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.

W1A
BBC2

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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Let's turn RBS into a bank for the public interest

A tarnished symbol of global finance could be remade as a network of local banks. 

The Royal Bank of Scotland has now been losing money for nine consecutive years. Today’s announcement of a further £7bn yearly loss at the publicly-owned bank is just the latest evidence that RBS is essentially unsellable. The difference this time is that the Government seems finally to have accepted that fact.

Up until now, the government had been reluctant to intervene in the running of the business, instead insisting that it will be sold back to the private sector when the time is right. But these losses come just a week after the government announced that it is abandoning plans to sell Williams & Glynn – an RBS subsidiary which has over 300 branches and £22bn of customer deposits.

After a series of expensive delays and a lack of buyer interest, the government now plans to retain Williams & Glynn within the RBS group and instead attempt to boost competition in the business lending market by granting smaller "challenger banks" access to RBS’s branch infrastructure. It also plans to provide funding to encourage small businesses to switch their accounts away from RBS.

As a major public asset, RBS should be used to help achieve wider objectives. Improving how the banking sector serves small businesses should be the top priority, and it is good to see the government start to move in this direction. But to make the most of RBS, they should be going much further.

The public stake in RBS gives us a unique opportunity to create new banking institutions that will genuinely put the interests of the UK’s small businesses first. The New Economics Foundation has proposed turning RBS into a network of local banks with a public interest mandate to serve their local area, lend to small businesses and provide universal access to banking services. If the government is serious about rebalancing the economy and meeting the needs of those who feel left behind, this is the path they should take with RBS.

Small and medium sized enterprises are the lifeblood of the UK economy, and they depend on banking services to fund investment and provide a safe place to store money. For centuries a healthy relationship between businesses and banks has been a cornerstone of UK prosperity.

However, in recent decades this relationship has broken down. Small businesses have repeatedly fallen victim to exploitative practice by the big banks, including the the mis-selling of loans and instances of deliberate asset stripping. Affected business owners have not only lost their livelihoods due to the stress of their treatment at the hands of these banks, but have also experienced family break-ups and deteriorating physical and mental health. Others have been made homeless or bankrupt.

Meanwhile, many businesses struggle to get access to the finance they need to grow and expand. Small firms have always had trouble accessing finance, but in recent decades this problem has intensified as the UK banking sector has come to be dominated by a handful of large, universal, shareholder-owned banks.

Without a focus on specific geographical areas or social objectives, these banks choose to lend to the most profitable activities, and lending to local businesses tends to be less profitable than other activities such as mortgage lending and lending to other financial institutions.

The result is that since the mid-1980s the share of lending going to non-financial businesses has been falling rapidly. Today, lending to small and medium sized businesses accounts for just 4 per cent of bank lending.

Of the relatively small amount of business lending that does occur in the UK, most is heavily concentrated in London and surrounding areas. The UK’s homogenous and highly concentrated banking sector is therefore hampering economic development, starving communities of investment and making regional imbalances worse.

The government’s plans to encourage business customers to switch away from RBS to another bank will not do much to solve this problem. With the market dominated by a small number of large shareholder-owned banks who all behave in similar ways (and who have been hit by repeated scandals), businesses do not have any real choice.

If the government were to go further and turn RBS into a network of local banks, it would be a vital first step in regenerating disenfranchised communities, rebalancing the UK’s economy and staving off any economic downturn that may be on the horizon. Evidence shows that geographically limited stakeholder banks direct a much greater proportion of their capital towards lending in the real economy. By only investing in their local area, these banks help create and retain wealth regionally rather than making existing geographic imbalances worce.

Big, deep challenges require big, deep solutions. It’s time for the government to make banking work for small businesses once again.

Laurie Macfarlane is an economist at the New Economics Foundation