Hugh Bonneville on W1A: “Clarkson’s always been a great source of material for us”

The BBC mockumentary's Head of Values on filming the second series and the future of Downton Abbey

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Mention the show W1A to BBC employees and the most common reaction you’ll get is that it’s not TV comedy but a fly-on-the-wall documentary. Hugh Bonneville says when they were filming the second series in the BBC’s New Broadcasting House (in central London, postcode W1A), staff would sidle up to him and whisper: “You don’t know the half or it” or “Have you lot been bugging our meetings?”

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When a job advert for a “Head of Better” went on the BBC website earlier this month, very few people spotted it was an April Fools’ joke designed to publicise the new series of W1A. Disturbing when you consider that the specification for the job demanded “the ability to manage a wide range of incompatible priorities whilst remaining calm and where necessary in Salford”.

My interview with Hugh Bonneville takes place in the wood-panelled council chamber in the old part of Broadcasting House surrounded by stiff portraits of former BBC director-generals. As Lord Reith stares sternly down at us, I can’t help but wonder what he’d have thought of Bonneville’s character, Ian Fletcher, the hapless BBC’s Head of Values, with his Brompton bike, which he can’t fold up, endless cappuccinos and incompetent, floppy-haired interns. 

Series two begins with a strategy meeting – what else? On the agenda is a royal visit; Prince Charles is giving the BBC a “green award” for its recycling efforts.

There’s also concern about a rival broadcaster bidding for Wimbledon, the jewel in the BBC’s sporting crown. Siobhan Sharpe of Perfect Curve – who is hired at huge expense as a PR consultant – suggests they rebrand Wimbledon by replacing Sue Barker with Graham Norton and playing the theme tune from Strictly Come Dancing every time Andy Murray arrives on court.

As usual the BBC computer system, Incompatico, has messed up and Fletcher doesn’t know where the meeting is. Eventually, he finds the team in the Frankie Howerd Room. Etched on its glass walls are huge photos of the comedian pulling faces. “Viewers think we make this stuff up,” says Bonneville. “They can’t believe senior members of the BBC would sit around and discuss serious issues in places called ‘think-pods’ or that there really is a Frankie Howerd Room.” 

W1A is a sequel to Twenty Twelve, the popular mockumentary series, broadcast in the run-up to the London 2012 Olympics. Scriptwriter John Morton has displayed an uncanny ability to predict real events. In the second episode of Twenty Twelve, a busload of delegates got lost in London, an event mirrored the following year when a bus carrying foreign media representatives went astray. In this series of W1A, Jeremy Clarkson gets the BBC in trouble after writing an embarrassing tweet and using the word “tosser” repeatedly on screen.

When I bring this up, Bonneville chuckles and says Clarkson has always been “a great source of material for us”, but as they made this series before the Top Gear presenter left the BBC, “We have had to tweak the voice-over a little.”

Filming the second series at New Broadcasting House felt quite different because the BBC staff knew what they were doing. “The first time round, they just assumed it was another camera crew. The one thing that hasn’t changed is how difficult it is to get into the building. We were filming in the lobby the other day and the doorman was chuckling away at the jokes. But when I wanted to go upstairs and change, he wouldn’t let me because I didn’t have the correct pass.”

What surprises him is how many viewers not involved with the media enjoy the show. “I thought the Twenty Twelve format had further life but that Ian Fletcher would be put in charge of sorting out the NHS or the Armed Forces. When John Morton came up with the idea of the BBC, I was worried it might look like a bit of an in-joke.” Morton decided on the BBC because the corporation faces two big decisions in 2016 that will determine its future: the renewal of the licence fee and Royal Charter. Needless to say these are key items in Ian Fletcher’s in-tray.

Bonneville says most of the characters contain elements of real BBC people he’s encountered but the new central London HQ has provided the real comedy gold. “Just when everyone had said farewell to the old TV Centre and moved to W1A, I had a meeting in the BBC and saw a drama producer I knew in the stairwell trying to do a deal because in this new open-plan era it was the only place she could go that was private.”

He’s right. It’s not uncommon to find senior staff locked in toilet cubicles whispering into mobiles. Sacking someone in an open-plan office is tricky. There are soundproofed “meeting pods” designed for this purpose but they’re usually full and look like sets from Woody Allen’s 70s futuristic comedy Sleeper.

All the jokes in W1A about health and safety are also real. But Hugh Bonneville says this is not exclusive to the BBC. “It happens on any film or TV set these days and it’s ten times worse than it was ten years ago.” Does it happen on ITV’s Downton Abbey? “Oh sure. If someone is going to look into a mirror you need to fill out a long risk assessment form about possible damage to their irises. I’m exaggerating of course, but that is what John Morton has tapped into, the spread of a risk-averse culture and the way we’ve adopted all these acronyms, targets, hurdles, barriers and red tape rather than just getting on with the job of making programmes.”

Despite these quibbles, Bonneville is firmly in favour of the licence fee. “I love the hidden joys of coming across a programme on the World Service or BBC4 you wouldn’t find anywhere else. You couldn’t run either of those services on commercial lines. Working on Downton Abbey, we have had a lot of contact with PBS in America and they’re constantly on their knees with a begging bowl. They really struggle. I’d hate to see us going down that route.”

notice during our conversation when faced with a slightly tricky question about Clarkson or BBC management, Bonneville deflects it with a bit of jokey W1A-style banter. But when I ask him about the election and whether he thinks there should be more debate about arts funding, he gets serious and passionate.

“I did most of my early work at the National Theatre and Royal Shakespeare Company. Dozens of our leading actors and writers would say the same. When the financial crisis hit Germany in 2008, they increased their arts budget by eight per cent because they recognised it as part of the engine room of the economy. Why can’t our politicians recognise that the arts are not an indulgence but an industry that employs tens of thousands of people.”

I point out that Downton is one of the most successful British TV exports, so why are they bringing it to an end? Is it because the cast and creator Julian Fellowes want to move on to other things? “Not at all,” says Bonneville. “Series five was supposed to be the last so this one is a bonus and it feels right for the story. Of course it’s sad. We’re filming the final episodes now. When we finish there’ll be tears.”

The day we meet, Julian Fellowes is quoted in the papers as saying he’d like to revisit Downton Abbey at a later date with a film version or even a spin-off TV series set in the 1970s. This is clearly news to Bonneville, who rolls his eyes and then says with a heavy dose of sarcasm, “Great idea. I think we should combine those two thoughts. Let’s make a film set in the 1970s in which Lord Grantham wears flares and a kipper tie. I can see it now.”

W1A begins on Thursday 23rd April at 9pm, BBC2

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Sarah Parish on W1A: “I used to feel terrified coming into the BBC”

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