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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How Donald Trump is slouching towards the Republican nomination

There was supposed to be a ceiling above which Trump’s popular support could not climb.

In America, you can judge a crowd by its merchandise. Outside the Connecticut Convention Centre in Hartford, frail old men and brawny moms are selling “your Trump 45 football jerseys”, “your hats”, “your campaign buttons”. But the hottest item is a T-shirt bearing the slogan “Hillary sucks . . . but not like Monica!” and, on the back: “Trump that bitch!” Inside, beyond the checkpoint manned by the Transportation Security Administration and the secret service (“Good!” the man next to me says, when he sees the agents), is a family whose three kids, two of them girls, are wearing the Monica shirt.

Other people are content with the shirts they arrived in (“Waterboarding – baptising terrorists with freedom” and “If you don’t BLEED red, white and blue, take your bitch ass home!”). There are 80 chairs penned off for the elderly but everyone else is standing: guys in motorcycle and military gear, their arms folded; aspiring deal-makers, suited, on cellphones; giggling high-school fatsos, dressed fresh from the couch, grabbing M&M’s and Doritos from the movie-theatre-style concession stands. So many baseball hats; deep, bellicose chants of “Build the wall!” and “USA!”. (And, to the same rhythm, “Don-ald J!”)

A grizzled man in camouflage pants and combat boots, whose T-shirt – “Connecticut Militia III%” – confirms him as a member of the “patriot” movement, is talking to a zealous young girl in a short skirt, who came in dancing to “Uptown Girl”.

“Yeah, we were there for Operation American Spring,” he says. “Louis Farrakhan’s rally of hate . . .”

“And you’re a veteran?” she asks. “Thank you so much!”

Three hours will pass. A retired US marine will take the rostrum to growl, “God bless America – hoo-rah!”; “Uptown Girl” will play many more times (much like his speeches, Donald J’s playlist consists of a few items, repeated endlessly), before Trump finally looms in and asks the crowd: “Is this the greatest place on Earth?”

There was supposed to be a ceiling above which Trump’s popular support could not climb. Only a minority within a minority of Americans, it was assumed, could possibly be stupid enough to think a Trump presidency was a good idea. He won New Hampshire and South Carolina with over 30 per cent of the Republican vote, then took almost 46 per cent in Nevada. When he cleaned up on Super Tuesday in March, he was just shy of 50 per cent in Massachusetts; a week later, he took 47 per cent of the votes in Mississippi.

His rivals, who are useless individually, were meant to co-operate with each other and the national party to deny him the nomination. But Trump won four out of the five key states being contested on “Super-Duper Tuesday” on 15 March. Then, as talk turned to persuading and co-opting his delegates behind the scenes, Trump won New York with 60 per cent.

Now, the campaign is trying to present Trump as more “presidential”. According to his new manager, Paul Manafort, this requires him to appear in “more formal settings” – without, of course, diluting “the unique magic of Trump”. But whether or not he can resist denouncing the GOP and the “corrupt” primary system, and alluding to violence if he is baulked at at the convention, the new Trump will be much the same as the old.

Back in Hartford: “The Republicans wanna play cute with us, right? If I don’t make it, you’re gonna have millions of people that don’t vote for a Republican. They’re not gonna vote at all,” says Trump. “Hopefully that’s all, OK? Hopefully that’s all, but they’re very, very angry.”

This anger, which can supposedly be turned on anyone who gets in the way, has mainly been vented, so far, on the protesters who disrupt Trump’s rallies. “We’re not gonna be the dummies that lose all of our jobs now. We’re gonna be the smart ones. Oh, do you have one over there? There’s one of the dummies . . .”

There is a frenzied fluttering of Trump placards, off to his right. “Get ’em out! . . . Don’t hurt ’em – see how nice I am? . . . They really impede freedom of speech and it’s a disgrace. But the good news is, folks, it won’t be long. We’re just not taking it and it won’t be long.”

It is their removal by police, at Trump’s ostentatious behest, that causes the disruption, rather than the scarcely audible protesters. He seems to realise this, suddenly: “We should just let ’em . . . I’ll talk right over them, there’s no problem!” But it’s impossible to leave the protesters where they are, because it would not be safe. His crowd is too vicious.

Exit Trump, after exactly half an hour, inclusive of the many interruptions. His people seem uplifted but, out on the street, they are ambushed by a large counter-demonstration, with a booming drum and warlike banners and standards (“Black Lives Matter”; an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe, holding aloft Trump’s severed head). Here is the rest of the world, the real American world: young people, beautiful people, more female than male, every shade of skin colour. “F*** Donald Trump!” they chant.

After a horrified split-second, the Trump crowd, massively more numerous, rallies with “USA!” and – perplexingly, since one of the main themes of the speech it has just heard was the lack of jobs in Connecticut – “Get a job!” The two sides then mingle, unobstructed by police. Slanging matches break out that seem in every instance to humiliate the Trump supporter. “Go to college!” one demands. “Man, I am in college, I’m doin’ lovely!”

There is no violence, only this: some black boys are dancing, with liquid moves, to the sound of the drum. Four young Trump guys counter by stripping to their waists and jouncing around madly, their skin greenish-yellow under the street lights, screaming about the building of the wall. There was no alcohol inside; they’re drunk on whatever it is – the elixir of fascism, the unique magic of Trump. It’s a hyper but not at all happy drunk.

As with every other moment of the Trump campaign so far, it would have been merely some grade of the cringeworthy – the embarrassing, the revolting, the pitiful – were Trump not slouching closer and closer, with each of these moments, to his nomination. 

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism