The show must go on: Hugh Bonneville (left) in W1A
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Sharpening the pen: media satire W1A is back, and its aim is as sharp as ever

The mockumentary's second season opens with an hour long special - but some of it hits a bit too close to home.


Twenty-seven minutes into the first episode of the new series of W1A (23 April, 9pm), I suddenly grasped that it wasn’t about to end. It had kicked off with an hour-long special! Hmm. I wasn’t as pleased as I might have been. You need quite a lot of plot to make a show of this kind work over 60 minutes: a royal visit that gets stymied by loopy BBC security procedures probably won’t do it, funny though rising bollards undoubtedly are in the right circumstances. And there’s the important matter of one’s blood pressure. Endure the incontinent burblings and management doublespeak of Siobhan Sharpe, Tracey Pritchard and David Wilkes for too long and you may need to spend the weekend sedated in a dark room with only the unabridged audiobook of Edward Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire for company.

Oh, well. Self-harm aside, the aim of W1A’s arrows is as true as ever. Kapow, as Sharpe (Jessica Hynes) would say: John Morton, its writer and director, nails the coyote. Its characters have returned pared down, reduced to their ninny-ish essence, which speaks of both Morton’s confidence and his great skill. Simon Harwood (Jason Watkins), the director of strategic governance, now speaks in full sentences only when he is moved to talk – as a wife might, with weary propriety – of “Tony” (Hall, the director general). The rest of the time, he just smiles and nods and says: “Brilliant.” He’s basically a ventriloquist’s dummy.

In series one, Wilkes (Rufus Jones), the irredeemably stupid and craven entertainment format producer, was notable for the gasp-inducing U-turns he would perform mid-conversation. Now, we find him sticking the car into reverse a mere sentence or two in. When Anna Rampton (Sarah Parish) suggested that Heavy Petting, a show in which celebrities swap pets (Kylie would exchange her Rhodesian ridgeback for Alan Carr’s Maine Coon), was not going to fly, he came up with Family Face-Off (“This is about all of us”) before she could so much as swallow. Rampton’s speciality, by the way, is swallowing. Soon, she will probably do nothing else.

What about Sharpe? The minimalism doesn’t apply to her, natch. “Win-bledon! Win-bledon!” she shouted, waving a giant foam finger with Sue Barker’s face on it at Ian Fletcher (Hugh Bonneville) and the others. (Do you see what she did there?) At Perfect Curve, her PR company, she and her bearded morons had come up with several ways of rebranding Wimbledon, the better to keep it from being bagged by S** (that is, Sky). Idea one: what about newsreaders, or, better still, David Attenborough, umpiring matches? Idea two: why not send Graham Norton into the players’ box to meet the girlfriends? Idea three: let’s have Novak coming on to the Doctor Who music and Andy to the Strictly theme. And the great news is that Sharpe has an “in” with Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, who, as W1A’s pitch-perfect voice-over helpfully reminded us, is “not so much ethnically white”.

Siobhan makes me honk but there are also moments – they seem to be increasing in frequency – when W1A cannot induce in me even so much as a wintry smile. When Lucy Freeman (Nina Sosanya) took a nervous screenwriter to meet a commissioning editor, they had to sit not on chairs but astride stupid shiny little dogs (or were they horses?) and then listen while he suggested that Scarborough was not, after all, the right place – sorry, I mean “precinct” – for a brilliant new drama and wouldn’t the series be better set in Leicester? Now, look. I haven’t yet been asked, in a meeting, to place my backside on a small, aluminium animal. But I’d be lying if I told you that I didn’t feel that this was a possibility some time in the near future. The leap from yellow Arne Jacobsen egg chairs, in which I’ve already occasionally been required to spin, to novelty ponies or puppies or whatever they were doesn’t seem to me to be all that far. And the worst part is that I can already see myself flicking a leg casually over the said beast even as I talk earnestly and with increasing desperation to its owner – a man or woman in whose hands my future may seem, on that particular day, sadly to lie.

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 24 April 2015 issue of the New Statesman, What does England want?

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Brexit confusion is scuppering my show – what next?

My week, from spinning records with Baconface, Brexit block and visiting comedy graves.

I am a stand-up comedian, and I am in the process of previewing a new live show, which I hope to tour until early 2018. It was supposed to be about how the digital, free-market society is reshaping the idea of the individual, but we are in the pre-Brexit events whirlpool, and there has never been a worse time to try to assemble a show that will still mean anything in 18 months’ time.



A joke written six weeks ago about dep­orting eastern Europeans, intended to be an exaggeration for comic effect, suddenly just reads like an Amber Rudd speech – or, as James O’Brien pointed out on LBC, an extract from Mein Kampf.

A rude riff on Sarah Vine and 2 Girls 1 Cup runs aground because there are fewer people now who remember Vine than recall the briefly notorious Brazilian video clip. I realise that something that gets a cheer on a Tuesday in Harrogate, or Glasgow, or Oxford, could get me lynched the next night in Lincoln. Perhaps I’ll go into the fruit-picking business. I hear there’s about to be some vacancies.



I sit and stare at blocks of text, wondering how to knit them into a homogeneous whole. But it’s Sunday afternoon, a time for supervising homework and finding sports kit. My 11-year-old daughter has a school project on the Victorians and she has decided to do it on dead 19th-century comedians, as we had recently been on a Music Hall Guild tour of their graves at the local cemetery. I wonder if, secretly, she wished I would join them.

I have found living with the background noise of this project depressing. The headstones that she photographed show that most of the performers – even the well-known Champagne Charlie – barely made it past 40, while the owners of the halls outlived them. Herbert Campbell’s obelisk is vast and has the word “comedian” written on it in gold leaf, but it’s in the bushes and he is no longer remembered. Neither are many of the acts I loved in the 1980s – Johnny Immaterial, Paul Ramone, the Iceman.



I would have liked to do some more work on the live show but, one Monday a month, I go to the studios of the largely volunteer-run arts radio station Resonance FM in Borough, south London. Each Wednesday night at 11pm, the masked Canadian stand-up comedian Baconface presents selections from his late brother’s collection of 1950s, 1960s and 1970s jazz, psychedelia, folk, blues and experimental music. I go in to help him pre-record the programmes.

Baconface is a fascinating character, whom I first met at the Cantaloupes Comedy Club in Kamloops in British Columbia in 1994. He sees the radio show as an attempt to atone for his part in his brother’s death, which was the result of a prank gone wrong involving nudity and bacon, though he is often unable to conceal his contempt for the music that he is compelled to play.

The show is recorded in a small, hot room and Baconface doesn’t change the bacon that his mask is made of very often, so the experience can be quite claustrophobic. Whenever we lose tapes or the old vinyl is too warped to play, he just sits back and utters his resigned, philosophical catchphrase, “It’s all bacon!” – which I now find myself using, as I watch the news, with ­depressing regularity.



After the kids go to sleep, I sit up alone and finally watch The Lady in the Van. Last year, I walked along the street in Camden where it was being filmed, and Alan Bennett talked to me, which was amazing.

About a month later, on the same street, we saw Jonathan Miller skirting some dog’s mess and he told me and the kids how annoyed it made him. I tried to explain to them afterwards who Jonathan Miller was, but to the five-year-old the satire pioneer will always be the Shouting Dog’s Mess Man.



I have the second of the final three preview shows at the intimate Leicester Square Theatre in London before the new show, Content Provider, does a week in big rooms around the country. Today, I was supposed to do a BBC Radio 3 show about improvised music but both of the kids were off school with a bug and I had to stay home mopping up. In between the vomiting, in the psychic shadow of the improvisers, I had something of a breakthrough. The guitarist Derek Bailey, for example, would embrace his problems and make them part of the performance.



I drank half a bottle of wine before going on stage, to give me the guts to take some risks. It’s not a long-term strategy for creative problem-solving, and that way lies wandering around Southend with a pet chicken. But by binning the words that I’d written and trying to repoint them, in the moment, to be about how the Brexit confusion is blocking my route to the show I wanted to write, I can suddenly see a way forward. The designer is in, with samples of a nice coat that she is making for me, intended to replicate the clothing of the central figure in Caspar David Friedrich’s 1818 German masterpiece Wanderer Above a Sea of Fog.



Richard Branson is on the internet and, just as I’d problem-solved my way around writing about it, he’s suggesting that Brexit might not happen. I drop the kids off and sit in a café reading Alan Moore’s new novel, Jerusalem. I am interviewing him about it for the Guardian in two weeks’ time. It’s 1,174 pages long, but what with the show falling apart I have read only 293 pages. Next week is half-term. I’ll nail it. It’s great, by the way, and seems to be about the small lives of undocumented individuals, buffeted by the random events of their times.

Stewart Lee’s show “Content Provider” will be on in London from 8 November. For more details, visit:

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage