Can it be true? The BBC has funded a new drama series which sends up the lunatic goings-on behind its own closed doors?
AT A MEETING in Broadcasting House, the Controller of BBC Radio 4 marvels at the proliferation of new managers in his network. "Well done," enthuses the Controller of Radio 2. "The more people you have doing the job you used to be able to do on your own, the better you're doing. Management is what the BBC does nowadays. Surely you know that ... If the director- general makes the BBC any more efficient, it'll disappear. Think how much licence- payers' money he could save if we just stopped doing programmes altogether."

This delicious scene comes from In the Red, a new comic three-part murder mystery which portrays a BBC ruled by ruthless efficiency-drives and incomprehensible management-speak. The two controllers - played with evident relish by Stephen Fry and John Bird - go on to plot the downfall of a philistine director-general whose sole concern is money.

But who is making this seditious drama? Surely, it's a new offering from Sky, owned by that arch-critic of the BBC, Rupert Murdoch? Or perhaps it has been produced by ITV, constantly battling with the BBC for ratings supremacy? Er, no. This mischievous new piece of BBC-bashing is actually being made by the BBC. Talk about a public act of self-immolation.

John Bird - no, not Birt - applauds the BBC for making the series, which has been adapted by Malcolm Bradbury from Mark Tavener's novel. "You spend all the film saying what an awful place the BBC is, but the BBC is the only channel in the world that would make something about how appalling it is. It's also the only place where it would matter; if you said how appalling HTV was, nobody would care."

Tavener, who himself had a stint working at the BBC, also commends the corporation's bravery. "It is a great reflection of maturity on the part of the BBC that they are prepared to send themselves up on their own network. Can you imagine Sky commissioning 'Rupert Murdoch, You Pillock'?"

Mature or not, there is a suspicion that the BBC will forever use this as a force-field against criticism, a sort of "Get Out Of Jail Free" card. By getting their own retaliation in first, they hope that other more vicious critics won't be so swift to put the boot in. Are you watching, the Daily Mail?

Yet, for John Sessions, who plays the part of Hercules Fortescue, a pathetically pernickety BBC personnel officer, the fact that the BBC are making In the Red "is like the emperor walking through a crowd with a man whispering in his ear that he's human or hitting him with bladders. It's the hallmark of a healthy democracy. You always need a bit of Spitting Image in society."

The series captures the sense that politicking often seems more important than programme-making at the BBC. "I've always had the impression that Television Centre is like a Renaissance court," says Bird. "There is this feeling that the executives are cardinals in a Jacobean tragedy waiting to poison each other. There is the First Murderer and the Second Murderer. That carries over into this series.

"Then there's all this management-speak. They now have directorates - I thought only the KGB had directorates. It's amazing, just like John Le Carre. There's this absurd thing of BBC departments having to buy Q- Tips and studio-time from each other. They used to say that in Russia, nobody knew what anything cost. At the BBC that's all they know. The message the series ends with is that the lunatics should be put back in charge of the asylum - which is a good idea. It should be run not by the people who talk Harvard Business School-speak, but by the lunatics, the people who make programmes."

As you might expect, all this has ruffled a few Armani-clad feathers in the higher echelons of the BBC coop. "There have been requests for scripts from senior BBC sources," Sarah Smith, the series producer, says coyly, "and there was a flurry of phone calls about the director-general character."

Disquiet within the corporation was only heightened when it emerged who had been cast as the director-general: Michael Wearing, the maverick former head of drama serials who left the BBC after some none-too-flattering comments about the way the organisation was being run. "We auditioned a lot of people for that part," Smith explains, "but it was hard to find someone who has the right gravitas. When Michael accepted the part, he said, 'I approve of anything that gives the BBC a sense of humour.' After initial concern at the BBC about the casting, they decided they should take it as a joke. It would have been far worse PR to ask us to re-shoot the director-general scenes having already spent all that money on them."

Sessions trusts that the BBC will be able to see the funny side. "In the Soviet Union, if they didn't like what somebody said, they'd send them to the salt mines. I sincerely hope John Birt doesn't react in the same way. Can you imagine the headline? 'Richard Wilson [who plays the chairman of the BBC Board of Governors] vanishes - he's having to work for Grampian and teach Scottish country dancing in the Cairngorms'."

Smith also believes the BBC should be big enough for a bit of internal mickey-taking. "I'd be much more worried about the BBC if no one there had commissioned this. I would have been very sad if I'd had to take the project to Channel 4 - that would have been almost the end of the BBC as far as I'm concerned. It would have been far worse PR to turn it down than to make it. At the end of the day, it's only jokes. If the BBC aren't strong enough to take jokes, then the world is in a parlous state."

In the series, the BBC is merely a paradigm of the way huge corporations are increasingly in the grip of bureaucracy. "I'd put the BBC together with any large organisation - the NHS, or the education service - in the way that it has undergone what I call a 'managementisation' process," Smith says. "Everybody will recognise it. The series has a go at that culture. The hero, George Cragge, is a bloke who thinks that managementisation is bollocks."

Bradbury chips in that In the Red "is about faceless men in suits and bureaucrats - it's the story of every institution. Everywhere people who have learnt management skills are in the ascendancy, and original, creative people feel crushed by them. Whether it's in a university, a school or a hospital, management-speak is very much in play and accountants and bottom-liners have the upper hand."

One such is Fortescue. "He's a deeply sad and anal man," Sessions says. "He's got his PhD in Physics from Bangor and now has a sad office full of pie-charts and files - the only way he can negotiate with the world. He has a sexual fantasy of being beaten with microphone-cable by Kate Adie, but he doesn't connect with anyone. He's like a pen with legs." Fighting a losing battle against the forces of red tape is Cragge (played by Warren Clarke), an unreconstructed, old-school BBC crime reporter, whose idea of news-gathering is 10 pints of Guinness and a chicken vindaloo with a contact. He rails against the new ultra-efficient BBC news-room "where the average age is 11 and you have to go and stand in the middle of Oxford Circus to have a fag".

"We came up against this ridiculous situation when we were filming in Broadcasting House," Clarke chuckles. "We'd just finished a scene where the John Sessions character tells me to stub out a cigarette, when a real BBC commissionaire shouted at us: 'Oi, this is a non-smoking building. Put that out.'"

Fry had a similar experience. "A BBC executive came onto the set and said: "What are you cluttering up Broadcasting House for?" "I'm sorry," I replied, "we're making a programme." "I'm just going to a meeting to stamp out this sort of nuisance," he said. He had clipboards under his arm, and I dare say a few flow-charts, too."

'In the Red' starts on BBC2 on Tuesday.