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Why the BBC's Worth It

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I don't know what current staff at Broadcasting House made of W1A, the recent BBC Two comedy/satire series in which the BBC intentionally poked itself in the eye. But everyone I know who used to work there - and there are a lot of us - lapped it up.

We watched with gleeful recognition as Ian Fletcher arrived at the BBC as its new Head of Values, charged with thinking big thoughts and clarifying the purpose of the BBC in a digital age. Presenting reality, just slightly exaggerated, isn't that what comedy is meant to do? We spotted the near-truths of the plot and remembered real-life BBC situations which could well have served as source material for the comedy.

I went to the preview before the series was broadcast. I couldn't work out at first exactly why I had been invited, but then it dawned on me. There were lots of us ex-manager-types there, ex-heads of this, that and the other - and we were a brilliant audience. We really got the jokes. The auditorium positively welled with recognition, nostalgia and possibly just a little relief that most of us didn't have to sit through daily damage limitation meetings any more.

The subsequent reviews were generally good but I doubt if everyone appreciated it quite so much as that internal - or largely ex-internal - audience had. My husband (never worked at the BBC and never wanted to) fell asleep during the broadcast of the first episode (he had had a long day) and seemed only mildly amused during the rest of the series which I forced him to watch.

In part of course the shenanigans in W1A are typical of those in any large organisation - where things happen in spite of the organisation and where decisions somehow get made, though often the wrong ones. Ian Fletcher had previously stayed calm under pressure as Head of Deliverance at the Olympic Deliverance Commission in the BBC's brilliant Twenty Twelve, and he will perhaps go on to do the same elsewhere.

But there is something uniquely funny - and heroic - about the BBC mocking itself. It's hard to imagine many other organisations doing the same, even if they had the means to. W1A not only used as a comic backdrop the corporation's talent for bureaucratic obfuscation (probably no worse than that of other large institutions and not as bad as some) but also picked at some tender and still slightly suppurating places - like executive salaries.

But the BBC is no fool - laughing at things also takes the sting out of them. And this is fiction after all. You control the script and you know the outcome, unlike real life. The series was a sure sign of renewed confidence after the turmoil and trials of the past couple of years - obliquely referred to in the show as 'learning experiences'. It's unthinkable that it could have been broadcast at the height of the Savile scandal or even during the previous low point for the BBC, the Hutton Inquiry a decade ago.

As the corporation gears up to negotiating the renewal of the Royal Charter and defending the licence fee (why Ian Fletcher was brought in, after all), W1A is a reminder of why the BBC is worth it. Ok, there are a few other reasons, like BBC News and Radio 4 and live music and (now) the World Service.... You don't have to like them all, just enough of them.

A former colleague told me there did in fact use to be a Head of Values. I don't remember the title but there could have been. And if there wasn't, perhaps there should have been. It's actually much more plausible than the Director of Vision (a very exalted role when I was at the BBC ) and - my all-time favourite and someone for whom I used to work - the Controller of Knowledge. Real titles. Real people. And not a hint of irony.

The short series, alas, is finished. Roll on series two. The idea is too good to be exhausted on four half-hour programmes. Ian Fletcher could move on to save the National Health Service or the Metropolitan Police in due course - both would no doubt benefit from his skills. But there are surely a lot more laughs to be had at the BBC's expense first. There's a while to go before the Royal Charter and Licence Fee get sorted - so he has a lot of valuable work still ahead of him.

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