W1A preview: “Goes like an arrow to the heart of the BBC’s foibles”

A storyline about censoring Jeremy Clarkson in Top Gear provides comedy gold, says Ben Dowell, even if the double-length opening episode is a little too much of a good thing

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”Someone is going to have to watch four years of Top Gear back-to-back. They are going to go mad.”

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I don’t know about that. Given the public outpourings of grief from some quarters about Jeremy Clarkson’s recent problems, it seems like many people would consider watching every Top Gear episode ever their idea of heaven.

But the poor man tasked in W1A with the job of weeding out the offending word “tosser” from every Top Gear ever made – dim-witted intern Will – doesn’t even have much of an idea of what the show is.

The Clarkson plotline in tonight’s opening episode was written and filmed many months before Jezza’s “fracas-gate”, showing that when it comes to making fun of the travails of the BBC, John Morton’s comedy is always pretty on the money.

But for some reason, BBC2 wanted to kick off the new series with a 60-minute opener, seemingly crunching together two planned storyline episodes into one, before returning to the usual half-hour format for the remaining three instalments. 

So does more give, er, more, as Hugh Bonneville’s Ian Fletcher would probably put it?

I thought tonight’s opening episode, while thoroughly enjoyable, lost some of its intensity as a result. It’s not as gruelling as watching every Top Gear episode ever made, but three concurrent storylines – the Clarkson one, another about the possible loss of TV rights to the Wimbledon tennis championships and another about a proposed visit by Prince Charles – running together, mean that some of the edge and drive is lost.

A half-hour episode usually builds to one brilliant conclusion with fewer strands in the mix than this.

But it’s still very good. How could W1A not be good? It has Jessica Hynes’s Siobhan Sharpe in it after all.

The jargon-spouting PR is on brilliant form here, trying to turn the possibility of losing Wimbledon into a win for the BBC. So much so that she wants to recast the event as “Winbledon”.

There are some brilliant jokes about the BBC, little dropped asides from David Tennant’s expert narration that anyone (like me) who has watched the Corporation closely for a long time knows goes like an arrow to the heart of its foibles.

These include things like the need to find a pundit who is “ethnically, not so white” or the fact that the character Matt Taverner is the “generic head of drama and/or comedy”. BBC freelancers will also recognise the line about some hapless writer where “after working… for two years the project is finally nearing another meeting”.

But the beauty of the show has always been that it is not just for broadcasting or BBC insiders.

The Clarkson story gets a lot out of Hugh Skinner’s hapless Will – who teases comedy gold from lines which appear to contain only the words: “uhm, yeah, sure… OK.”

And the Wimbledon story demonstrates Morton’s skill in providing the kind of crisis that is absurd enough – but on just the right side of plausibility to work.

The third storyline – the one about Prince Charles’ visit – is probably one too many, however, and the weakest thing in it.

It centres around some rather lame gags about one of Prince Charles’s icy assistants (who is weirdly called Camilla) telling Bonneville that her colleague (played by Sam West) is called ”Dick” not Richard.

But still, there is much to enjoy and at least things get quite dramatic at the end with a frantic dash to greet the Royal involving Bonneville’s Fletcher, Sarah Parish’s head of output Anna Rampton and co. Will they make it?

As Ian Fletcher would put it: “I will have to get back to you on that”.

The new series of W1A begins tonight on BBC2 at 9pm

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