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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So much for "the table never lies" – data unravels football's biggest lie of all

London side Brentford FC are using data to rethink the usual football club model.

It’s a miserable day for practice, the rain spitting down on the manicured training pitches of Brentford Football Club. Inside a tiny office marked Director of Football, Rasmus Ankersen is waiting for his phone to ring. The winter transfer window closes in 11 hours and there are deals to finalise.

Ankersen, a 33-year-old Dane with a trim beard and hair pulled into a small ponytail, seems relaxed. Perhaps he knows that the £12m transfer of the striker Scott Hogan to Aston Villa is as good as done. Or maybe his comfort comes from Brentford’s performance this season. The small west London club sits safely in the top half of the second tier of English football – at least according to management’s own version of the league table, which is based on “deserved” rather than actual results. Officially, on 31 January, when we meet, the team is 15th of 24.

“There’s a concept in football that the table never lies,” says Ankersen, whose own playing career was ended by a knee injury in his teens. “Well, that’s the biggest lie in football. Your league position is not the best metric to evaluate success.”

Brentford are an outlier in English football. Since the professional gambler Matthew Benham bought a majority share in 2012, they have relied on the scientific application of statistics – the “moneyball” technique pioneered in baseball – when assessing performance.

The early results were positive. In 2014, Brentford were promoted from League One to the Championship and the next season finished fifth. That same year, Benham’s other team, FC Midtjylland, which is run on similar principles, won the Danish Superliga for the first time.

Yet in 2016 Brentford slipped to ninth. Despite the disappointing season so far, Ankersen insists the strategy is the right one for “a small club with a small budget”.

Underpinning Brentford’s approach is the understanding that luck often plays a big part in football. “It is a low-scoring sport, so random events can have a big impact,” Ankersen says. “The ball can take a deflection, the referee can make a mistake. The best team wins less often than in other sports.”

In a match, or even over a season, a team can score fewer or more than its performance merits. A famous example is Newcastle in 2012, says Ankersen, who besides his football job is an entrepreneur and author. In his recent book, Hunger in Paradise, he notes that after Newcastle finished fifth in the Premier League, their manager, Alan Pardew, was rewarded with an eight-year extension of his contract.

If the club’s owners had looked more closely at the data, they would have realised the team was not nearly as good as it seemed. Newcastle’s goal difference – goals scored minus goals conceded – was only +5, compared to +25 and +19 for the teams immediately above and below them. Statistically, a club with Newcastle’s goal difference should have earned ten points fewer than it did.

Moreover, its shot differential (how many shots on goal a team makes compared to its opponents) was negative and the sixth worst in the league. That its players converted such a high percentage of their shots into goals was remarkable – and unsustainable.

The next season, Newcastle finished 16th in the Premier League. The team was not worse: its performance had regressed to the mean. “Success can turn luck into genius,” Ankersen says. “You have to treat success with the same degree of scepticism as failure.”

Brentford’s key performance metric is “expected goals” for and against the team, based on the quality and quantity of chances created during a match. This may give a result that differs from the actual score, and is used to build the alternative league table that the management says is a more reliable predictor of results.

Besides data, Brentford are rethinking the usual football club model in other ways. Most league clubs run academies to identify local players aged nine to 16. But Ankersen says that this system favours the richer clubs, which can pick off the best players coached by smaller teams.

Last summer, Brentford shut their academy. Instead, they now operate a “B team” for players aged 17 to 20. They aim to recruit footballers “hungry for a second chance” after being rejected by other clubs, and EU players who see the Championship as a stepping stone to the Premier League.

It’s a fascinating experiment, and whether Brentford will achieve their goal of reaching the Premier League in the near future is uncertain. But on the day we met, Ankersen’s conviction that his team’s fortunes would turn was not misplaced. That evening, Brentford beat Aston Villa 3-0, and moved up to 13th place in the table. Closer to the mean.

Xan Rice is Features Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times