BBC spoofs itself in W1A: brave satire or sheer self-indulgence?

Mar 20, 2014
Holden Frith

Team from Twenty Twelve moves effortlessly from Games into New Broadcasting House

WHEN Twenty Twelve, John Morton’s excellent sitcom set in the “Olympic Deliverance Committee”, was curtailed by the start of the London Games themselves, the race was on to find a new home for his memorable cast of characters.
The result is W1A, in which Ian Fletcher (Hugh Bonneville), fresh from his Olympic triumph, has been hired as the BBC’s new Head of Values.

Depending on who you believe, it’s a mark of the corporation’s bravery, complacency or sheer self-indulgence that it is willing to spend a whole series mocking the absurdities of its own inner workings.

In fact, the ease with which the programme has relocated from the Olympic Park to New Broadcasting House suggests the target of its humour is less a specific institution than the general corporate malaise presumed to exist in the upper echelons of most large organisations.

W1A is therefore no more anti-BBC than Twenty Twelve was anti-Olympics - and that series ended with a toast to the people behind the 2012 Games. It was more farce than satire, but no less entertaining as a result.

Its successor treads a similar line, mocking the platitudes of modern professional life while sympathising with those who must talk the dispiriting talk.

If you treat last night's debut as the first episode of a new sitcom rather than the third series of an established comedy, then W1A shows a great deal of promise. 

Bonneville’s character moves seamlessly into this new non-job, his air of suppressed bewilderment growing from the moment he steps into his first Daily Senior Team Damage Limitation Meeting.

In seeking to carve out a meaningful role, or indeed any kind of role, he agrees to meet a one-man protest group campaigning against the BBC’s neglect of Cornish issues. The meeting does not go well.

As in Twenty Twelve, the deadpan commentary is artfully constructed. “If Ian’s job is to make the protester feel that he’s being listened to,” it says, “the first challenge is to find somewhere in the building where fewer people can hear him.”

W1A doesn’t yet have the perfect pitch and pace of its predecessor, but the momentum is gathering. By the end of episode one, Ian Fletcher has been joined by his nemesis Siobhan Sharpe (Jessica Hynes), the Olympic PR guru and scourge of the English language.

His expression of repressed horror when she walks through the door bodes well for episode two.

'W1A', BBC2, Wednesdays, 10pm; Holden Frith tweets at @holdenfrith

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