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New comedy W1A is an almost too-sharp satire of “Brand BBC”

The BBC’s new comedy W1A is for anyone who has ever spent a morning wondering how long people can get away with saying the same thing over and over again while drinking Hildon mineral water.

Hugh Bonneville returns as Ian Fletcher, head of deliverance at the Olympic Deliverance Commission in the award-winning series Twenty Twelve, and now head of values at the BBC.
Hugh Bonneville returns as Ian Fletcher, head of deliverance at the Olympic Deliverance Commission in the award-winning series Twenty Twelve, and now head of values at the BBC.

Lately, I’ve had to attend a lot of meetings. At first I was excited to be out and about, talking to real human beings; usually, I’m all alone, battling the white screen. But it didn’t take me long to come to my senses. What a waste of time meetings are: all that self-importance and agreeing to do nothing. When, I wonder, do these people do any work? A moment ago, someone left a message on my answerphone. “How did the meeting go?” said the voice. I would have picked up the phone and let her know if she hadn’t finished by saying that she wouldn’t be around for the next few hours. She had a meeting to go to.

The BBC’s new comedy W1A (Wednesdays, 10pm) is for anyone who has ever spent a morning wondering how long people can get away with saying the same thing over and over again while drinking Hildon mineral water. That said, it will have a special resonance for media types. They won’t just find it funny – they’ll enjoy an orgasm of recognition, especially those who work at Broadcasting House, where it is set.

As I write, there are doubtless groups of BBC employees busily planning parties at which they will privately screen W1A: soothing gatherings at which worn-out producers will be able to forget all about salami-slicing for a moment and enjoy some warm red wine, M&S cheese puffs and the chance to relish, in the company of close colleagues, the baffled face of Ian Fletcher (Hugh Bonneville). “Welcome to my world!” these compadres will shout, as Fletcher faces yet again the rictus smile of the gibberish-spouting Simon Harwood (Jason Watkins), the director of strategic governance. “WELCOME TO MY SODDING WORLD!”

I’m getting ahead of myself. Ian Fletcher was, you will recall, the head of deliverance at the Olympic Deliverance Commission in the award-winning series Twenty Twelve. Now, he has a job as head of values at the BBC and a folding bicycle to match. Among his new team are Anna Rampton (Sarah Parish), the head of output; Tracey Pritchard (Monica Dolan), the senior communications officer; and . . . uh, oh. Yes, she’s back! The director general (Tony Hall gets namechecked every five seconds) thought it would be a great idea to bring in Fletcher’s former colleague Siobhan Sharpe (Jessica Hynes) to work on “Brand BBC”. So here she is, BlackBerry in hand. “B-B-C! B-B-C!” she slow-chants at her first meeting. It probably goes without saying that she is a big Snog Marry Avoid? fan.

The top-heavy, bureaucratic and politically correct 21st-century BBC provides almost limitless opportunities for the writer of satire and by the end of the first episode John Morton had already touched on: the pointlessness of the constant shuttling to and from Salford; the obsession with being seen to be representative (an activist from Mebyon Kernow complained that there were not enough Cornish voices on the BBC); the role of Alan Yentob; the way that beleaguered BBC staff are now expected to hot-desk; and the derivative, repetitive nature of prime-time television (Anna has an “appointment-to-view” show in the pipeline called Britain’s Tastiest Village, which is “like Countryfile meets Bake Off” – she wants Clare Balding to present it, if only she can be prized away from ITV, where she is fronting How Big Is Your Dog).

I suppose we should applaud the BBC for enabling and promoting such unfettered piss-taking and I do think it is brilliant that W1A was commissioned at all. However, I also suspect that many, if not most, of its human targets wouldn’t recognise themselves on-screen even if their name flashed up in subtitles. They will just sail blithely on, having made sure everyone knows that they got the joke (Yentob cleverly appeared in the first episode, arm-wrestling with Salman Rushdie in his office). Meanwhile, even as I hooted with laughter at the oleaginous Simon Harwood, I couldn’t help but ponder that his real-life counterparts – naming no names – enjoy hefty six-figure salaries for doing who knows what at a time when the BBC has announced plans, in effect, to close down an entire channel. As they used to say in variety: oh, my sides!