It’s the sharpest satire on TV, and as W1A be­gins its fi­nal se­ries, Hugh Bon­neville tells why the Beeb’s bril­liant par­ody of it­self al­ways hits the tar­get

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With its wellmean­ing buf­foons, un­cre­ative cre­atives and count­less peo­ple with ti­tles not even they un­der­stand, the bril­liant com­edy W1A shows the BBC both at its very best and its very worst. As a bit­ing satire made by the cor­po­ra­tion about it­self it sparkles – by show­ing just how in­ef­fec­tive, bloated and ridicu­lously righton the or­gan­i­sa­tion re­ally is.

The show first aired in 2014, with Hugh Bon­neville and Jes­sica Hynes repris­ing the roles they’d played in writer John Mor­ton’s ear­lier BAFTA-win­ning com­edy Twenty Twelve, about the Olympics or­gan­is­ing com­mit­tee. In W1A, Hugh’s char­ac­ter Ian Fletcher, who was Head of the Olympic De­liv­er­ance Com­mis­sion, is now the BBC’s Head of Val­ues at Broad­cast­ing House in London W1A, with Jes­sica’s pub­lic re­la­tions char­ac­ter Siob­han Sharpe as the BBC’s Brand Con­sul­tant. Much of the past two se­ries have seen them try­ing to fig­ure out what – apart from lots of point­less meet­ings – their jobs en­tail.

Bal­anc­ing ad­mi­ra­tion for the cor­po­ra­tion while mock­ing its many foibles is a tightrope well trod­den by Mor­ton, whose show re­turns for a fi­nal se­ries on BBC2 this week af­ter a two-year break. But he ad­mits it hasn’t been easy, par­tic­u­larly as fact can so of­ten be stranger than fic­tion. When the last se­ries was made in 2015, one episode fea­tured a row about Jeremy Clark­son’s swear­ing on Top Gear. Just a few weeks be­fore it aired, the real-life Clark­son landed that in­fa­mous punch on a Top Gear pro­ducer be­cause there was no hot din­ner for him. As a re­sult Clark­son was sacked. ‘We have to re­ject a lot of story ideas be­cause they’re funny but not be­liev­able, and oth­ers that are true but not that funny,’ ad­mits Mor­ton. ‘It’s dif­fi­cult to find sto­ry­lines that are funny enough and feel true enough, but are in fact fic­tional.’

In this se­ries, filmed be­fore the re­cent BBC gen­der pay-gap scan­dal, there’s a hint of the furore around Match Of The Day’s highly paid host Gary Lineker, when a for­mer foot­baller claims the cor­po­ra­tion turned him down for a job on the show be­cause he was a cross- dresser. Shocked that its right-on cre­den­tials should be ques­tioned, the BBC claims it ac­tu­ally didn’t hire him be­cause he wasn’t very good, and a clever scene with the real Gary Lineker and Match Of The Day pun­dit Alan Shearer shows the job isn’t quite as easy as it looks.

This will be the last se­ries be­cause the pres­sure of mak­ing it as funny as its pre­de­ces­sors has been too in­tense, says Mor­ton. ‘This prob­a­ble fi­nal se­ries took an un­be­liev­ably slow year to write. I’ve writ­ten to a con­clu­sion; in my mind it’s the fi­nal time around with ev­ery­body. There’s no plane crash, they’re all alive at the end, but I thought as it was the fi­nale it had bet­ter be good. There was a big pres­sure, which meant hours and hours wor­ry­ing when I came to write it.’

With the BBC Char­ter – the agree­ment that sets out the cor­po­ra­tion’s pub­lic obli­ga­tions – up for its ten-yearly re­newal , the se­ries be­gins with Ian de­cid­ing to re­name one of the com­mit­tees he chairs from the Way Ahead Group to the Re­newal Group, telling his team, ‘It’s about re­set­ting the dial for ev­ery­one in the build­ing and shin­ing a new light on that dial. Or at least, shin­ing the old light but with a new bulb so none of us can be in any doubt about where the dial is, or not be­ing able to read what it says.’ So that’s all good, a phrase Ian fre­quently ut­ters in a cri­sis.

Be­wil­der­ing man­age­ment-speak is one of the main tar­gets of the com­edy, along with am­bi­tious ex­ec­u­tives, bum­bling bosses and wa­ter- cooler flir­ta­tions. ‘Whether you’re sit­ting in a church hall com­mit­tee meet­ing or on a FTSE 100 board, the dy­nam­ics of these meet­ings are recog­nis­able,’ says Hugh. ‘The char­ac­ter types are peo­ple we all know and John skew­ers them with bril­liance.’

So we have pro­ducer David Wilkes, played by Ru­fus Jones, who takes the credit for other peo­ple’s ideas, while stony-faced Head of Out­put Anna Ramp­ton (Sarah Parish) has no cre­ative con­cepts of her own but says ‘yes, def­i­nitely’ so au­thor­i­ta­tively that ev­ery­one thinks she’s ter­ri­bly clever. Siob­han Sharpe claims to be ‘cool’ with the kids by in­sist­ing ‘tele­vi­sion is dead’, but doesn’t know who the BBC’s Di­rec­tor- Gen­eral is. Then there’s Will, played by Hugh Skinner, the id­iot and dogs­body who oc­ca­sion­ally comes out with the best ideas, and is in love with am­bi­tious PA­turned-pro­ducer Izzy Gould (Ophe­lia Lovi­bond). Ja­son Watkins is Di­rec­tor of Strate­gic Gover­nance Si­mon Har­wood. He’s ov­er­en­thu­si­as­tic about ev­ery­thing – but no one knows if he’s se­cretly stab­bing them in the back.

Look­ing be­mused at the mad­ness go­ing on around her is for­mer pro­ducer Lucy, played by Nina Sosanya, who’s been given lots of PC ti­tles but is still un­sure of what she’s meant to be do­ing. ‘Lucy is sort of the au­di­ence, who sees the in­san­ity around her and is un­able to ex­tri­cate her­self from it,’ says Nina. ‘She gets to­tally frustrated by the BBC but loves it.’

Part of the ap­peal of W1A is that all the main char­ac­ters rarely say what they feel. There’s an un­easy love tri­an­gle be­tween Ian, Lucy and Anna – with none of them ever men­tion­ing the two women’s ri­valry over

‘No one wants to put their head above the para­pet’

Left: Ja­son Watkins as Di­rec­tor of Strate­gic Gover­nance Si­mon Har­wood. Above: Hugh Skinner as dogs­body Will with Ophe­lia Lovi­bond as pro­ducer Izzy Gould

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