Twenty Twelve — Season 1, Episode 2

Twenty Twelve BBC

Yep, that’s him. This is pretty much what he does. Nina Christiani (Nina Sosanya) and Seb Coe (Himself).

To London, and the HQ of the Olympics Deliverance Commission, whose name may be a joke, I’m not entirely sure. A delegation from Rio, who’re hosting the games in 2016, are due to arrive to be shown the Olympic stadium, lunched, gladhanded and engage in one of those fact-finding missions which have been forever called into question for anyone who watched Yes Minister back in the day. With the words of Stephan Fatsis on the subject of sportocrats ringing in our ears (one doesn’t really need to know much more than the word “sportocrat”), we join Hugh Bonneville and and Karl Theobald as their characters hang around waiting for the delegation to make their appearance.

In the background Amelia Bullmore’s character, the Head of Sustainability (she’s actually the head of Legacy, but her title is Head of Sustainability, gedditt??!!??!) is being rounded and gently growing in stature like an example from E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel. Motives and backstory are ripening gently under the camera’s gaze, as we discover she has a son who is playing up in school. It’s the same basic plot as the last episode, with someone’s personal life being set in tension with the demands of the job (in that case it was the 1000-day countdown event versus a romantic minibreak) and the only thing which makes it a bit more interesting is the string of middle-class clichés she launches into. They do realise he’s a very imaginative boy, don’t they, he’s curious about the world, that’s probably why he cut off the French teacher’s ponytail. (Funnier if you haven’t heard Jeremy Hardy do that joke several times, only with him it involves gifted children and setting fire to their classmates.) Actually it does also strike a few chimes with Anne-Marie Slaughter’s article in The Atlantic, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All”, which has gotten more hits than any piece in the magazine’s history, about the way women aren’t offered real choices in the workplace. Though the joke here seems to waver uncertainly between finding her situation ludicrous and untenable, versus just finding her floundering amusing.

The episode unfolds into a classic obstruction plot, like the Tony Hancock episode The Sleepless Night, with everything going wrong which possibly could. The bus turns up late, the driver has no idea of London’s geography, the satnav has been programmed wrongly, the Brazilian interpreter gets irritated and starts providing her own glosses on the tedious strings of pomposity which the London team produce, and at the other end Lord Coe is waiting increasingly impatiently for his guests to arrive. He actually is, in fact. Sebastian Coe, Olympic sprinter, life peer of the realm and general member of the British great and good, makes a cameo in this episode as himself. It rather sums up the problem which I noted last episode (and which will appear even more strongly when we turn to look at the show’s treatment of Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London) that Twenty Twelve hovers oddly between making fun of the games and treating them as Unquestionably A Good Thing.

Yes, Lord Coe appears in a comedy programme explicitly taking the proverbial out of the team staging the Olympic games, but all he does is stand around looking justifiably irritated at the incompetence of characters who have been written to be amusingly incompetent. Frankly it’s an easy gig for him, an unchallenging chance to look like a good chap who can take a joke at his own expense. Except the joke isn’t at his expense at all, and in fact the dynamic of the show seems to depend on everyone agreeing how wonderful the games are, and how ridiculous it is that they are being misunderstood and trivialised by the characters. I’m not saying the show should be an all-out polemic, but this feels rather like those occasions when politicians go on chat shows, or host Have I Got News For You, and get to play the good bloke without relinquishing any of their own self-image.

As ever, the best lines go to David Tennant in the voice-over. I’ll leave you with this, as Bonneville’s character is stuck in a car park at the end of the disastrous journey, making a farewell speech to the bemused and irritated Brazilians: “It’s been a day of managing expectation. And Ian’s final task is to manage the expectations of his important guests as to what it is exactly that’s happened to them.” See those tenses? Raw Timelord skills.

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