W1A, TV review: Jessica Hynes strangely silenced in new mockumentary

BBC Two, 10pm

As any reader of the Private Eye column Birtspeak will know, the BBC leads the world not only in its innovative and brilliant programming, but in the sort of opaque bureaucratese that perverts our beautiful language.

After all, words – and punctuation – exist so we can express ourselves; jargon is there so we can disguise what we really mean. Take this as a random, but real, example from an email to BBC producers: “As you may be aware from the Barlesque mailing list, on May the 13th we are going to roll out a change to the Barley implementation used by DNA services in order to align it with the new visual language being used across bbc.co.uk… See the attached PDF for details of the change: Barley toolbar update – aligning legacy UK toolbars with the new global visual language.”

Given such a rich mine of gobbledegook, it is surprising that the BBC’s own satire on itself, W1A (the postcode of Broadcasting House in London), should fail to make much use of it. The nearest we got in the first episode was a description of the Jimmy Savile affair and other scandals that engulfed the corporation as “a series of learning opportunities”.

Otherwise there wasn’t much in W1A that lived up to the reality. Written by the same team who brought us the witheringly effective Twenty Twelve, Hugh Bonneville’s hapless Ian Fletcher moves from Head of Deliverance at the Olympics to become Head of Values at the BBC.

And yet that job title is (relatively) straightforward and comprehensible; until a recent cull you could ring the BBC switchboard and be put through to any of the following: “Head of Audiences, Vision Multiplatform”; “Thematic Adviser, Governance”; “Decision Support Manager”; and “Portfolio Support Co-ordinator”. That is, if they weren’t in a meeting with each other.

Jessica Hynes and Hugh Bonneville are reunited in 'W1A' Jessica Hynes and Hugh Bonneville are reunited in 'W1A'

The sublime Jessica Hynes reprises Siobhan Sharp, the amazeballs executive from PR agency Perfect Curve, but at the BBC she is curiously muted. There is, for example, nothing to match the masterful skewering of the pretensions of social media, or rather the pretensions of those who pretend to understand social media, in one of Siobhan’s interview clips in Twenty Twelve.

I reproduce it here for the gratuitous pleasure it should bring anyone who has been exposed to such tripe: “Apps, misu, getglu, fastbox and netspace … mashable sites, paid content, can I have a cheeseburger … also regressive media could be the future…”

There are, though, wonderful touches in W1A; Alan Yentob and Salman Rushdie arm-wrestling is one. The charming title sequence that uses the Animal Magic theme (leading to warm memories for those of a certain age) and David Tennant’s narration another two.

BBC “breakout” rooms themed on wonderfully original comics of the past – Hancock, Eric and Ernie, Tommy Cooper – are quite charming, and seeing a roomful of suits discussing “brand dropout” framed by the quizzical eyebrows of Frankie Howerd was, intentional or not, a subtle way of asking what on earth those boys would make of the modern Beeb. Titter ye not, indeed.

Then again, the BBC has always been something of a closed world, and has had its share of idiots in positions of power. One thinks, for example, of the producer in comedy who rejected Fawlty Towers: “full of clichéd situations, stereotypical characters and I cannot see it being anything other than a disaster”.

Sarah Parish of the new W1A Sarah Parish of the new W1A

I wouldn’t say W1A is a disaster; it suffers from having to follow Twenty Twelve and other BBC series – in particular The Office even a decade on, and The Thick of It.

W1A’s flaws don’t need a Powerpoint presentation to catalogue: not enough of the unselfconscious interviews with characters to help us understand what on earth is going on in their tiny minds; writing that doesn’t quite become fluent in Birtspeak; an apparent reluctance just to take actual BBC lunacies “off the shelf” and milk them for all they’re worth; the sad absence of a love interest for Ian (provided in Twenty Twelve by Olivia Colman, a satire in human form of every strata of the English middle classes).

This mockumentary needs a bit more “mock”. So that’s all good, then, as Ian Fletcher might say.

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