First the good news, which I’m passing on from the BBC’s head of better: judging by the opener, the second series of W1A, the docu-comic take-down of the BBC, is funnier and sharper-edged than the first.
The new series even slips in a Kaufmanesque (Charlie of Being John Malkovich, rather than Andy, although come to think of it …) turn for the surreal – especially when the action switches from shiny New Broadcasting House to the dark, maze-like recesses of the built-over and forgotten Old Broadcasting House.
The bad news, somewhat inevitably, is: the better W1A gets, the worse the BBC looks.
Threaded throughout the episode is the BBC’s triumvirate of corporate fear: race, class and regionalism. Or rather, how these issues look from the perspective of those high up at the BBC – race as viewed by the “hideously white” (according to former director general Greg Dyke) BBC; class as viewed from an overwhelmingly middle-class institution; and regionalism, as viewed from, well, W1A.
‘A bit white’
We join Ian Fletcher (Hugh Bonneville) as he chairs the Way Ahead Task Force and discovers that Sky – or S-“bleep” – is putting up a rival bid for Wimbledon. The Achilles heel of the BBC’s coverage, we’re told, is that it is “in certain respects too white”. What’s not needed – and what the committee gets – is a “BBC/Wimbledon mash-up-and-pimp” from Siobhan Sharpe (the horribly brilliant Jessica Hynes) and acolytes at her entertainingly god-awful PR firm Perfect Curve. Sharpe reports back, in toe-curling song, to Fletcher’s committee of identikit plaid-shirted nodding dogs plus one cynic (a tired hack from the news department). Their response is an alliterative chime of “Brilliant! Brilliant! Bollocks!”
Elsewhere, a lone creative wanders like easy prey into the building – a slightly dazed screenwriter trapped in development hell. This is a rare and exotic glimpse of someone who actually does something. Things do not go well. He’s informed by the BBC’s generic head of comedy and/or drama that his script for a comedy set in Scarborough is “a bit one-dimensional in some ways” (code for “a bit white”). So wouldn’t it be better to re-imagine it in, say, Leicester?
Meanwhile, producer Lucy Freeman (Nina Sosanya), the only black face to be seen within this version of the BBC, finds herself shoved to the front when it comes to welcoming Prince Charles, who’s making a visit to present the corporation with a well-earned award for being “totally energy-free”.
If anyone is the voice of writer John Morton in this, it’s Lucy. Her encounters with David Wilkes (Rufus Jones) – a “format executive”, which seems to be code for “total bleepwit” – are a savage delight. Her sickened look, as his combination of ideas-theft and thick-skinned (or maybe just thick) toadying fails to work its magic, is a sight to behold. And when she’s asked by the screenwriter whether she actually works here, she can barely bring herself to tell him the truth that, yes, she does. All the time.
Even though the show was recorded well before the infamous “fracas”, Jeremy Clarkson – or Jeremy Bleepson, in W1A unspeak – haunts the place as the sum of all fears: a regional voice, prone to the odd allegedly racist comment, and with a broad popular appeal.
Following viewer complaints, a question is set for Fletcher’s Damage Limitation Subcommittee: how many times, in four years of Top Gear, has Bleepson used the word “tosser”? The allowance, apparently, is one tosser per hour – or, according to the never-helpful senior communications officer Tracey Pritchard, 0.5 tossers per half-hour. The total, it turns out, falls well short of the official quota in the BBC’s tosser guidelines.
Well, that’s good. But by pulling at this Clarkson thread, the fictional BBC converges even more uncomfortably than usual with the actual BBC. This was best captured after Clarkson’s “fracas” by Alan Yentob’s revealing and strikingly Fletcher-like comment about how the BBC reaches beyond the “metropolitan elite” to “the C2 D E’s” (the lower end of the social grade classification system). Which leaves a distinct impression that while race and regionalism may make the corporation jump (albeit to little tangible effect), it’s class that continues to operate as the key lever of power and influence (not to mention club membership) at the BBC.
There’s a moment towards the end of this opening episode when it becomes clear that the security systems designed to keep the riff-raff out of the £1bn New Broadcasting House inadvertently keep the chosen few in. Worst of all, this time it’s not the barbarians at the bollards, but Prince bleeping Charles. It’s a neat metaphor for the middle-class exceptionalism that projects sometimes calamitously from the corridors of the real BBC.
W1A may still not quite capture some of the Byzantine mendacity of BBC office politics, nor its zero-sum mentality (your failure is my success). But as a portrayal of the vacuum seal surrounding the white, middle-class, metros of the corporation, it nails a good deal of the private language and codes of a self-selecting caste.