W1A (and Twenty-Twelve)

W1A is the BBC taking the piss out of the BBC, its culture, its executives, its institutions, its buildings and its language in the form of a faux-fly-on-the-wall satirical documentary narrated by David Tennant, earnest and faintly supercilious to a tee.  W1A features strongly Hugh Bonneville‘s finest bemused expression, much the same as he delivered in Paddington; and, for those in the know, the same theme music as once used for Animal Magic, a 1970s children’s TV programme featuring Johnny Morris mimicking animals in English (Las Vegas by Laurie Johnson, since you ask.)

If this all sounds scarily familiar, stars Bonneville and Jessica Hynes previously appeared as the same characters in Twenty Twelve, a faux-fly-on-the-wall piss-take on the planning process behind the London 2012 Olympics, narrated by…. you’re way ahead of me – and also written and directed by the self same John Morton.  Mr Morton wrote 2012 (for convenience) in exactly the same fragmented anti-communication as its later counterpart, which might go a long way towards explaining why it is every bit as cringeworthy as W1A.

With that context, focus is on W1A for one reason only: it is current and ongoing.  Series 3 has been commissioned so more embarrassment and humiliation will follow in 2017, so evidently there is an audience addicted to the sort of embarrassing humour designed to have you chewing cushions on your sofa well before the end of each 30-minute instalment.

What a shame then that W1A is almost completely unwatchable.  Why is it unwatchable?  It’s been written deliberately to be as cringeworthy as any programme is possible to be.  Almost as unwatchable as The Apprentice, whisper it.  Actually I do it a disservice, since this is effective comedy, once you get past the embarrassment factor – as is The Apprentice, come to think of it.

How so?  Both series, in fact all three series, are stuffed full of stuffed shirts, people who are so full of themselves they can’t hear how ridiculous they sound.  Their words abound with cliches, speeches designed to sound self-effacing while thinly disguising the naked ambition and petty jealousies abounding among a group of people with non-job titles but sky high salaries, all of whom make Bonneville’s Brompton folding bike-wielding Ian Fletcher (Head of Values) sound competent, if verbose.

Even the posh slow-witted intern Will Humphries (Hugh Skinner doing his best Tim Nice-but-Dim impression) speaks almost entirely in combinations of “cool – yeah – ok – cool” without ever being in danger of making sense.  In fact, nobody makes much sense, while muddling through various crises and non-crises, typically manufactured by the Beeb’s inexplicable sensitivity to media reports in the run-up to renegotiation of the BBC charter.

Most overtly toe-curlingly embarrassing is Hynes’s Siobhan Sharpe, BBC Brand Consultant and Head of PR consultancy Perfect Curve, but if the corridors of power at New Broadcasting House are populated by the acutely absurd likes of Simon Harwood, Director of Strategic Governance (Jason Watkins), you fear for our venerable broadcaster.  Sarah Parish‘s snappy Anna Rampton, was once Head of Output and is latterly “Director of Better” (no, I don’t know what it means either, but such things prompt turf wars in some organisations), which ill-defined role appears to demonstrate the premise that in corporate politics people are promoted beyond their level of competence.

Various celebs and luvvies look in to send themselves up, including Clare Balding, Carol Vordeman, Jenni Murray and the Beeb’s own executive-broadcaster-without-portfolio Alan Yentob, all venerated in person and occasionally cursed off-screen.

Vordeman in particular has to endure a scene of excruciating humiliation as execs try to pamper her ego while telling her she doesn’t have a role in a forthcoming series after all, for which she was expecting to sign up – and leave the bad news to their junior underlings.  The only person we don’t see, but whose name is much spoken with hushed tones is “his Tonyness”, aka Lord Hall, Director General.

So there it is.  You may like W1A, you may not, but this I guarantee: whatever your view, there’s no doubt that a sly corporate love-in is less than the creative genius within Auntie Beeb should be devising.  Just occasionally you wish there was a little more edge to comedy, by which I don’t mean stand-up comics who say “fuck” a lot and talk about taboo subjects like they were original.

But then, maybe it reflects current inward-looking BBC culture, where the esteemed broadcasting organisation has to justify its very existence and look uncomfortably towards a future which may include subscription broadcasting instead of the TV licence fee.


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