The BBC might be laughing at itself in ‘W1A’, but that doesn’t get it off the hook

The group-think that infects the Corporation has serious implications
  • @TerenceBlacker

Just when we all needed an intelligent new comedy, edgy but never too discomfiting, along comes the brilliant W1A. What laughs we are all going to have over the coming weeks as the BBC gently mocks itself, with the help of a pitch-perfect script, a superb cast and a few celebrities joining in the fun.

Already there have been some excellent throwaway gags. The bewildered central character Ian Fletcher is Head of Values, “a key and very senior post created in the light of recent learning opportunities at the corporation”. Then there are visual jokes: when Fletcher blunders into one of the very few offices at New Broadcasting House, he finds two tubby bearded men arm-wrestling. We knowing members of the audience recognise that they are none other than those great luminaries of the arts world, Alan Yentob and Sir Salman Rushdie. Hilarious!

It is well observed and rather affectionate, a contemporary Carry On Up the Corporation. The fact that its targets are not only real but that the people commissioning the series are playing the very corporate games it is parodying adds to the fun. What could be more amusing than to see the famous taking the mickey out of themselves?

Yet never has there been a more telling example of the toothlessness of modern satire. The joke at the heart of W1A is around the ways of modern bureaucracy: the empty jargon; the pointless meetings; the determination of every employee not to take any kind of decision which will leave them exposed; the terror of causing any kind of public offence and then receiving hostile media attention; the obsession with ratings; coffee in all its manifestations; the obsession with ratings; the simultaneous fear of, and contempt for, members of the public outside their own charmed circle; the aversion to any display of the individuality – of opinion or character – which is so antithetical to corporate life.

Hugh Bonneville as Ian Fletcher in W1A

This smiling, timorous group-think is all around us in quangos, in Whitehall and in business, but no organisation is quite so comprehensively in its grip as the subject of W1A. The BBC matters. It is an extraordinary institution, and the way it is run affects not only our culture and entertainment but also the political life of the nation, the way we are, see ourselves and are seen by others around the world. It is as usual under siege from those who want to do it harm. It has been recently weakened by Savile, and by the scandal of overpaid executives – those “learning opportunities”. As the date for the renewal of the licence fee approaches, a potentially ruinous campaign to make the BBC a subscription service is gathering support.

Meanwhile, the kind of bureaucratic, inward-looking idiocy behind the laughs in W1A is, if anything, on the increase in the real corporation. There are as many bright, imaginative and dynamic people working within the BBC as ever, but there are other anti-creative instincts at work: those of corporate survival. It used to be thought that, in the post-John Birt era, there was a division between those who were creative (inventive, original, underpaid) and those who managed (box-ticking, interfering, overpaid). Now something altogether more sinister is at work. The two instincts have become merged and internalised. In the new culture, everyone has had to become more corporate.

This process, I discovered at a BBC writers’ conference last year, can be distinctly creepy. I had written a piece in these pages about the new obsession in thriller series with the stalking and killing of women. After watching the BBC series The Fall, I suggested that the new cliché of the serial sex killer – that he is diabolically clever and seductively disturbed – was creatively lazy and socially irresponsible. The reality, as revealed in our law courts, was that cruelty to women was usually perpetrated by inadequate, pathetic males quite unlike the charismatic screen versions.

I was invited to take part in a public discussion at the conference, with a panel consisting of eminent TV directors and writers, and a very senior BBC executive. It was an eye-opener. The BBC man, in a state of high excitement, tried to shout me down from the moment I started making my case. How dare I call them lazy, he asked. Where was my proof of social harm?

The director cited Aeschylus and the human obsession with evil. When I mentioned a sequence in The Fall in which a seduction scene and a murder were intercut, the writer explained that a plot point was being made.

Then something scary and unexpected happened. I had previously thought that my position, being rather goody-goody and politically correct, would get some support from the writers in the hall. Far from it. One by one they stepped forward to take the side of the overexcited executive. After the session, one or two of those who had been in the hall sidled up to me to say that personally they agreed with the point I had been making. It had just been rather difficult for them to speak up in the public discussion. Here is a less amusing aspect of the central W1A joke. Individuals and writers are being injected by the same spirit of corporate caution as those in charge.

Perhaps powerful organisations like the BBC might consider another learning opportunity. It is that individuality matters more than safety-first group values. If people are offended by an opinion or a programme, it quite often means that a worthwhile point has been made.

There will be no complaints about W1A. We agree that fearful, jargon-infested bureaucracies should be mocked, that celebrities should not take themselves too seriously. There will be some excellent in-jokes and office workers will gasp in recognition. But the serious reality beyond the laughs will be ignored.