Some days ago, Tony Hall, director-general of the BBC, welcomed journalists, well-wishers and a sprinkling of celebrities to Broadcasting House to unveil the corporation’s new plans to cover the arts, and to put the public “in the front row of British culture”. He referred to the building’s postcode – W1A – which raised a titter of recognition. That, we all knew, is the name of a new BBC2 comedy series, a follow-up to the well-received Twenty Twelve, and transfers its satirical aim from the organisers of London’s Olympic Games to the management of the corporation itself.
No one who has had any experience of television, newspapers, advertising, marketing, social media, branding, spinning or just plain working in an office stuffed with incompetents whose ambition overreaches their abilities will fail to recognise the gags here. To give the show some extra grounding in real life, there are cameos from well-known personalities: Clare Balding, Carol Vorderman. There are rumours that Hall himself will appear in a future episode.
I dearly hope not. This is satire that goes too far. Not in the direction of the controversy, exaggeration and poor taste that are its natural roaming ground. W1A goes the opposite way, towards complacency, complicity and all-round smugness. It is officially sanctioned satire, the humour co-opted by its targets to neutralise its sting. It is hard to see it as anything other than a deflection mechanism, fending off the BBC’s critics with some good, old-fashioned self-deprecation. Look how we laugh at ourselves! Aren’t these people silly? (Sub-text: we are much more sensible than that, otherwise we would not be able to see the joke.)
Floppy satire is bad news. In the current New Yorker, there is an excellent essay from that magazine’s television critic Emily Nussbaum on the US sitcom All in the Family. Norman Lear’s refashioning of Britain’s Till Death Us Do Part was considered so incendiary by the networks that it was preceded by a kind of health warning when it was first aired in 1971: “All in the Family …seeks to throw a humorous spotlight on our frailties, prejudices and concerns. By making them a source of laughter, we hope to show – in a mature fashion – just how absurd they are.”
You can smell the fear. Lear’s Alf Garnett figure was Archie Bunker, played by Carroll O’Connor, who railed against the “coons”, “spics” and “fags” who were making his neighbourhood, and his world, an uncomfortable place. As with Garnett, the issues he addressed were very much alive in the polity at large. And as with Till Death Us Do Part, the audience of All in the Family was split between those who – “in a mature fashion” – got the joke, and those who got the joke but also thought that the programme’s anti-hero actually talked a lot of sense.
It is unfair to compare the pungent joke-making of a programme conceived at a time of social turmoil with the soothing satire of W1A. But it is a reminder that comedy can be a remarkable force for ferreting out the blemishes of the society from which it springs. However impassioned your view on the BBC licence fee and the loony vocabulary of its managerial classes, they are not subjects that are comparable to the endemic racism and sexism of an age that is not so far behind us.
The positive spin on this is that we are so much better off these days that we don’t need our comedy to be vicious. The more pessimistic view is that the establishment has become expert in the co-option of its critics. Satire has been sanitised. Even the most monstrous sitcom characters – Malcolm Tucker, the malevolent spin-doctor from Armando Iannucci’s The Thick of It, for example – are absorbed by the political mainstream as weirdly loveable mavericks.
Which brings us back to the BBC, and the trumpeting of its “greatest commitment to the arts for a generation”, in Hall’s words. Truth to tell, there was much about the event that was scarcely distinguishable from its self-referential sitcom, from the solemn announcements that separated us by our colour-coded wristbands, to a muted onstage interview between Alan Yentob and Gemma Arterton.
Perhaps the most satire-worthy moment was the announcement that a new “take” on Kenneth Clark’s famous series Civilisation was being commissioned “for the digital age”. Clark’s version was regarded as seminal high culture for the masses, and was seminally skewed. In comparing an African mask with the head of the Apollo of the Belvedere, he declared there was “[no] doubt that the Apollo embodies a higher state of civilisation than the mask”. The works showed that while the “Negro imagination” conjured a world of fear and darkness, the Hellenistic one luxuriated in one of “light and confidence”.
The conversations that steer our post-politically-correct age out of this thicket will be compelling to follow, and way beyond satire.
More columns at ft.com/aspden
To listen to culture columns, go to ft.com/culturecast
Get alerts on Tony Hall when a new story is published