The Weekend's Television: The Thick of It, Sat, BBC2
Ray Mears's Northern Wilderness, Sun, BBC2

Right back in the spin

It's an odd and often depressing business writing notes about a comedy show. When the comedy doesn't work you end up with a meagre stack of descriptive redundancies that are only there because you wanted to show willing.

If there wasn't anything noteworthy, after all, there shouldn't be any notes, but one likes a few straws to clutch at when you're attempting to convert a 30- minute waste of time into a three-inch waste of space. When the comedy is terrific, though, you scribble away like crazy but can often end up feeling like you've been putting butterflies into a killing jar. Your pinned collection of highlights lacks the very thing that made them catch your eye in the first place. Anyway, The Thick of It is back and is back in terrific form, and I tapped away furiously while watching it, slightly dazed by the fact that every other line seemed worth quoting. Now that I come to quote it, of course, some of the colour has gone, but believe me when I tell you that it's worth catching these things in the wild.

Wild is the operative word here, obviously, since everything in The Thick of It whirls around the gravitational pull of Malcolm Tucker's savagery. There are other good and reliable jokes in the show: the needling banter between Ollie and Glenn or the illusions, variously dimwitted or self-deluding, of the ministerial victims. But it's Malcolm who charges everything with electricity, even when he's not around. "Think of a thin white Mugabe," said someone, trying to prepare a novice for the shock of first encounter. And in Peter Capaldi's furiously paced performance well-written lines become something even better. On the page, "He's so dense that light bends around him" may not look that funny. On the ear, flicked aside lightly as if it's not even a punch-line, it's terrific. "I've got a to-do list here that's longer than a Leonard Cohen song," railed Malcolm, and you laugh partly because the metaphor is unexpected, but also because it's delightful to find that his spleen needs more raw material than he can actually find in front of him.

Rebecca Front plays the new minister, and plays her well, even if I found myself hankering just a little for an opponent that would give Malcolm a bit more of a run for his money. Perhaps that will come in later episodes, but for the moment the new incumbent is a fairly familiar cocktail of naivety and self-importance, and no match at all for Malcolm's five-moves ahead, street-fighting skills. Tucker, sensing a troubling residue of idealism in the new minister, gave her a brutal induction into the realities of promotion in a last-term government: "This is series 10 of the Big Breakfast," he hissed, "and you are the dinner lady they've asked to come and do the show." And then, to ensure her dependency and compliance, he dispatched her for a bit of local electioneering, carefully directing the photo call so that the candidate's name was trimmed by her shoulder into a mortifying caption. Staggering away from this carefully engineered public-relations fiasco, the minister is forced to cave in on her principled insistence that her daughter would be moving to a fee-paying school, thus preserving the party from the implication that the schools it has worked so hard to improve are all – as Malcolm furiously puts it – "knife-addled rape sheds".

The gearwork of the plot is beautifully articulated, but again and again it's the invention of the language that knocks a laugh out of you. There are great insults, of course ("You look like you've shat a Lego garage", "Have you been asleep in a box of straw like a Blue Peter tortoise?!" ), but also lines that take four words to get 40 words of description across. Warning the minister that she was about to walk into a media feeding frenzy, Malcolm told her, "They'll be all over you – like a pigeon on a chip." And Capaldi lets you know with the delivery that he hates pigeons, chips and novice ministers with equal intensity.

Ray Mears is everything that Malcolm is not – gentle, incorrigibly romantic about nature and perfectly happy when there's no human to torment (or even talk to) within a radius of a 100 miles. In Ray Mears's Northern Wilderness, he wanders around Canada's Boreal Forest, rhapsodising over sphagnum mosses and learning how to make doilies out of birch bark (I'm not making the last bit up). "You know you needn't fear the forest," he said reassuringly, but then – rather unhelpfully – he pointed out the bear claw marks on a nearby tree and a little pile of wolf poo, densely packed with the fur of some small creature that wasn't carrying a handgun. It's not the forest I'm frightened of, Ray. It's the hungry things wandering around inside it. Very soothing programme, but I think I'd still rather take my chances in Whitehall.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Novelist Martin Amis at The Times Cheltenham Literature Festival

books
Arts and Entertainment
Alfred Molina, left, and John Lithgow in a scene from 'Love Is Strange'

After giving gay film R-rating despite no sex or violence

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Williams will be given a 'meaningful remembrance' at the Emmy Awards

film
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Arctic Monkeys headline this year's Reading and Leeds festivals, but there's a whole host of other bands to check out too
music
Arts and Entertainment
Blue singer Simon Webbe will be confirmed for Strictly Come Dancing

tv
Arts and Entertainment
'The Great British Bake Off' showcases food at its most sumptuous
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Cliff Richard performs at the Ziggo Dome in Amsterdam on 17 May 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Educating the East End returns to Channel 4 this autumn

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch will voice Shere Khan in Andy Serkis' movie take on The Jungle Book

film
Arts and Entertainment
DJ Calvin Harris performs at the iHeartRadio Music Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush

music
Arts and Entertainment
From left to right: Mark Crown, DJ Locksmith and Amir Amor of Rudimental performing on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park, Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Capaldi and Chris Addison star in political comedy The Thick of IT

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judy Murray said she

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Seoul singer G-Dragon could lead the invasion as South Korea has its sights set on Western markets
music
Arts and Entertainment
Gary Lineker at the UK Premiere of 'The Hunger Games: Catching Fire'
tv
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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.

    Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

    Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

    The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
    Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

    Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

    A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
    Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

    Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

    Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
    Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

    Nick Clegg the movie

    Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
    Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

    Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

    Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
    Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

    Waxing lyrical

    Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
    Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

    Revealed (to the minute)

    The precise time when impressionism was born
    From slow-roasted to sugar-cured: how to make the most of the British tomato season

    Make the most of British tomatoes

    The British crop is at its tastiest and most abundant. Sudi Pigott shares her favourite recipes
    10 best men's skincare products

    Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

    Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
    Malky Mackay allegations: Malky Mackay, Iain Moody and another grim day for English football

    Mackay, Moody and another grim day for English football

    The latest shocking claims do nothing to dispel the image that some in the game on these shores exist in a time warp, laments Sam Wallace
    La Liga analysis: Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

    Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

    Pete Jenson starts his preview of the Spanish season, which begins on Saturday, by explaining how Fifa’s transfer ban will affect the Catalans
    Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
    Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

    Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

    Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
    Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
    Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

    Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

    Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape