W1A S1 Ep4 review

No more Mr Nice Guy - so that's all good

Siobhan’s Perfect Curve team proposes a radical new BBC logo. Will is absolutely useless (yes, again). And Ian fights back against the BBC machine after he realises that, as Head of Values, he isn’t actually valued that much.

No more Mr Nice Guy

Picking up where we left off last week, a series of setbacks hardens Ian Fletcher‘s resolve to actually make change happen, rather than just talk about it, as he realises the only way he can make a difference at the BBC is to stop worrying about trying to fit in and play the system to his advantage.

Ian fights back against the BBC bureaucracy (Image: BBC)

His colleagues agree that the best response to the Daily Telegraph‘s article condemning his salary is for Ian to take a massive pay cut. To apologise for being dragged into the scandal and for a disastrous post-Olympics holiday in Umbria, Ian sends his former Twenty Twelve PA Sally Owen (Olivia Colman), a bouquet of flowers. However, she comes to New Broadcasting House to tell him she can’t accept them and doesn’t want to be contacted again. This combination of events forces Ian to look forwards and resolve to make his mark on the BBC.

The worm turns

Fed up with the hot-desking situation and ignoring the standing no-office decree, Ian builds his own ‘creative clearing’. He removes Anna Rampton‘s roadblock to the new comedy that Lucy Freeman has been championing by telling her he has been talking to Director General Tony Hall about it. Anna abruptly commissions two more scripts. And he plays the ‘Tony’ card on Simon Harwood to close down Siobhan Sharpe‘s proposal to rebrand the BBC logo without the letters ‘BBC’ and in the form of the Star of David.

Anna’s opposition to Home Truth suddenly vanishes at the mention of Tony Hall’s name (Image: BBC)

It’s all going swimmingly until bumbling intern Will offers Lucy Sally’s flowers, saying they’re from Ian and implying that his efforts to get her comedy commissioned stemmed from a romantic rather than professional interest. Nice one, Will.

Nonetheless, his bittersweet reunion with Sally aside, it has been a good day for Ian. No thanks to his colleagues, he has finally worked out his ‘Way Ahead’ in terms of both what his mission is as Head of Values and in helping to define what the BBC stands for. Finally, he’s winning.

Good and bad

W1A hit its stride in its fourth and final episode, finding the right blend of satire, humour and stories, and delivering an ending which allows the series to stand on its own as a four-part piece.

It was satisfying to see Ian emerge victorious in the end. He’s a straightforward, competent man struggling to survive in a complex world of corporate inertia. But once he learns the rules of the game he starts to find a way to make things happen. It’s ambiguous whether he did actually speak to Tony Hall or is merely saying he did, but it doesn’t actually matter. He has realised that the mere mention of the Director General’s name works like an edict from God – the mere implication of Hall’s approval or interest is enough.

As ever, David Tennant‘s straight-man narration conceals many hidden gems. It has consistently been the best thing about the series.

But where the final episode in particular really hits the mark is in under-cutting the absurd, self-inflicted nature of the scandals in which the BBC has been engulfed in recent years. From the BBC’s own news organisation shooting itself in the foot (former DG George Entwhistle’s disastrous Radio 4 interview with John Humphreys) to uproar about executive and talent salaries (ignoring the fact that equivalent senior managers in industry are paid far more), there are a lot of topical issues addressed here.

This week’s side-plots were a mixed bag. Will and the envelopes was a bad joke originally and no funnier second time around. And the circumstances of Olivia Colman’s brief return will have infuriated as many fans as it pleased.

But the ongoing saga of Britain’s Tastiest Village – now Britain’s Top Village – and the scramble to get Gary Lineker and Holly Willoughby attached to the project was an amusing distraction. And the politically incorrect Neil Reid was again the most delightful of the peripheral characters, as he wrestled with complaints about a Newsnight presenter’s ‘inappropriately wearable clothes’ – hashtag Kneesnight – and bemoaned the fact that the original complaint came not from a member of the public but from a fellow presenter.

The series hasn’t been perfect, though. Far from it. Too many of the new characters remained little more than cardboard-cutout mouthpieces for their individual catchphrases.

Simon Harwood’s faint praise of everything and slopy-shouldered avoidance of any responsibility or decision-making are all too familiar, but we didn’t really learn anything about him. The same goes for Will the intern. I’ve seen plenty like him in my time, but his role in the last two episodes was reduced to carrying Ian’s bike around and failing to put the right letters in the right envelope – twice.

It didn’t help that the series leaned too heavily on Siobhan, who we knew already from Twenty Twelve. As a result, this left time to develop only Lucy as a properly rounded character.

And the balance and flow of individual episodes didn’t always feel right either. Episode three felt like a mish-mash of setpieces and satirical soundbites rather than a cohesive story. And while episode two was strong overall, it focussed too much on Clare Balding and Carol Vorderman’s cameos at the expense of its own characters.

Closing thoughts

I’ve read several people online complaining that W1A is a comedy commissioned by the BBC for the amusement of people who work at the BBC. I think they’re missing the point. The characters, management-speak and situations presented in the series will be instantly recognisable to anyone who has ever worked in any corporate office environment. While New Broadcasting House presents the setting and context for W1A, it’s no more about the world of TV than The Office was about paper or Parks and Recreation is about parks. The themes are universal.

One final thought. Rather than feeling like a four-part series, this season has felt to me more like two loosely linked two-parters. Was the fictional Home Truth a meta-reference to W1A‘s own gestation, with an original two-part treatment of Ian resolving the Sally Wingate affair leading to the commission of a further two scripts covering the Telegraph story/BBC logo/Home Truth storylines. Or is that just me?

So, what to make of W1A? Flawed? Yes. Bordering on a formulaic cringe-making workplace comedy, whose ilk we have become increasingly familiar with over the past 15 years? Definitely. But does it have something to offer in terms of laughs and biting satire? Absolutely. Having invested time in setting up the series, it would be a shame not to commission a second season. Somebody had better have a coffee with Tony to discuss that …

Episode rating: 9/10. Season 1 rating: 8/10.

W1A season 1

Trailer

Episode 1

Episode 2

Episode 3

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