainment
'New Tricks' star Dennis Waterman is departing from the show after he completes filming on two more episodes
tvOnly remaining original cast-member to leave crime series
Sport
Mario Balotelli celebrates his first Liverpool goal
premier leagueLiverpool striker expressed his opinion about the 5-3 thriller with Leicester - then this happened
Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says
tvSpoiler warning: Star of George RR Martin's hit series says viewers have 'not seen the last' of him/her
News
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Head of Marketing - London

£60000 - £85000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Interim Head of Marketing / Marketin...

IT Application Support Engineer - Immediate Start

£28000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Software Application Support Analyst - Imm...

Digital Project Manager

£25 - 30k: Guru Careers: A Digital Project Manager is needed to join an exciti...

Paid Search Analyst / PPC Analyst

£24 - 28k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Paid Search Analyst / PPC...

Day In a Page

A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments