Hugh Bonneville and I are deep inside Frankie Howerd. Oooh missus! Titter ye not. No! You mustn’t! I’ve been so..! Do not mock Francis. Nay. Nay. Etc.
God, I miss Frankie Howerd. It’s a comfort to have a giant photo of his face from his Up Pompeii! days staring down at us in the Frankie Howerd room. Sadly, the Frankie Howerd room isn’t real.
It’s a set for W1A, the sequel to the BBC’s Olympics mockumentary Twenty Twelve, in which Bonneville played the determined but slightly bewildered Ian Fletcher, Head of Deliverance at the Olympic Deliverance Commission. He battled corporate-speak, meetings culture, and his folding bike. So where better to set the new series than at the heart of the BBC, New Broadcasting House. I feel as if I’m in my office. Twice a day the Radio 4 programme that I present, PM, has a meeting in John Freeman.
Bonneville had suggested to Twenty Twelve’s writer/director John Morton that interesting territory for a follow-up might be a show based in the NHS or “trying to reduce the armed forces”, but Morton preferred the BBC. “It’s about the mistakes any big committee makes when trying to do its best for its shareholders or, in our case, the taxpayer.”
Of the characters in Twenty Twelve, only Ian Fletcher and Head of Brand Siobhan Sharpe (Jessica Hynes) make the transfer to W1A – though watch for a tiny cameo by Olivia Colman. Ian is now Head of Values at the BBC. The crisis he’s dealing with as I look on during filming is that his salary has been revealed in the newspapers, as well as a romantic getaway paid for with public money. Round the table, his colleagues act like vultures.
They seem to me to capture perfectly the essence of meetings I’ve attended at the BBC. Gossipy, people jostling for position, an occasional sense that perhaps not everyone in the room can be trusted to watch your back.
I’m lucky in that just about the only meetings I have to attend are about specific programmes being made to a deadline: they’re focused on the urgent job in hand. Having said that, there is always time for dissing other parts of the corporation and whining about how things used to be better. But I’ve been told to stop all that, it’s unprofessional.
You might have your own horror stories of corporate culture. At PM, we tried to start a new project, and to get approval for it we had to spend three weeks in meetings with different bits of the BBC. We dutifully dealt with all their queries and eventually got the go-ahead. Hooray! Two days after starting the project, another part of the corporation showed up and told us to stop. We were bewildered. Apparently we should never have started, as there was some kind of “strategic review” of all such projects under way.
Perhaps in nine months they would reconsider. In the style of Mastermind, we told them we’d started so we’d finish. We carried on with the project – and they weren’t happy. Two months later, in yet another meeting, the PM project was being praised to the skies as a huge success – by the very strategic review man who’d tried to stop it. Trebles all round!
W1A executive producer Jon Plowman was head of comedy at the BBC for many years and told me on PM recently about a meeting he’d attended. It went on for about two hours and, for almost the entire time, the man who had called the meeting was on the phone.
I’m curious to know what Hugh Bonneville makes of my place of work at the BBC, New Broadcasting House. From Monday to Thursday the production films at London’s White City in a building with no working toilets. But from Friday to Sunday they shoot at the real New Broadcasting House.
“As an actor you’re in a world of being in a trailer or whatever. The idea of trying to do what the BBC does best – which is to create new ideas and inform and educate and inspire – in what is basically Heathrow Terminal 3 is very challenging.” Ouch.
The vast open spaces in the building and the policy of hot-desking is a tricky mix, it seems.
“I did have to giggle to myself when I found a producer hiding in a stairwell trying to do a deal with some contributor on the phone because it was the only place to get a bit of privacy. I think the idea of being able to go to your own thought-space in the BBC is probably a thing of the past.”
He adds, perhaps lapsing into character: “What’s great – and I think the licence payer should be reassured by this – is that in all this refurbishment that’s been going on, the relocation and realignment, the money hasn’t been spent on things like walls or offices. It’s all open plan. So that’s a good thing. A big positive to take forward.” He laughs and ponders the wisdom of hot-desking.
“There are pros and cons. I think by nature we’re nesters and the idea of not being able to put your gonk or your picture of your dog on your desk is anathema to some people. But John [Morton, the writer] has picked up quite cleverly on the fact that people do mark their territory – they do pee on their trees – [laughs] and you do pass desks at the BBC where there is a pair of smelly trainers that’s been there for four days, which is basically saying: ‘Get off, this is my desk’.”
Back on set, Bonneville spends the morning shooting the same scene over and over. The repetition is not because there are many mistakes: each take is shot from a slightly different angle, focusing on a different member of the meeting. This is how they capture the jaunty, mock-documentary style. The dialogue cracks on at a blinding pace. Blink and you’ll miss a telling “um”. Not a word is improvised, just as in Frankie Howerd’s act. The actors must deliver Morton’s tight script. I watch at least 20 versions being filmed of one scene.
Bonneville says the script is almost impossible to learn. “The only way to do it is like being in a schoolroom. We sit there and bash it through and through and repeat and repeat and repeat until we get the right pace and tone.”
The attention to detail on every word is impressive. I watch him have a discussion with John Morton about how to say, “Right OK”.
Bonneville laughs when I ask him about it later when we’re inside Frankie Howerd.
“Is it passive or active? Do you say, ‘Right OK’ with a downward inflection, as in, ‘I hear what you’re saying and I’ll shut up now’? Or, ‘Right OK, I’m about to give a big speech and defend myself.’ Every single ‘right’ and ‘um’ can have a different meaning. It’s all going on behind the lines in John’s writing.”
The single scene I witnessed still has me chuckling. There is a subplot in which an established Newsnight presenter has filed a complaint against a sexy new arrival whose legs cause a Twitter sensation (#Kneesnight). If the rest of the show is like this, Bonneville will soon be recognised more for W1A than for that thing he does in the big house. Twenty Twelve, of course, already has a fan base.
“It’s interesting, actually,” he says. “There’s sort of a split second when people will come up to you and say, ‘Oh, I just wanted to say I really enjoyed... and 70 per cent of the time you sort of see the letter D forming on their lips. It’s rather lovely when you see someone who you think is going to say D actually says T, because obviously Twenty Twelve’s not as well known. But it’s popular with its own audience. People get very enthusiastic about it.
“The usual comeback about Twenty Twelve, and hopefully W1A, is: ‘You should be in my office, you should see what happens in my office. I could tell you stuff.’” Titter ye yes.