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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After Strictly, I'd love to see Ed Balls start a new political party

My week, from babbling at Michael Gove to chatting Botox with Ed Balls and a trip to Stroke City.

If you want to see yourself as others see you, write a weekly column in a national newspaper, then steel yourself to read “below the line”. Under my last offering I read the following comment: “Don’t be angry, feel pity. Her father was a member of the European Parliament. Her older brother has been a member of parliament, a cabinet minister, a secretary of state, a historian, a mayor of London. Her younger brother is a member of parliament and minister for universities and science. She has a column in the Daily Mail. Can you imagine how she feels deep inside?” Before I slammed my laptop shut – the truth always hurts – my eye fell on this. “When is Rachel going to pose for Playboy seniors’ edition?” Who knew that Playboy did a seniors’ edition? This is the best compliment I’ve had all year!

 

Three parts of Michael Gove

Part one Bumped into Michael Gove the other day for the first time since I called him a “political psychopath” and “Westminster suicide bomber” in print. We had one of those classic English non-conversations. I babbled. Gove segued into an anecdote about waiting for a London train at Castle Cary in his trusty Boden navy jacket and being accosted by Johnnie Boden wearing the exact same one. I’m afraid that’s the punchline! Part two I’ve just had a courtesy call from the Cheltenham Literature Festival to inform me that Gove has been parachuted into my event. I’ve been booked in since June, and the panel is on modern manners. De mortuis nil nisi bonum, of course, but I do lie in bed imagining the questions I hope I might be asked at the Q&A session afterwards. Part three There has been what we might call a serious “infarction” of books about Brexit, serialised passim. I never thought I would write these words, but I’m feeling sorry for the chap. Gove gets such a pasting in the diaries of Sir Craig Oliver.

Still, I suppose Michael can have his own say, because he’s returning to the Times this week as a columnist. Part of me hopes he’ll “do a Sarah Vine”, as it’s known in the trade (ie, write a column spiced with intimate revelations). But I am braced for policy wonkery rather than the petty score-settling and invasions of his own family privacy that would be so much more entertaining.

 

I capture the castle

I’ve been at an event on foreign affairs called the Mount Stewart Conversations, co-hosted by BBC Northern Ireland and the National Trust. Before my departure for Belfast, I mentioned that I was going to the province to the much “misunderestimated” Jemima Goldsmith, the producer, and writer of this parish. I didn’t drop either the name of the house or the fact that Castlereagh, a former foreign secretary, used to live there, and that the desk that the Congress of Vienna was signed on is in the house, as I assumed in my snooty way that Ms Goldsmith wouldn’t have heard of either. “Oh, we used to have a house in Northern Ireland, Mount Stewart,” she said, when I said I was going there. “It used to belong to Mum.” That told me.

Anyway, it was a wonderful weekend, full of foreign policy and academic rock stars too numerous to mention. Plus, at the Stormont Hotel, the staff served porridge with double cream and Bushmills whiskey for breakfast; and the gardens at Mount Stewart were stupendous. A top performer was Jonathan Powell, Tony Blair’s former chief of staff, who runs his own conflict resolution charity. Powell negotiated the Good Friday Agreement and also has a very natty line in weekend casual wear. Jeremy Corbyn has said he wants a minister for peace, as well as party unity. Surely “Curly” Powell – a prince of peace if ever there was one – must be shoo-in for this gig.

PS: I was told that Derry/Londonderry is now known as “Stroke City”. I imagined stricken residents all being rushed to Casualty, before I worked it out.

 

On board with Balls

Isn’t Ed Balls bliss? From originating Twitter’s Ed Balls Day to becoming Strictly Come Dancing’s Ed Balls, he is adding hugely to the gaiety of the nation. I did the ITV show The Agenda with Tom Bradby this week, and as a fellow guest Balls was a non-stop stream of campery, charleston steps, Strictly gossip and girly questions about whether he should have a spray tan (no!), or Botox under his armpits to staunch the sweat (also no! If you block the armpits, it will only appear somewhere else!).

He is clever, fluent, kind, built like a s*** outhouse, and nice. I don’t care that his waltz looked as if his partner, Katya, was trying to move a double-doored Sub-Zero American fridge across a shiny floor. After Strictly I’d like to see him start a new party for all the socially liberal, fiscally conservative, pro-European millions of us who have been disenfranchised by Brexit and the Corbynisation of the Labour Party. In fact, I said this on air. If he doesn’t organise it, I will, and he sort of promised to be on board!

 

A shot in the dark

I was trying to think of something that would irritate New Statesman readers to end with. How about this: my husband is shooting every weekend between now and 2017. This weekend we are in Drynachan, the seat of Clan Campbell and the Thanes of Cawdor. I have been fielding calls from our host, a type-A American financier, about the transportation of shotguns on BA flights to Inverness – even though I don’t shoot and can’t stand the sport.

I was overheard droning on by Adrian Tinniswood, the author of the fashionable history of country houses The Long Weekend. He told me that the 11th Duke of Bedford kept four cars and eight chauffeurs to ferry revellers to his pile at Woburn. Guests were picked up in town by a chauffeur, accompanied by footmen. Luggage went in another car, also escorted by footmen, as it was not done to travel with your suitcase.

It’s beyond Downton! I must remember to tell mine host how real toffs do it. He might send a plane just for the guns.

Rachel Johnson is a columnist for the Mail on Sunday

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories