Television Comedy Reviews

Television Comedy Reviews by Joshua Gaskell

Tag: BBC Two

W1A, S01E01

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.

Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle, S03E02

By Stewart Lee
BBC Comedy Production for BBC Two
Saturday, 8th March 2014

Each episode of the new series of Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle opens with a clip of what I think should be called Chris Morris Talks To… Stewart Lee. In Carpet Remnant World (2012) Lee read out things that people had written about him online; and these discussions with Morris (who in this series replaces Armando Iannucci) are a way of building the same effect into the formal structure of a television programme: they are the Scriblerian footnote, the bathos or critique, and perhaps also an opportunity for prolepsis, the anticipation of possible objections in order to deprive them of force. At it’s baldest this involves Morris accusing Lee of having developed a system that, ‘knowingly operates the leavers that make people laugh by using any means possible apart from actually saying anything funny.’

The discussion at the beginning of S03E02 (‘England’) can be tidied up into a dictionary definition of what an imagined critic might say is Lee’s modus operandi as a comic:

Snuff comedy, n.

Pronunciation: /snʌf ˈkɒmᵻdi/
Etymology: < snuff n. + comedy n., app. after snuff movie.

Comedy involving a character or performer thrashing about desperately trying to prove that they have an identity; the final moments of an expiring talent, thought to be entertaining in the same way that it might be interesting to watch an animal expire after its throat has been slit.*

In other words, Lee knows that there’s a contradiction between his purist’s notion of what alternative comedy is, and, for example, the BAFTA he won for Comedy Vehicle in 2012. Hypocrisy is an unusual sin in that to admit to it is to diminish it, so Lee makes a joke out of admitting to it: ‘I’m a person who sits every night, looking at a mantelpiece, literally creaking with awards, and yet every single one of those awards is like a vampire bat sucking all the energy out of me.’

The show proper begins with some behind-the-curtain stuff with the audience:

I don’t wanna waste any time faffing around or trying to create a good atmosphere in the room, so, er, what I’m gonna ask you to do in about thirty seconds is clap for about three seconds […] and I’ll come off the back of that on the move as if we were already in the show […] and you’ll see that works just as well as if I’d done something good.

Lee begins ‘off the back of’ the applause with some true non sequiturs (they follow nothing), before introducing the episode’s subject (England) with a straw (cab)man, who is reported to have said: ‘These days you get arrested and thrown in gaol if you say you’re English.’ In the sequence that follows, with his hallmark repetition-with-variations, Lee sands down this rightwing hyperbole by incredulously asking the cabbie to confirm what he said to be true: ‘When did this come in?’ he asks.

Then we cut back to Chris Morris Talks To, and Lee is picked up for the fact that the cabbie was a clearly fictional straw man: ‘I needed them to say particular things to make the routines work,’ Lee admits, ‘I don’t have time now to have adventures or experiences or ideas’. So in discussing a story that none of us actually thought was true, he alludes to one of the things about stadium comics which presumably keeps him up at night, grinding his teeth, which is whether or not they make up their ‘this genuinely happened’ stories. As is often the case with his routines, it turns out to be about both comedy and society. The vehicle of the programme’s title is both a jibe at series cobbled together to ‘to display [a] [comedian] to the best advantage’ (OED), and also a sincere claim to be a ‘medium by which ideas or impressions are communicated’ (OED).

The story about the cab driver is a way in to discussing anxieties around cultural identity. And having got there, Lee narrows his focus to the political establishment’s current bête noire, ‘Nigel Farage of the UKIPs’. Farage, he says, is a ‘character’ in the Dictionary of Theatre’s sense of ‘something that gives the illusion of being a person.’§ He goes on to say that protest votes are supposed to be given to parties who are nice but won’t get in, and to bemoan UKIP’s appropriation of them in spite of being nasty and standing a genuine chance (at the European elections). He addresses Paul Nuttall, UKIP’s deputy leader, and asks him, ‘how am I supposed to get cheap tea and coffee unless there’s a massively overqualified east European philosophy professor prepared to make it for me for significantly less than the living wage?’ It’s the bit of the show where Lee satirises us, his audience, eliciting (as he put it in Episode 1) ‘the sound of the middle classes applauding their own guilt’. (I sense he’s taken that sort of material as far as it will go now, and hope there are no similar lines in Series Four.) In conclusion regarding UKIP, voting for them is ‘like shitting your hotel bed as a protest against bad service, and then realising that you’ve now got to sleep in a shitted [sic] bed’.

Lee’s response to UKIP and their ilk is to make the point that any Briton who is not an immigrant is descended from one. In the words of his fellow West Midlander, Benjamin Zephaniah, in ‘The British (Serves Sixty Million)’,

Take some Picts, Celts and Silures
And let them settle,
Then overrun them with Roman conquerors.

Remove the Romans after approximately four hundred years
Add lots of Norman French to some
Angles, Saxons, Jutes and Vikings, then stir vigorously.

It’s quite well-trodden ground, but Lee’s petty perseverance on the silliness of the ‘comin’ over ’ere’ argument makes the viewer feel, by the end, that only now has the point been properly made. When he reaches the Anglo-Saxons on the devolutionary pilgrimage he recites some of their poetry. By way of introduction he proclaims ‘Lif is læne’ (‘life is fleeting’) and then launches into the Old English elegy The Wanderer.(And is it my imagination or does he slip into a slightly Caribbean accent?)

Wyrd bið ful aræd!
Swa cwæð eardstapa, earfeþa gemyndig,
Wraþra wælsleahta, winemæga hryre.

([F]ate is inflexible.
Mindful of hardships, grievous slaughter,
The ruin of kinsmen, the wanderer said…)

This recital is in the same vein as his playing ‘Galway Girl’ at the end of If You Prefer A Milder Comedian, Please Ask For One (2010). In that show he argued that the last taboo in stand-up is not jokes about race or rape, but ‘a man trying to do something sincerely and well’. Anyway, the payoff is a reduction to the absurd of the anti-immigration position: ‘You come over here, Anglo-Saxons, learn to speak the fucking language!’

Like Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver, Lee’s onstage persona can move fluidly between inconsistencies, so long as he’s the vehicle for satire. In Episode 1 he was bemoaning Twitter as a paranoid, small-c conservative, but in this devolution sequence he persists at such length that it’s as though he intends to eviscerate all conservative ideologies. Doing a turn as Paul Nuttall (speaking to a lobe-finned would-be tetrapod of the Devonian period) he whines, ‘I say we need to ensure the brightest and best fish stay in the sea and concentrate on making it aquatically prosperous.’ By the end it’s, ‘I don’t remember anyone asking me if I wanted a big bang […] I liked it when there was nothing’.

The episode closes with a high-end, well-shot sketch, starring Kevin Eldon as the would-be tetrapod, and Paul Putner as a UKIP-man, who has travelled back in time to impede evolutionary progress. The striving, pioneer fish attempts to leave the ocean and crawl up the beach, and the Faraginary is there to whack it down using a brochure with, in the words of Michael Crick, ‘no black faces on it’. The seaside setting brings to mind King Cnut (one of Zephaniah’s Vikings), who is said to have sat on the bank of the Thames at Westminster and ordered the tide to go back. But wyrd bið ful aræd: fate is inflexible, so don’t be a cnut about it. The time machine malfunctions and the man ends up getting his head bitten off by a green sea beast. He stumbles around (like a headless chicken, I think we’re to infer) and then falls down dead, as the sound of Hubert Parry’s ‘Jerusalem’ fades in, the perfect music to evoke the necessary ambiguities of thoughtful English patriotism. Lee is mindful of kinsmen, with a generously broad understanding of who that includes. The episode is an assertion of humaneness as a response to the Other, and one which, ironically, swims against the tide.

* I am referring throughout to Lee the onstage character, not Lee the performer. The design or intention of the real Stewart Lee is neither available nor desirable as a standard for judging the success of one of his programmes.
† This picks up from the routine in Carpet Remnant World in which he repeatedly claims to do nothing these days except drive around and watch Scooby-Doo.
‡ ‘The UKIPs’ is an example of the Lee & Herring -s­ suffix, used to great effect in references to ‘Tony Blairs’. The morning after this episode went out Lee was in the Observer, again discussing UKIP.
§ Though at this point Lee is holding his authoritative bit of paper, I have been unable to trace a dictionary containing such a definition, and have reason to believe he invented it ‘to make the routine work’.
Lif is læne does not actually appear in the corpus of Old English texts, but was written by Tolkien (in ‘Beowulf: the Monsters and the Critics’) as a way of articulating the theme of several Old English poems. One of these is The Wanderer, which Lee would have studied at Oxford. It may also have appealed to him on account of the twelve-bar-blues song of the same name having been covered by one of his favourite comedians, Ted Chippington. (Chippington changed the wayfaring lyrics to make it an anti-wandering song: ‘And when she asks me if I’m in for tea | I say yes please, where else would I be? | I’m not the wanderer…’)
¶ Translation by Kevin Crossley-Holland, in The Anglo-Saxon World: An Anthology. Lee does not provide one.
☞ Lee’s personality seems to pervade even as far as the final frame of the credits. Where nowadays many comedies list three or even four independent production companies, here the screen is puritanically clean, just as I’m sure he likes it. On a black background it reads, ‘BBC Comedy Production London © BBC MMXIV’.

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