Sunday, April 6, 2014

The Other Hugh Bonneville: Twenty Twelve and W1A

Hugh Bonneville stars as Ian Fletcher in Twenty Twelve and W1A, on the BBC.

As Downton Abbey fans worldwide eagerly await the popular ITV period drama's fifth season, it is a good time to point viewers to W1A, a new BBC comedy series whose brief first season will conclude this Wednesday April 9. W1A stars Downton Abbey's Hugh Bonneville as Ian Fletcher, the new-minted Head of Values for the BBC. Bonneville is returning to a character made famous (at least for British audiences) on BBC's Twenty Twelve, where Ian Fletcher was Head of Deliverance for the London 2012 Olympic Games. Both series not also demonstrate Hugh Bonneville's talent in a contemporary setting – far removed from his gracious, and sometimes other-worldly turn as Lord Grantham in Downton Abbey – but also put Bonneville's quiet but immense charm and comic ability on display.

Twenty Twelve, an office comedy which ran in 2011 and 2012 in the lead-up to the 2012 Olympicsenjoyed critical and popular success in the UK at the time but went completely unnoticed on this side of the pond – and more's the pity. Twenty Twelve introduced viewers to the bumbling men and women of the (fictional) Olympic Deliverance Commission and to the absurd constraints of corporate and governance culture. Tasked with delivering the Games on time and on message, the ODC team had to negotiate everything from the flight paths of incoming aircraft to the size and shape of the toilets in the athletes' residence, but at its heart was Bonneville's Ian Fletcher, the man leading them: a consummate professional struggling to get a job done well in a world seemingly designed to prevent any forward movement at all. In the end you may well believe that the 2012 Olympics were built on a foundation of breakfast Danishes and exasperation.

With the show's final episode airing just three days before the London Games opened in the summer of 2012, its two-season run could have been a television curiosity whose shelf life is now long past. It isn't: Twenty Twelve is a comedy that is enjoyable far beyond its seemingly narrow cultural and temporal frame. (And fortunately for us, both of its two short seasons are currently available on Region 1 DVD.)

Hugh Bonneville and Olivia Colman in Twenty Twelve 
Borrowing from the faux documentary format made popular by The Office (both the British and American versions), writer/creator John Morton takes that structure all the more seriously by introducing the dry narration of David Tennant (who would co-star with Twenty Twelve's Olivia Colman on ITV's Broadchurch shortly afterwards). In sincere TV documentary style, each time a character is introduced – even deep into the second season – we are given their full name and title. ("Joining Ian Fletcher is Head of Infrastructure, Graham Hitchins.") And I'm fairly confident I speak for every viewer when I say that it is funny every time.

Twenty Twelve will fondly remind you of NBC's still delightful Parks and Recreation, not because of their shared mockumentary format – in fact, structurally the series is more reminiscent of Arrested Development – but because of its poignant portrait of competency in the new governance culture. The stakes of Twenty Twelve may be higher but the frustrations are just as pointed and specific for Ian Fletcher as for Parks and Recreation's Lesley Knope.  Much of the comedy and action of the BBC series comes from Ian's continuing struggle to simply run a meeting, and anyone who's ever had to do that can sympathize. Between coffee orders, incoming text messages, and petty power-plays across the table, Ian rarely succeeds in communicating a meeting's agenda, far less accomplishing anything. Co-workers and bosses interrupt with an enthusiastic "yes, absolutely" without Ian ever getting to complete his sentence, and the show's most recurrent phrase is "Can I just finish?" Most disruptive is Siobahn Sharpe ("Head of Branding, from PR company Perfect Curve"), played with excitable and clueless excess by Jessica Hynes (Spaced). Punctuating her indifference with regular outbursts of enthusiastic but meaningless assent, Siobahn is the most active non-listener ever portrayed on television, and Ian's restraint is, in contrast, almost saint-like.

Caught in that classical political conundrum of wanting to do his job and also wanting to appear to do his job, Fletcher struggles in the middle: at the cost of his health, his home life, and on more than one occasion he finds himself without a place to sleep.  And no-one bears the weight of an absurd situation on his shoulders quite like Hugh Bonneville, who is capable is revealing Fletcher's inner life with a slight movement of his eyes. Much of the drama and comedy of the series comes in small, wordless flashes across Bonneville's face.

Aside from Bonneville, Twenty Twelve's real star (aside from the city of London itself) is the remarkable Olivia Colman, who is almost always initially unrecognizable when she takes on a new role; viewers who have watched her in Rev. and Broadchurch will have already experienced the amazing versatility of this actress. Here she plays Sally, Fletcher's doting and ultra-efficient P.A., and the subtle evolution of the relationship between Ian and Sally is one of the standout strengths of the series.With stuttering pauses and tiny glances, the two actors reveal depths belied by the pace and tone of the story as a whole.

Jessica Hynes returns as Siobahn Sharpe (with Hugh Bonneville) in W1A

Premiering three weeks ago on BBC 2, W1A follows Ian Fletcher to the BBC itself, where he is now given the thankless (and still fictional) job of Head of Values for a corporation with very little sense of itself or its value. Ian is tasked with clarifying "the purpose of the BBC in a digital age" or, as Ian enthusiastically puts it on his first day: ‘You’re aware that you’re at the centre of something genuinely important, and the really exciting thing is to think that part of my job is going to be trying to establish where that centre is and also exactly what it’s in the middle of."

Set in the BBC's sprawling New Broadcasting House (the show's title refers to the post code of the new building), W1A is an unapologetic in-house comedy – filmed and set in the heart of the corporation itself. In its own way, W1A is more bitingand often more straightforwardly absurdist, than Twenty Twelve. It owes much of its surreal quality to the building itself, a modern structure teeming with people, glass, and even the odd seesaw, but seemingly without order or function – a place full of "big ideas" but very few chairs. The corporation's new "open plan work environment" means that Ian doesn't have an office or even a desk of his own, and he spends as much time finding a place to store his signature foldable bicycle as he does trying to do his job. The brightly-lit building is often portrayed like a trip down the rabbit hole, introducing us to people with titles like 'Head of Generic Comedy Drama', shows like How Big is Your Dog? and Britain's Tastiest Village, and at one point Ian stumbles into a closed room where he finds BBC's arts presenter Alan Yentob arm-wrestling Salman Rushdie to the soundtrack of an operatic aria.

Reuniting with Bonneville in the new series is the voice of David Tennant, and once again, the Scottish-accented narrator gets most of the show's best lines. ("Producer Lucy Freeman has been at the BBC for 8 years and as such is both an experienced producer and still there," and "If Ian’s job is to make [Nigel] feel he’s being listened to, the initial challenge is to find somewhere in the building where fewer people can hear him.") By the end of the first episode, Siobahn also joins his team, with a newer smart phone but still as infuriatingly useless as ever. 

As ill-defined as his new position is, Ian Fletcher still sincerely cares about his job; he actually wants to accomplish things (which is importantly different from not wanting to be holding the bag when something fails). In W1A, Ian Fletcher returns as the sole man of substance in a helium-filled universe, and he grounds that maddening universe with a preternatural professionalism that seems to transcend absolutely intolerable circumstances. This Wednesday, the final episode of W1A's first season will air, promising the return of Sally, as well as answers to some lingering questions left open at the end of Twenty Twelve. The return of Colman's character will further tighten the relationship between Morton's two series, and no doubt leave viewers eagerly awaiting the return of Ian Fletcher, and Hugh Bonneville, next year.

W1A airs on Wednesday on BBC 2 in the UK. Both seasons of Twenty Twelve are currently available on DVD internationally.

NOTE: This piece was originally published on Critics at Large on April 6, 2014. If you wish to comment, please do so on that page.