Twenty-twelve, or in its character-saving form 2012, is one of those phrases you can’t escape if you live in the southern part of England.1 It seems to float around without needing a particular noun to attach itself to (“the 2012 Olympics”, “the year 2012”), just standing in a vague way for excitement, patriotism, and probably aspiration. Unless of course you live in London, where it stands for rising rents, public transport meltdown and all the physical inconveniences upon which Brand Britain is constructed.
Given that 2012 is happening this year (in fact, a quick glance at my calendar suggests that 2012 is actually taking place even as I type these words and may still be going on when you read them, in a delirious explosion of contemporary now-ness), it’s a little surprising that the BBC has commissioned a TV series specifically to take the mickey out of it. Or perhaps it’s more surprising that the show does so little actual mickey-taking. From the episodes so far, it seems more like a sitcom set in a topical location rather than a biting satire on the absurdity of the 2012 process and brand. Maybe we’ve just been spoiled by The Thick of It. Still, nice to know the BBC’s independence is sufficiently robust (despite the continual brickbats cast at is as a state broadcaster) to put on a show like this. Even if one does wonder at times why they didn’t either do the thing rather more viciously, or not bother.
The show centres on the team whose job it is to manage the games, the “Olympic Deliverance Commission”. Is that name a joke? The only thing “deliverance” summons up for me is genetically thrifty persons with shotguns skulking round the Everglades, or the technical term for exorcism in the Anglican and Episcopal Churches. But maybe I’m not sufficiently schooled in corporate buzzery. Within the walls of the commission, the cast is headed by Hugh Bonneville. As the head of the organization, he’s playing off his previous roles as serious and deeply sincere English gent (see the Earl of Grantham in Downton Abbey) by using the same sort of slightly furrowed-brow delivery for lines like: “So this idea of a weekend away, it does make a lot of sense, and in the end there’s no getting around that. Well, it’s subsequently been rebranded as a romantic minibreak, which is obviously a lot more complicated.”
Jessica Hynes plays the head of branding, who specialises in nodding along and agreeing with everything that’s said whilst maintaining near-total opacity in her own speech: lot of “2.0”, “viral” and so on. She never makes it quite clear whether the character is just frantically juggling the jargon and hoping no-one will notice there’s nothing behind it, or whether it all does actually make sense to her, if not to anyone else. Karl Theobald is the head of IT, munching continually on pizza whilst explaining that the reason the traffic management system isn’t working is that they haven’t let it loose on enough streets yet. There’s some wincing recognition to be had in his attention to detail whilst missing the big picture: he can run through the road network of the UK, but isn’t clear why it’s not a brilliant idea to reroute extra passenger planes across the sparsely populated land around major nuclear sites.
Vincent Franklin, last seen as the blue-sky enthusiast Tory spin doctor in The Thick of It, is cast as a Yorkshireman of the kind who think that “Well, I’m sorry, love, but I’m from Yorkshire” is a) “blunt speaking” and b) a substitute for having a point. The role doesn’t give him much to do except explain which county he came from, so far. Ameila Bullimore has a similarly restricted role as the head of Sustainability, whose main character trait at this stage is that she’s clearly head of Legacy, but insists that’s not the same thing as Sustainability. (I know, rollicking stuff, right?)
Then, just as you think the entire dramatis personae will be populated by recognisable but basically inert stock types, Olivia Colman enters as Bonneville’s PA. And she is acting. She doesn’t care what is going on around her, Olivia Colman is going to give this thing an emotional centre. The performances which stick in my memory from her are tense, quietly desperate women who know they’re being exploited without knowing what to do about it. And no, I didn’t see her in Paddy Considine’s Tyrannosaur. I heard an interview in which she spent most of the time assuring us that she felt very secure filming those scenes, that Paddy was a very safe presence on set, and that she wasn’t traumatised at all despite what it might look like onscreen. Frankly, I’d like to be able to get some sleep in the next six months, so I gave that one a miss. Even in a show like Twenty Twelve, she projects an emotional hunger which just shifts her brief scenes into another realm.
Though he never appears onscreen, the cast is completed by David Tennant, doing his real (i.e. very Scottish indeed) accent as the voiceover for the documentary. Twenty Twelve purports to be a mockumentary, though there are times when it seems more like an excuse to use a narrator to frame scenes that are basically sketches. Still, within that format Tennant gets some of the very best lines in the show (“something of a departure for an artist who’s probably been best known up til now for gaining a reputation”) without quite falling over into obvious snark.
The plot of this episode involves a publicity stunt for the games with a giant clock which will count down (or up, or backwards, no-one is quite sure) whilst time runs out for Hugh Bonneville’s character to get away on his minibreak. That’s a theme, that is. It’s a pretty flimsy one, but it gets the characters on and off screen with enough time each to show us their particular obsessions and twitches. The episode seems built to introduce us to everyone without the blurring which might occur if we saw them moving through too much narrative. So far Bonneville’s handling of his long, smooth, mealy-mouthed lines and Colman’s contained desperation are the stand-outs amongst some pretty broad characterisation from the rest of the cast – I look forward to seeing how these characters interact with more a story going on.
1 I suspect it’s similarly pervasive in the rest of the country, but I can already hear the cries of “metropolicentric hegemony!”, so I’m hedging on this one.