The Thick of It: Back in the loop
With a general election approaching, the return of Armando Iannucci's invective-filled political satire couldn't be better timed, says Gerard Gilbert
Tuesday 20 October 2009
The bad news for MPs hoping to shore up their image in the seemingly never-ending wake of the expenses scandal is that this Saturday sees the return of The Thick of It, Armando Iannucci's brilliant and unsparing satire on the inner workings of the no longer new Labour government. Not that the party elite will try to ignore the semi-improvised sitcom when it begins a new eight-part run this weekend, because it seems that, as with Margaret Thatcher's famous enjoyment of Yes, Minister, The Thick of It is required viewing in Westminster. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, the only thing worse than being laughed at is not being laughed at.
"I wanted to do something set in the world of politics that was rough and messy, slightly improvised and realistic", said Iannucci at the show's launch in 2005. "There's been a spate of dramas about politics like The Project and The Deal. I felt they were interesting but they were always very 'acted' pieces. They were fake dramas. I wanted the viewer to feel like they were actually in a room watching politicians and civil servants do what they do".
And what they do, or attempt to do, is ruthless micro-management. Iannucci describes The Thick of It as Yes, Minister meets The Larry Sanders Show, and he has former civil servant (and author of the novel Spin), Martin Sixsmith, as an adviser to the writing team. Set in the fictitious but highly plausible Department of Social Affairs and Citizenship, a so-called "Super Department" that allowed Iannucci to explore a wide range of issues , DoSAC was headed by Hugh Abbot (Chris Langham), a blundering minister in the mould of Yes, Minister's Jim Hacker. Unlike Hacker, however, guidance is not coming from the suavely manipulative and urbane civil servant Sir Humphrey Appleby, but from the human blowtorch that is No 10 enforcer Malcolm Tucker.
Scottish actor Peter Capaldi has been a revelation as the aggressive and profane Tucker, and a man whose inventive use of bad language (The Thick of It famously has its very own "swearing consultant") has given birth to a rich back-catalogue of filthy and very funny "Tuckerisms". The first episode of the new series includes the following instant classics: (talking of a minister) "He's so dense, light bends around him", (of another MP who has just turned down the Northern Ireland Office) "Do you know that 90 per cent of house dust is made of dead human skin? That's what you are to me", as well as the horribly funny "I'll be with you in two shakes of a crying baby". His sayings are the chief delight of the show, and the inspiration for a range of sloganised T-shirts, "The Genius of Malcolm Tucker", but on whom could such a foul-mouthed, psychopathic spin-meister possibly be based?
Tony Blair's former director of communications, Alastair Campbell, interviewed by Mark Kermode on The Culture Show earlier this year, admitted to a liberal use of swearing but denied that he and Tucker were similar in any substantial way. Sent by the BBC2 arts show to a screening of In the Loop, the The Thick of It's 2009 cinematic spin-off, Campbell said he disliked the film, but not because the portrayal of Tucker was too close to home. "On the contrary, I didn't like it because it was so far removed from the motives of most of the people I know," Campbell said, adding that he suspected that Iannucci believed that all politicians were venal and all advisers base. "Given the prevailing media wind against politics and public life, an anti-politics film is not that hard to make. But a bit like Rory Bremner becoming less funny when he started posing as a serious commentator, I fear the same is happening to Iannucci."
Ouch, but Campbell was in a minority with his view of In the Loop, an acidic satire on the US-UK rush to war in Iraq that co-starred James Gandolfini from The Sopranos. The film wasn't the first attempt to lend a transatlantic dimension to The Thick of It, because, in 2007, ABC remade the show for US TV, with Christopher Guest (This Is Spinal Tap) directing, and Arrested Development creator Mitch Hurwitz as executive producer. Despite the talent involved, the US remake, focusing on the daily lives of low-level member of the United States Congress and his staff, didn't live to see a full-blown series. Armando Iannucci distanced himself from the failed pilot, stating "It was terrible... they took the idea and chucked out all the style. It was all conventionally shot and there was no improvisation or swearing. It didn't get picked up, thank God."
Iannucci is now in talks with HBO for an American remake closer in spirit and style to his original, shaky camera-work and foul language included. "I had originally wanted to send it to HBO and they were very keen but the BBC sold it to ABC for more money but ultimately for less money because it never got made", he says.
But a misjudged remake isn't the most serious hurdle the makers of The Thick of It have had to overcome. In 2007, actor Chris Langham, who played the DoSoc's bumbling minister Hugh Abbot, was convicted of downloading obscene images of children and sentenced to 10 months in prison (the sentence reduced on appeal) and made to sign the sex offenders register. Langham's arrest led to the actor being banned from appearing at the 2006 British Comedy Awards, in which The Thick of It had been nominated, while in the subsequent The Thick of It Christmas special Langham's absence was explained by Hugh Abbot having been sent on a fact-finding mission to Australia – never mind the irony of the former colony being where the British historically sent their convicted criminals.
For the upcoming series, the department has a new ministerial lamb for the slaughter – a fresh Secretary of State for Social Affairs and Citizenship, Nicola Murray, played by the excellent Rebecca Front. Given a surprise Cabinet post in a Prime Ministerial reshuffle, Murray was so far down the list of candidates that Tucker doesn't even have a file on her. "She's a problem for Malcolm Tucker because she has ideas," says the show's producer Adam Tandy, "and ideas cost money, which is one thing no government has at the moment." In the meantime, there's plenty for Tucker to get apoplectic about, including the fact that Murray is intending to send her daughter to a private school ("You are saying that all the local state schools that this government have drastically improved are knife-addled rape sheds").
Front, a quick-witted actor and comedian whose association with Iannucci dates from The Day Today and Knowing Me, Knowing You with... Alan Partridge, is already shaping up to be a useful sparring partner for Malcolm Tucker. "It's great that Rebecca's character brings a new colour to the show," says Peter Capaldi, whose language has not been toned down in the transfer from BBC4 to BBC2. He says of his partly improvised, but mostly scripted, tirades that "The reason that they are so sweary is that, if I can't quite remember, I'll go for an f-word... it's an aide-mémoire. I do get into that zone when practising... and my wife gets fed up with the swearing. She sighs with relief when it's all over."
Also returning to the fray – albeit fearing the sack from Front's "new broom" – are Chris Addison's baby-faced junior adviser Ollie Reeder, an archetypal graduate policy wonk ("Feet off the furniture, you Oxbridge twat, you're not on a punt now", was how Tucker once upbraided him), senior policy adviser Glenn Cullen (James Smith) and civil service press secretary Terri Coverley (Joanna Scanlan). This trio may live in fear of Tucker, but that doesn't mean their repartee can't be equally as venomous. And what is particularly bracing about The Thick of It is the absence of an obviously sympathetic character.
James Smith, who plays Glenn, a man with no apparent life beyond work, says he half-expected to be written out of the new series as part of the reshuffle. "I assumed Glen would be a casualty," he says. "It was great that it didn't happen. We've been working out how Glenn and Ollie would survive. It's frightening that all of us end up playing a pretty close version of ourselves. I'd say that 80 per cent of Glenn is me. What's alarming is that the writers pick up on aspects of your personality and lay it bare in front of you."
Meanwhile, with a General Election approaching, were they conscious of a need for balance? The universal reply from producer and actors is that the show is not party political. It's about the mechanism. "And I don't think it's exclusively about politicians," says Rebecca Front, remarking on the show's wider resonance. "It's about all kinds of office politics, relationships and people struggling to make it work while holding on to tiny bits of power."
'The Thick of It' starts on Saturday 24 October at 10.10pm on BBC2
Help! I'm in the cast By Rebecca Front
I have always loved 'The Thick of It'. My parents love it, my husband loves it and all my friends love it too. So I was ridiculously excited when Armando Iannucci asked me to join the show. The downside of this is that I'm incredibly nervous about what they'll think when they see it. My husband waved me off on my first day with the words: "This is my favourite show. Don't balls it up."And that really helped.
Armando and the writers very generously allowed me to develop the character with them. My main concern was that she shouldn't just be a straight foil to the excellent comedy characters already there. Years ago, I had been in a children's sitcom with Bernie Clifton, set in a magic theatre that was about to be shut down. Each week, as Bernie had worked the studio audience into hysterics with some piece of slapstick craziness, my character would rush into the mayhem and say: "Bernie! Be serious! We've got a theatre to save." And every week, those kids hated my guts. So I didn't want Nicola to be the "Seriously Bernie" of the show. Fortunately, the writers weren't going to let that happen. They loved the idea that Nicola Murray, this nobody from nowhere whom Malcolm Tucker has only promoted because she's anonymous, should be full of herself, and think she's somehow been "chosen", marked out for greatness. And I loved it, too, because I think it's quite unusual to see female characters who have an inflated ego.
Another aspect of her character came from a conversation I had with someone who has worked in media management with certain political figures. When asked what would make a new minister like Nicola a nightmare to deal with, he replied archly that the worst thing would be if she believed in things. Nicola has ideals and an agenda. The government has no money. That's a good recipe for conflict.
The quality of writing is exemplary, so it has been an absolute pleasure playing great scenes with amazing actors. You never forget the first time you get "Tuckered" – screamed at by Malcolm. But I found it strangely exhilarating. Peter Capaldi is one of the best actors I've ever worked with, and it's an honour to have him swear at me. And even better, I get to swear back.
Tucker's team: A who's who
Malcolm Tucker (Peter Capaldi)
The feared Downing Street enforcer and all-round attack dog is loosely based on Alastair Campbell, and the director of communications is the author of some spectacular foul-mouthed rants.
Ollie Reeder (Chris Addison)
So young yet so cynical, the special adviser to the Secretary of State is scorned by Malcolm Tucker for his Oxbridge education ('Brideshead Revisited' is one of his nicknames for him).
Glenn Cullen (James Smith)
The senior special adviser to the Secretary of State is a man with no interests outside of work. Nicola Murray thinks "he looks like he works in menswear at Selfridges... I can't think what to say to him."
Nicola Murray MP (Rebecca Front)
A surprise posting in a Cabinet reshuffle, Murray is such an obscure MP that Tucker doesn't even have a file on her. The newly appointed Secretary of State has some big ideas on social inclusivity.
Terri Coverley (Joanna Scanlan)
A civil servant notionally responsible for press relations at DoSAC – although her chores also include buying fruit salad for the incoming minister. Coverley is assumed to be good at her job because she was recruited from Waitrose, but is really after an easy life.
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