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.

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W1A
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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 appears in the 24 April 2015 issue of the New Statesman, What does England want?