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
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