Grace Dent on TV: W1A is the BBC pulling its pants down and slapping its own bare cheeks

Every episode, for me, is a ticker-tape parade of recognisable woes - not just from my nigh-continuous dealings with the Beeb, but with all channels

Grace Dent
Friday 24 April 2015 08:52
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The cast of W1A return for a second series
The cast of W1A return for a second series

I continue to stare aghast at the BBC2 sitcom W1A. It’s acutely, excruciatingly observed and painfully funny. I watch W1A through my fingers. I have lived this life, sat in these meetings. Did John Morton and Paul Schlesinger create this drama as some sort of cathartic journey for metropolitan TV workers, or do other people get the gags? W1A, essentially, is the BBC pulling its own pants down and slapping its own bare cheeks publicly. I love them for allowing it.

Every episode, for me, is a ticker-tape parade of recognisable woes. Not just from my nigh-continuous dealings with the Beeb, but with all channels. This is how they do telly. Or don’t, in most cases.

In W1A’s return episode, an earnest northern drama writer has bankrupted himself creating a gritty drama – at the BBC’s request – set in Scarborough. He is called to London for a meeting. “I’m thinking…” says comedy-drama exec Matt Taverner, “does it have to be in Scarborough? How about… Walthamstow? Isn’t Scarborough, like, a bit one-dimensional?”

Elsewhere Will, the hapless, parentally funded intern, is ploughing through four years of Top Gear to calculate whether Jeremy Clarkson’s use of the word “tosser” breaks guidelines. Results will be delivered to Head of Values Ian Fletcher and his Way Ahead Task Team – in the Frankie Howerd meeting suite – at their daily Clarkson crisis update. Clarkson’s face is pixellated throughout this episode “so as not to offend” viewers swept up in current light entertainment fatwa.

Crucially, during this one-hour special, not one single, solitary solution to any dilemma will emerge. No scheduled meeting, picking-of-brains break-out session or thought-huddle will deliver anything vaguely actionable. Sure, some suggestions float past that could work, but no-body wants to commit themselves in case they fall flat. No television will be made today, or tomorrow either.

Meetings, on the other hand, will be abundant. Brand consultant Siobhan Sharpe’s current project is to make Wimbledon “less white”. Brain farts include a “BBC brand mash-up”. “Can’t we, like, between games, cut to Graham Norton?” she suggests. “He could sit with the tennis girlfriends saying: ‘Ooh I’m loving your dress, girl!’” Other blue-sky thinking includes Daleks entering Centre Court. Or the Strictly Come Dancing tune playing between points. Finally – hooray – a mixed-race potential tennis pundit is located. “His mum is French and his dad is from, well, somewhere,” says Siobhan, shrugging. “But he is one cooool dude!” Oh how I wish Siobhan wasn’t accurate, but I’ve met her 19 times, in various forms, this week alone.

Ian Fletcher (Hugh Bonneville), Tracey Pritchard (Monica Dolan), Anna Rampton (Sarah Parish), Dave Green (Andrew Brooke) in W1A (BBC / Jack Barnes)

Elsewhere in New Broadcasting House, David Wilkes is hoping to bounce back from the ratings flop Britain’s Top Village – presented by Gary Lineker and Holly Willoughby – with his new Saturday night format, Uptown Downtown. Myleene Klass will battle other celebs over who has the best home town. “Isn’t this just the same show again?” suggests producer Lucy Freeman.

None of David’s formats – not even the one featuring Kylie Minogue and a Rhodesian ridgeback hound – are any less silly than Saturday-night ITV’s actual current offering, Ninja Warrior.

Heartbreaking, despite the humour, is Will the intern’s discovery that his security pass is deactivated. Daily he loiters at the reception desk with Ian Fletcher’s special coffee asking real employees to sign him in. Will is utterly useless – bewilderingly so – but completely well-meaning. No-one quite has the heart to tell Will that his internship has ended. In fact it did around eight months ago.

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So, we've got this thing: Jessica Hynes as Siobhan Sharpe in W1A

Crown jewel subplot of the opening episode was a visit from Prince Charles, who sent two lackies to the BBC with pre-word that he didn’t do sweetcorn and wanted to meet real people of all levels. The combination of strict royal security requirements combined with the Way Ahead team’s inability to answer a straight question led, of course, to chaos.

David Tennant’s wonderfully dry voiceover explained that Broadcasting House had existed for decades, but recently the BBC spent millions of pounds on a state-of-the-art building next door, which they called New Broadcasting House. The older building, still in use, was now called Old Broadcasting House.

Due to the similarity of these names endless confusion was caused, leading to lots of people who were due to appear on live TV and so on being continuously lost. I wish this was a product of John Morton’s wicked mind, but it’s completely true. Charles sat in his Range Rover patiently. By and large, it was the safest place for him.

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