W1A, S01E01

by Joshua Gaskell

By John Morton
BBC Comedy Production for BBC Two
Wednesday, 19th March 2014

In Twenty Twelve Ian Fletcher (Hugh Bonneville) was Head of Deliverance at the Olympic Deliverance Commission, and now, in W1A, he’s Head of Values at the BBC. At least a couple of reviews have called him ‘hapless’ – ‘unlucky. Hence also in later use: incompetent’ (OED) – but I don’t think that’s quite right. He’s got a well-paid, high-status job, and is a fairly sensible chap with whom we sympathise.* The joke, I think, is that his job description is such bollocks that there isn’t really anything substantial for him to be competent at. Bollocks being a running theme, dictionary definitions are going to prove a useful method of grounding ourselves. Values, in this context, are ‘The principles or moral standards held by a person or social group’ (OED). The problem for Ian is that the principles and moral standards he must head up are those of the social group known as the British people, or – with BBC Worldwide and the World Service – the human race. Consequently, it soon becomes apparent that he is not the Head of Values at all, but the Tail.

When he arrives at Broadcasting House for his first day in the new job, Ian is warmly received by Simon Harwood (Jason Watkins), Director of Strategic Governance.‘Welcome to the madhouse,’ says Simon, after which the viewer is treated to glimpses of various mad (and maddening) things about BH, and left to wonder about the extent of the hyperbole. There’s the feckless intern (Hugh Skinner); the meeting rooms named after BBC comedians (‘I’m just past Norman Wisdom on the right’); Syncopatico, which ‘syncs you to the BBC itself, in real time, wirelessly’; hot-desking and ‘the possibilities offered by the open-plan work environment’; herd instinct phone checking; and, in a private room, Alan Yentob and Salman Rushdie arm-wrestling to the sound of Radio 3, each doing their best ‘aloof, arrogant, sinister hoodlum’s gaze’.

It isn’t long before Ian is lumped with his first crisis: a row about an apparent institutional BBC bias against the West Country.§ ‘Is this something you’d want to be across in terms of values, Ian?’ asks Simon, sweet as pie. Ian, wagged by the big dog of the lanyard, dutifully plays along with Simon Says and agrees to meet a West Country representative. This allows the narrator (David Tennant) to utter the following superb sentence: ‘Mebyon Kernow bigwig and Cornish éminence grise, Nigel Trescott, has arrived at New Broadcasting House in order to be taken seriously.’

Running alongside the West Country story is the development of a new ‘appointment to view’ show, Britain’s Tastiest Village: ‘Countryfile meets Bake Off […] with a bit of the One Show thrown in, just in case. […] We’re like, no one’s ever actually done this before’. This description succinctly and brilliantly captures the pathological obsession of commissioners who want to hear programmes pitched that are simultaneously totally new and therefore exciting, and totally derivative and therefore safe.

This first episode ends with Ian being sent on to Woman’s Hour to deal with the West Country crisis, which has the potential to become entangled with the question of who is going to host Britain’s Tastiest Village. As if this weren’t bad enough, it eventually dawns on Ian that going on Woman’s Hour means getting the train up to Salford. ‘Bad luck,’ Simon says.

W1A’s greatest contribution to the BBC’s mission to inform, educate and entertain, is its function as a taxonomy of the genus Bollocks. The species of this genus are as follows:

Birtspeak/Management bollocks (e.g. ‘an unforeseen rationalisation’; ‘the daily senior team damage limitation meeting’; ‘a new Way Ahead taskforce, with a remit to think big thoughts’).
When Ian arrives he suggests, naively as it turns out, that he ‘should find [his] office and everything’. Instead he is introduced to hot-desking, ‘The practice of allocating or using desks or workstations on a temporary, ad hoc, or part-time basis […] esp. operated as a means of saving office space and resources’ (OED). When he finally sets eyes on what he thinks is an office, Simon quickly disabuses him: if it looks like an office, walks like an office, and quacks like an office, then ‘what it is, technically, is an interactive space’. Presumably we can judge how desirable are ‘the possibilities offered by the open-plan work environment’ by whether or not the director-general considers them an offer that he’d like to take up himself.

Youthspeak (e.g. the double abusion of like, ‘as a meaningless interjection’ and ‘to report direct speech’ (OED); and uptalk, a.k.a. the high rising terminal, or Totally Inquisitive Tone Syndrome). Will – ‘actually, like, an intern’ – is guilty of this youthspeak, but at least he is in fact young. Format Producer David Wilkes (Rufus Jones) is not, yet when Carol Vorderman – a potential presenter of Britain’s Tastiest Village – tells him that Sandwich is a town, not a village, he responds, ‘Yeah, but for us it’s sort of a village?’

Digital bollocks (e.g.‘digital handshake sessions’; ‘your virtual PA’ (virtually as good as an actual PA?); ‘what would a world look like if it was different?’). When Ian arrives he is introduced to Syncopatico, which has been ‘eleven years in development’. The man who introduces it does so with a ta-da flourish, but the screen behind him announces ‘No Signal’. This is presumably a reference to the BBC’s Digital Media Initiative (DMI), which cost £98.4m, but in May 2013 was declared a right off by the director-general. As the Syncopatico man saith: ‘Fucking hell!’

Special-interest bollocks. Nigel Trescott seems at first to be the bluff, plain-speaking breath of fresh air, able, like a Shakespearian fool, to tell those in the madhouse that they are mad. But actually, it turns out he’s speaking his own species of bollocks, because you can’t rise above identity politics if you’ve got a Cornish blind-spot; you can’t say political correctness has gone made if you’re mad about Cornwall:

You name me one Cornish newsreader or presented or whatever […] you can hardly turn on your TV nowadays without some bloody Scottish person yakking on, usually women […] big hairy Geordies […] gays in just about every conceivable position imaginable. You don’t know where to look. […] How many Cornish athletes in the Olympics? Four. They all lost, every single one of the buggers.

Finally, the bollocks to rule them all; Bollocks domesticus: PR bollocks. Enter the brilliant Siobhan Sharpe (Jessica Hynes), marketing guru of Perfect Curve. Her focus is ‘Brand BBC’ and the worst possible thing that can befall her is ‘a major brand message dropout’. Now, PR bollocks is the most joyfully silly species in W1A, but it also raises some serious questions. The narrator describes the position as it stands:

With the renewal of the BBC’s Royal Charter on which the future of the Corporation depends due in 2016, finding an answer to the question What is the BBC for? before then, could potentially be important.

The job of answering this question isn’t helped by Siobhan sitting in the Way Ahead taskforce meeting, chanting ‘BBC, BBC’. People dropping any definite article should always arouse suspicion, but in this case it’s particularly interesting. What the likes of Siobhan don’t understand is that it’s not a BBC, it’s the BBC: it’s not a brand like all the rest. Or, in other words, the ‘brand’ is to shut up about brands and concentrate on the activity intentionally conspicuous by it’s absence in W1A: programme-making.

If you look on the OED’s entry for brand you’ll see nine draft additions: brand leader, brand-leading, and Brand X in 1993; brand awareness, brand loyalty, brand management, and brand manager in 2003; brand identity in 2004; and brand extension in 2013. In the age of privatisation compound brand- nouns have been a booming sector for the bollocks industry. What sets the BBC apart, now more than ever, is our need for its founding principles. As Ian was saying, before Siobhan interrupted, ‘We are fortunate enough to be sitting at the centre of the greatest broadcasting organisation – arguably one of the greatest ideas – in the world.’ And we do get a glimpse of these founding principles, in amongst the bollocks. When West Countrygate is breaking it is reported on BBC News 24, and Controller of News and Current Affairs Neil Reid (David Westhead), complains, ‘This is our own, this is the BBC News Channel for fuck’s sake, not kamikaze fucking corner.’ We have perhaps forgotten what successful self-regulation looks like, but kamikaze corner is it; as is John Humphreys or Steve Hewlett hauling a BBC manager over the coals on Radio 4, or indeed W1A itself. These Russian dolls of openness draw accusations of navel-gazing, but we don’t have to look very far to see the worse alternatives of cover-ups and re­branding.

So how should we respond to all the bollocks? The treatment of David Wilkes is a clue. He is one of the worst culprits, but more than that, he also seems to function as a means of everyone else releasing a sublimated desire. He is the martyr to whom the community can say what their collective consciousness is dying to say. In short, they tell him to ‘shut up’.

* We like Ian because he has a sense of humour. The lack of a sense of humour is the most damning attribute a sitcom writer can give a character, because it makes them laughless in a laughable situation. As Alan Bennett has written, on the subject of Margaret Thatcher, ‘to have no sense of humour is to be a seriously flawed human being. It’s not a minor shortcoming; it shuts you off from humanity.’ (Thatcher was advocating funding the BBC with adverts as early as 1969.) So in sitcoms, the characters with whom audiences identify are often the ones who see the funny side.
† We’re told that Broadcasting House is on ‘Upper Regent Street’, an unnecessary concession to ignorance. It’s on Portland Place.
‡ Just as John Morton’s People Like Us was presumably an influence on The Office, so some credit for this sort of satire on the way the BBC is run should probably go to the second series of Extras.
§ In an age of regionalist identity politics, Morton has settled on the South West – as opposed to Wales, Scotland or the North, say – as a safe region to write about.
‖ To take an example of a press release entirely at random, ‘Although not a sequel to Twenty TwelveW1A features new situations and new characters – it does share some of its DNA with Twenty Twelve’.
¶ In its entry for hot desk the OED suggests the reader compare hotbed, ‘a bed in a hotel which rents out rooms for short periods, and is often used for prostitution’.
☞ Cf. Karl Pilkington’s superhero: Bullshit Man.