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

Thursday 17 February 2005 01:00

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

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