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.
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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.

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!

 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 19 March 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Russia's Revenge

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Jonn Elledge and the Young Hagrid Audition

I auditioned for Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, for the part of “Young Hagrid”. Except I didn’t.

I’ve been dining out for years now on the fact I auditioned for Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, for the part of “Young Hagrid”. It’s one of those funny stories I tell people when a bit drunk, under the no doubt entirely wrong impression that it makes me sound like I’ve lived an interesting life.

Except, when I came to write this thing, I realised that it’s not actually true. I didn’t actually audition for the part of Young Hagrid at all.

Technically, I auditioned to be Voldemort.

Let’s start from the beginning. In November 2001 I was in my last year at Cambridge, where I split my time roughly equally between pissing about on a stage, writing thundering student paper columns about the true meaning of 9/11 as only a 21-year-old can, and having panic attacks that the first two things would cause me to screw up my degree and ruin my life forever. I was, I suppose, harmless enough; but looking back on that time, I am quite glad that nobody had yet invented social media.

I was also – this is relevant – quite substantially overweight. I’m not a slim man now, but I was much heavier then, so much so that I spent much of my later adolescence convinced that my mum’s bathroom scales were broken because my weight was, quite literally, off the scale. I was a big lad.

Anyway. One day my friend Michael, with whom I’d co-written quite a bad Edinburgh fringe show eighteen months earlier, came running up to me grasping a copy of Varsity. “Have you seen this?” he panted; in my memory, at least, he’s so excited by what he’s found that he’s literally run to find me. “You have to do it. It’d be brilliant.”

“This” turned out to be a casting call for actors for the new Harry Potter movie. This wasn’t unusual: Cambridge produces many actors, so production companies would occasionally hold open auditions in the hope of spotting fresh talent. I don’t remember how many minor parts they were trying to cast, or anything else about what it said. I was too busy turning bright red.

Because I could see the shameful words “Young Hagrid”. And I knew that what Michael meant was not, “God, Jonn, you’re a great actor, it’s time the whole world got to bask in your light”. What he meant was, “You’re a dead ringer for Robbie Coltrane”.

I was, remember, 21 years old. This is not what any 21-year-old wants to hear. Not least since I’d always suspected that the main things that made people think I looked like Robbie Coltrane were:

  1. the aforementioned weight issue, and
  2. the long dark trench coat I insisted on wearing in all seasons, under the mistaken impression that it disguised (a).

Most people look back at pictures of their 21-year-old self and marvel at how thin and beautiful they are. I look back and and I wonder why I wasted my youth cosplaying as Cracker.

The only photo of 2001 vintage Jonn I could find on the internet is actually a photo of a photo. For some reason, I really loved that tie. Image: Fiona Gee.

I didn’t want to lean into the Coltrane thing; since childhood I’d had this weird primal terror that dressing up as something meant accepting it as part of your identity, and at fancy dress parties (this is not a joke) I could often be found hiding under tables screaming. And I didn’t want to be Hagrid, young or otherwise. So I told Michael, quite plainly, that I wasn’t going to audition.

But as the days went by, I couldn’t get the idea out of my head. This was an audition for a proper, actual movie. I’d always had this idea I must have some kind of talent*, and that Cambridge was where I would find out what it was**. What if this was my big break?*** What if I was being silly?****

So when it turned out that Michael had literally started a petition to get me to change my mind, I acceded to the inevitable. Who was I to resist the public demand for moi?

And so, I graciously alerted the people doing the casting to the fact of my existence. A few days later I got an email back inviting me to go see them in a room at Trinity College, and a few pages of script to read for them.

The first odd thing was that the script did not, in fact, mention Hagrid. The film, I would later learn, does include a flashback to Hagrid’s school days at Hogwarts. By then, though, the filmmakers had decided they didn’t need a young actor to play Young Hagrid: instead that sequence features a rugby player in a darkened corner, with a voiceover courtesy of Coltrane. The section of the script I was holding instead featured a conversation between Harry Potter and a character called Tom Riddle.

I asked my flat mate Beccy, who unlike me had actually read the books, who this person might be. She shuffled, awkwardly. “I think he might be Voldemort...?”

Further complicating things, the stage directions described Riddle as something along the lines of, “16 years old, stick thin and classically handsome, in a boyish way”. As fervently as I may have denied any resemblance between myself and Robbie Coltrane, I was nonetheless clear that I was a good match for precisely none of those adjectives.

I’m not sure what I was expecting when I went to the audition. I don’t suppose I expected Chris Columbus to be there, let alone Robbie Coltrane ready to embrace me like a long-lost son.  But I was expecting more than a cupboard containing a video camera of the sort you could buy at Dixons and a blonde woman not much older than me. She introduced herself as “Buffy” which, given that this was 2001, I am not entirely convinced was her real name.

“My friends always tell me I look like Robbie Coltrane,” I told her, pretending I was remotely enthusiastic about this fact. 

“Oh yeah,” said Buffy. “But he’s really... big isn’t he? I mean he’s a huge guy. You’re more sort of...”

Or to put it another way, if they had still been looking for a young Hagrid, they would have wanted someone tall. I’m 6’, but I’m not tall. I was just fat.

If they had been looking for a Young Hagrid. Which, as it turned out, they weren’t.

The section I read for was included in the final film, so with a bit of Googling I found the script online. It was this bit:

TOM RIDDLE Yes. I’m afraid so. But then, she’s been in so much pain, poor Ginny. She’s been writing to me for months, telling me all her pitiful worries and woes. Ginny poured her soul out to me. I grew stronger on a diet of her deepest fears, her darkest secrets. I grew powerful enough to start feeding Ginny a few secrets, to start pouring a bit of my soul back into her...

Riddle, growing less vaporous by the second, grins cruelly.

TOM RIDDLE Yes, Harry, it was Ginny Weasley who opened the Chamber of Secrets.

I mean, you can see the problem, can’t you? I don’t remember this many years on what interpretation I put on my performance. I suspect I went beyond camp and into full on panto villain, and I dread to think what I may have done to communicate the impression of “growing less vaporous”.

But what I do feel confident about is that I was absolutely bloody awful. Five minutes after arriving, I was out, and I never heard from Buffy again.

So – I didn’t become a star. You probably guessed that part already.

In all honesty, I didn’t really realise what a big deal Harry Potter was. I’d seen the first film, and thought it was all right, but I was yet to read the books; three of them hadn’t even been written yet.

I had some vague idea there was an opportunity here. But the idea I was missing a shot at being part of an institution, something that people would be rereading and re-watching and analysing for decades to come – something that, a couple of years later, at roughly the point when Dumbledore shows Harry the Prophecy, and a tear rolls down his cheek, would come to mean quite a lot to me, personally – none of that ever crossed my mind. I’d had an opportunity. It hadn’t worked out. Happened all the time.

I do sometimes like to think, though, about the parallel universe in which that audition was the start of a long and glittering career – and where the bloke who played Tom Riddle in this universe is scratching a living writing silly blogs about trains.

*I don’t.

**I didn’t.

***It wasn’t.

****I was.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

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