Spin doctor in the House: What can we learn from small-screen satire?

British TV has the splenetic Malcolm Tucker – but Americans had Toby Ziegler, the presidential adviser with a conscience. Simon Carr meets Richard Schiff

The first thing Gordon Brown did after becoming Prime Minister was to come out onto Downing Street to tell the press about his "humility and pride" and to refer us to "the better angels of our nature". This didn't go over as he must have hoped. There was a question as to whether the transcendental was within his grasp, because it certainly wasn't within ours. It turned out that the angels were only occasionally present in Number 10 in the years that followed.

Obviously, Martin Sheen as The West Wing's President Bartlet would have managed the line, and we would have responded and angels would have won the day. In general, the writers and actors on that seven-series US show could and did, get away with anything they liked. "You know that when smallpox was eradicated, it was considered the single greatest humanitarian achievement of this century? Surely we can do it again, as we did in the time when our eyes looked towards the heavens and, with outstretched fingers, we touched the face of God." That's a paragraph that couldn't be written here in Britain. Our writers couldn't write it, our actors couldn't say it, and the listeners couldn't hear it. It's one of the differences between us over here and them over there.

Anyway, here we are at the Covent Garden Hotel with one of the angels. He's Richard Schiff; he played Toby, the communications director for The West Wing.

That is, the Alastair Campbell figure, but in this case "the conscience of the White House". Schiff was still in London for the premiere of The Infidel, and he has been stranded by the ash, so we still have him. The seriousness with which he recalls The West Wing experience, and indeed his approach to his art and work, is also different from the way the British approach theirs.

He has just come back from Russia, where he sat in on the on-going second trial of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the oil oligarch arrested by Putin. There's a film Schiff is thinking of making about it. From the way he talks, it's clear he believes this film, this story will move its audiences, will work on and change the people who watch it. That's the intention, the ambition, even the expectation – that something important is going to be attempted. It's not a feeling we're much used to in British films; I haven't experienced it since watching The Killing Fields all those years ago. There is an activist sense about Schiff. He reminds me of something a rugby player once told me – that when he hits a ruck he actually expects to move it. Maybe over here we've been disabled by some overactive sense of irony, or self-consciousness, or shyness, or fear of exposure. We expect to fail.

Here is a core value of the show, as voiced by Richard Schiff's Toby: " We have to say what we feel, that government – no matter what its failures in the past and in times to come for that matter – government can be a place where people come together and where no one gets left behind ... An instrument of good."

We hear things like that from British politicians but we don't get carried off by them. No, the British political show – the shadow of The West Wing's great source of light – is The Thick of It. And the core value of that show can be inferred from Malcolm Tucker's observation: "If some **** can **** something up, that **** will pick the worst possible time to ******* **** it up because that ****'s a ****."

Good people go into politics to make the world a better place; but only in America. It's no wonder The West Wing was so popular in Downing Street during the Blair years.

Let's remind ourselves of two versions of the same joke. The West Wing way it goes like this:

Bartlet: "You told the press I have a secret plan to fight inflation?"

Josh: "No, I did not. Let me be absolutely clear, I did not do that. Except, yes, I did that."

In The Thick of It, the same joke goes:

Tucker: "Right. How're you doing in sorting out whether he lied or not, you doing ok?"

Olly: "Pretty well, yeah."

Tucker: "Is that a lie?"

Olly: "Yeah."

Tucker: "That is not fucking funny, you retard!"

We laugh at both, but we are shocked at ourselves for laughing at Tucker (because so very often we are laughing with, and not at, him).

Back in Covent Garden, we have another strand weaving into this encounter: Martin Sixsmith happens to turn up to join us. It is his book, Putin's Oil: The Yukos Affair and the Struggle for Russia, that Schiff has optioned. Sixsmith was the man who was done over by the Downing Street machine, if you remember, after another press officer's email reacted to the World Trade Centre collapse as "a good day to get out anything we want to bury".

Sixsmith stuck to his guns over the affair, and took heavy fire from the political advisers, both professionally and personally. His career in government is testimony to the Thick view of politics rather than the West view. Why, I asked him, en passant, did he ever take that job as a Government press officer?

Sixsmith smiled in a rueful way, and quoted Tony Blair's words from 1997: " 'A new day has dawned, has it not?' I believed it."

It was a short day in Downing Street, the fog came down soon enough; the cynics and sceptics found they had much to play with.

Across the Atlantic, as Schiff puts it: "There is still an American view that good intentions will be rewarded. That working hard will bring good things. There are perversions of that from both sides – there are those who feel they have a right to a part of that dream without the work, or that some have no right to the dream no matter how hard they work, because they're immigrants." The dream, or at least the idea, of "America" is still there, still has cultural power. It's old-fashioned, in the light of Britain's entrenched and defensive cynicism, but it has the power to motivate. It moves people.



A lot of Frank Capra's work came to be known as 'Capracorn' because it can be sentimental. But his are my favourites," says Schiff. "Meet John Doe. Have you seen that?"

This had Gary Cooper playing a tramp who gets taken up by newspaper executives to front a back-to-basics, good neighbour campaign. They write speeches for him, he inspires a movement, and when betrayed by the executives he launches into a game-changing speech of his own, all impromptu. "He had become the man he played."

That sort of thing happened round The West Wing. The NBC show took so much from life that it played back into it. The show of show business affected the show of politics. When they broadcast a fictional live debate between two presidential candidates, the preparation wasn't different from real politicians prepping themselves. It was scripted and semi-improvised – as it is when real candidates really appear. Gordon is never anything other than scripted and semi-improvised. They all are. And without some acting ability, the message doesn't get across. Politicians become actors, in part. Do actors become communications directors?

Schiff hadn't become the man he played. But it certainly did affect him. He recalls: "I talked to Dee Dee Myers, who was [Bill] Clinton's press secretary. She said there was one awakening moment in her career when she was with Clinton and recommended a certain stance, and 'the next day I saw my influence on every front page of every newspaper. And I was knocked out by how important my job was.'

"When she told me that I thought, my character would never forget that, that when he influenced the President it would mean that someone might live and someone else might die. So I always felt Toby had the power to change policy. He was the conscience of the White House. I made him burdened. He had to carry that around."

I asked, "Did you smile more before The West Wing?"

"I smiled a lot more after."

Then he smiled, and, yes, it is a noteworthy event with Richard.

And then there is a crossover from the show to the show ground, from art to life again. He talks about the character as more than a fiction for one good reason – West Wing characters do have a level of reality to them that our actors, characters, parts, don't have. They do have inspirational power. They do motivate real people to do real things.

Schiff again: "When I went out campaigning for [US Vice-President] Joe Biden, I was swarmed about by the Obama volunteer guys. They'd swarm, talk, laugh, ask me if I'd met him. And then eventually they'd say, they'd whisper it to me, 'You're the reason I'm here. You are the reason I'm working on this campaign.' And that was real, because those volunteers were why Obama won. They made the difference in the caucus states. Mass canvassing made the difference. So many volunteers. And they were there because of The West Wing."



Interestingly, the presidential campaign of the Latino candidate (the TV campaign, that is) was based on Barack Obama, years before Obama had decided to run, before he was even a senator. The producers looked for an out-of-the-way politician who couldn't conceivably run for President. Everyone knew it was going to be Hillary running, to complete the dynastic Bush-Clinton-Bush-Clinton succession.

Obama was the least likely candidate, and so they based the character on him. Extraordinary that it should be so, and that life should follow on. But there it is, the peculiar mix of show business, scripting, story-telling and the currency of events. No one will admit to believing that the West Wing episodes showing an ethnic outsider prepared the ground for Obama.

But equally, it's not impossible that Obama himself saw the show and thought, "Yes, I can." Obama himself, maybe he might have said quietly, out of the side of his mouth to the West Wing producers, "You are the reason I'm here."

How did it have such an effect on people? How did a TV show mobilise real people? The level of reality is in fact amazing. The stories were as one enthusiast says, "ripped from the headlines". Social security reform, tax credits for college fees, getting a downed pilot back from North Korea, estate tax, the strategic petroleum reserve, fuel emission standards. The census! "I had a senator say that he'd been trying to get the importance of the census over to people for years," Schiff says, "and we'd done it in one episode."

Where did that come from? It came from expert advice. The money that the US can put into a hit show makes a difference. They have teams of writers. Ideas and stories are contested. A big character in the show will have his or her own writer. This gives texture.

They had consultants on the show that we wouldn't aspire to over here. True, The Thick of It had a swearing consultant, Ian Martin, and as we know, he is a master of his craft. But on The West Wing, they had Al Gore's speech writer, Bill Clinton's chief economic adviser, and his pollster. They were all advising and shaping and adding detail and texture. One Lawrence O'Donnell, formerly chief of staff of the New York senator Daniel Moynihan, was a producer and writer – and even appeared on camera.

It is the show that politicians, activists, volunteers and quite a tranche of viewers found to be the "fantasy White House" that kept their spirits up during the Bush years. It can't have had a national effect on hearts and minds because President Bush got back with an increased majority. But the warmth it created shows at least an appetite for the angels.

As the evening went on we were joined by Jay Newton-Small from Time magazine. She has covered the White House for some years, and has seen all seven series. I told her that Schiff had campaigned for Biden, and that volunteers used to come up to him and say, 'You are the reason I am here'. She said she'd been to some of those rallies herself.

"And did you go up to Schiff and say, 'You're the reason I'm here'?"

She laughed. "No! I went up to Lawrence O'Donnell and said it to him."

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

music
Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
News
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
people
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Revealed: Why Mohammed Emwazi chose the 'safe option' of fighting for Isis, rather than following his friends to al-Shabaab in Somalia

    Why Mohammed Emwazi chose Isis

    His friends were betrayed and killed by al-Shabaab
    'The solution can never be to impassively watch on while desperate people drown'
An open letter to David Cameron: Building fortress Europe has had deadly results

    Open letter to David Cameron

    Building the walls of fortress Europe has had deadly results
    Tory candidates' tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they seem - you don't say!

    You don't say!

    Tory candidates' election tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they appear
    Mubi: Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash

    So what is Mubi?

    Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash all the time
    The impossible job: how to follow Kevin Spacey?

    The hardest job in theatre?

    How to follow Kevin Spacey
    Armenian genocide: To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie

    Armenian genocide and the 'good Turks'

    To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie
    Lou Reed: The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths

    'Lou needed care, but what he got was ECT'

    The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond
    Migrant boat disaster: This human tragedy has been brewing for four years and EU states can't say they were not warned

    This human tragedy has been brewing for years

    EU states can't say they were not warned
    Women's sportswear: From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help

    Women's sportswear

    From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help
    Hillary Clinton's outfits will be as important as her policies in her presidential bid

    Clinton's clothes

    Like it or not, her outfits will be as important as her policies
    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders