A whole new power struggle: Plot twists and profanity behind new series of The Thick of It
How do you satirise our current political omnishambles? The show's scriptwriter Roger Drew reveals all...
My name is Roger Drew and I'm a writer on The Thick of It. Not In The Thick of It. Don't ever get that wrong. I've seen Armando Iannucci scissor-kick some poor guy in the spuds for the simple addition of the word 'in'. By the way, I haven't seen that. Armando's actually a gentle soul. Almost monastic. But inside him there is genuine steel. He's an iron monk in a velvet habit.
So we've just finished working on Series Four of In The Thick of It. Crazy days. We all started talking about Series Four not soon after Series Three. The conversation went like this. "I wonder what's going to happen in the next series?" "Yeah. Dunno. Cross that bridge…" It's exactly that sort of sparkling dialogue that got me hired.
Just a recap as to where we were up to in Series Three. It ended with Goebbels of the Gorbals, Malcolm Tucker, played by Peter Capaldi, outmanoeuvring his political rival Steve Fleming (David Haig), to get himself reinstated and calling an election. Nicola Murray (Rebecca Front) became so irrelevant, I actually can't remember if she resigned or not. Glenn Cullen (James Smith) was going to try to run as an MP but had his plans thwarted by Nicola. Ollie Reeder (Chris Addison) was positioning himself to gain power like a conniving shit, this time in opposition. Terri Coverley (Joanna Scanlan) knew her position was safe and was lording over the outgoing team.
In the opposition camp, Tom Hollander turned up as a character, not dissimilar to Andy Coulson, called (lowers voice in case his mum's reading) 'The Fucker', a nemesis to the then- opposition spin surgeon, gob-shite Stewart Pearson (Vincent Franklin). Stewart looked like he was being loudly shown the door, to the delight of the world-weary, port-and-cigars Shadow Minister for DoSAC, Peter Mannion (Roger Allam). Phil Smith, the androgynous Tolkien-fixated policy advisor to Mannion (Will Smith), and Pony Club poshtot Emma Messinger (Olivia Poulet) were nervous and excitable about their approaching accession to the corridors of real power.
Then we all had a real General Election and a coalition arrived, for those of you who have been living on Mars for the past few years. If you have been living on Mars: how did you survive? Is the air breathable? Did you recycle your wee to drink? I feel like I'm wandering off the point. Coalition. Actually maybe I'm not. 'Cause it didn't seem all that long ago that we were living on an exciting new planet called Hung Parliament and anything seemed possible. And now here we are two years later with everything tasting of wee.
Which is of course bad news for the country, and once we realise that even if we send all the medals we won at the Olympics to Dale Winton's cash-my-gold.co.uk, it still won't make much of a dent in the deficit, people will forget London 2012 and remember Omnishambles 2010-15. And that's got to be good news for us at Team Thick.
And it is quite a team. The other writers include the original core writers: Ian Martin, the so-called 'swearing consultant', a title which annoys him almost as much as jazz; Tony Roche, who invented the phrase Omnishambles; and Simon Blackwell, who has a thick and lustrous beard, like a jolly Bin Laden. Jesse Peep Show Armstrong bowed out of this series, the snotty prick.
Newbies on Series Three were myself; Will Smith, my long-suffering comedy wife, who also plays posh twat Phil Smith in thef series; and Sean Gray. For this series we also had other well-seasoned and hugely gifted writers do additional material – David Quantick, Dan Gaster, Rob Colley and Georgia Pritchett.
The big team is needed because of time constraints and the relentless amount of rewriting required by the 'Nucci, who is quite the little fusspot when it comes to scripting. The large team wouldn't be unusual for a US show, and indeed most of us have just come off doing Veep for HBO. This was a US "re-imagineering" of The Thick of It with all the same team, headed up by Armando again. And the writing process was very similar. From initial brain-storming meetings where chubby men try not to eat the biscuits provided, to episodes being allocated largely according to availability as we're all working on other stuff at the same time – TV, films, suntans, pecs, etc.
When we first properly sat down at the table to talk about the next series, it didn't look too promising on the Coalition cock-up front. It was about 18 months ago. We have a journalist who comes in and gives up the Whitehall nuggets, Deep Throat-style. I'll leave that. And she, or he, or it, was saying that the Coalition was getting on very well together. An odd sense of camaraderie had developed, like people trapped in a lift after the first two minutes. But people getting on well doesn't make for brilliant sitcom. Thankfully it's a few days in, the lift has still not moved, and the toilet corner and the cannibalism corner have become indistinguishable. So with the Coalition. This has meant there has been plenty to draw upon for the new series.
It could be argued that The Thick of It, when it arrived, was the first satirical sitcom to emerge under New Labour that really landed a punch. And it did this not by targeting Blair but the spin machine behind him, with the character of Malcolm Tucker. But was this approach going to be easy to transfer following regime change? It has been a really interesting gear-shift. It's taken a while, but the major themes of this parliament have emerged. Double-dip and cluster-hack. And these have figured in the mix. The Big Society was discussed and discarded, although it bears a passing resemblance to The Fourth Sector as championed by Nicola Murray in Series Three. One thing that did emerge was the rumour that the Big Society was actually Samantha Cameron's idea and it was mooted round the writing table that every time someone in the cabinet mentioned The BS, the PM got to "feed the police horse".
An idea that has made it in was Silicon Playgrounds. One of the nice things about sitting around that table, often different tables, is trying to think as our real Government would think. The challenge this time round was thinking of things that would sound dynamic but cost no money. The idea was suggested that the minister at DoSAC could launch a scheme to get schoolkids designing and selling their own apps. Digital Playgrounds was suggested, Armando came back with Silicon Playgrounds. Lo and behold, the following week Michael Gove came out with the exact same idea. Had Gove been bugging our meetings? I wouldn't put it past him.
Once an idea like Silicon Playgrounds is agreed on, and the episode is up and running, an initial outline is drafted usually in about three pages, and this is batted back and forth between the writer and Armando. Then a first draft is written – quickly; the trick is not to agonise too much over the lines as the vast majority of the first few drafts won't ever see the light of day. It's very liberating, knowing that the first thing you write doesn't have to be the best thing you write. After those first drafts, the script is passed round to other writers and likewise you would be passed other scripts to work on. And that's daunting in itself, having to rewrite other people's material. I prefer the act of writing with other people, because if a line makes everyone laugh, then you know it's funny. It's very hard to make yourself laugh. And even harder to know if that laugh was because a line is genuinely good, or you're laughing because the line is precisely the wrong thing to put.
At about draft five or six, a script is rehearsed with the actors. A lot has been said about the improvisational quality of the show, and it's true that the actors bring an enormous amount to the scripts. The looseness of the process was really brought home when we were rehearsing Veep, and the US performers were surprised at the latitude they were allowed with the material. Julia Louis-Dreyfus said she was never allowed to change a word on Seinfeld. Still, that was a really well-written show, so fair enough.
After the rehearsals, the scripts are rewritten again to incorporate the rehearsal material. Then come the 'sides'. These are the scenes given out to the actors three days before filming. Armando will write simple one-word notes next to chunks of dialogue – "shorter", "funnier", and the inimitable "less cockfuckshit". Which indicates the attitude to swearing on the show. It's easy to swear to make a line work, but a surprise is always better. If that's a creative bit of swearing, fine, but it can equally be the word "Twix" or "Fanta". And then there is the filming to get out of the way. All the writers get a turn on set, where we try to improve the scenes with line suggestions.
So what can we look forward to in the new series? The big changes to the show reflect the real-world new Government. So Malcolm Tucker, Nicola Murray and Ollie Reeder are now in opposition. Malcolm is feeling frustrated and bored at having no real power. His graphic threats lack the clout they once possessed as he has been ground down by his new boss. That boss is Nicola Murray, who in a bizarre voting accident has become Leader of the Opposition, a role which sits on her shoulders as comfortably as Eamonn Holmes in a mankini.
Nicola has been joined by a new senior advisor, Helen Hatley (Rebecca Gethings). Helen's attitude to Nicola is akin to one of those enablers who feed up those massive women in America. Namely, it appears that Helen has Nicola's best interests at heart but really she is destroying her. And Malcolm can see all of this. And he knows that Nicola and Helen are killing the party. But what can he do? Do his dark arts still have the power they once did? He will call on Ollie, now a player in his own right, who may prove to be every bit as Malc-iavellian as his master.
Conversely, the Opposition from last series are now the Government. The laid-back, pipe-and-slippers Mannion is the new Minister at DoSAC. He is still hampered by his team, the foppish, cockish Phil Smith, who has now switched his obsession from Lord of the Rings to Game of Thrones (which confusingly features Roger Allam with a comedy beard) and King's Road Duchess Emma Messinger; and still hassled by buzz-word-burping, mood-boarding Stewart Pearson. He is partnered by a very intense junior minister, Fergus Williams (Geoffrey Streatfeild) and his equally testosteronal special advisor Adam Kenyon (Ben Willbond) from the third party, or The Inbetweeners as they're known.
But the Coalition honeymoon is well and truly over and the couple are only staying together for the kids, namely us: the British Public. Fergus and Adam's ambitions will be frustrated by their senior Coalition partners grabbing the plum policies. Adding to their frustrations and still in DoSAC is media 'blockage' Terri Coverley and, by an even stranger twist of fate, Glenn Cullen, Nicola Murray's old special advisor.
Glenn is back in Government as the Fourth Sector Guru, alongside those same chinless Henries he has fought against for his entire political career. As well as being a bit of an old dick, he is a man who is broken by the compromises he has been asked to make. To find out just how broken, you'll have to tune in. I'd strongly advise it, unless you want a scissor-kick in the spuds from the Iron Monk.
The new series of 'The Thick of It' starts on 8 September at 9.45pm on BBC2
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