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

Share

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 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.

Read more: Not much in W1A lives up to the reality

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Systems and Network Administrator

Negotiable: Randstad Education Leicester: We are recruiting for a Systems and ...

English Teacher

£120 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Group: English as an Additional Langua...

Nursery assistants required in Cambridgeshire

£10000 - £15000 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: Nursery assistants re...

History Teacher

£60 - £65 per day: Randstad Education Liverpool: Job opportunities for Seconda...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Photo issued by Flinders University of an artist's impression of a Microbrachius dicki mating scene  

One look at us Scots is enough to show how it was our fishy ancestors who invented sex

Donald MacInnes
Oscar Pistorius is led out of court in Pretoria. Pistorius received a five-year prison sentence for culpable homicide by judge Thokozile Masipais for the killing of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp  

Oscar Pistorius sentence: Judge Masipa might have shown mercy, but she has delivered perfect justice

Chris Maume
Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
Let's talk about loss

We need to talk about loss

Secrecy and silence surround stillbirth
Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Women may be better suited to space travel than men are
Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

How to dress with authority

Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

Tim Minchin interview

For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album