Happy to be back in The Thick of It

As the BBC's political satire returns, actress Rebecca Front tells Nick Clark how she deals with being 'Tuckered' and what's in store as the series sinks its teeth into coalition government

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With a budgetary omnishambles giving way to pastygate, politicians with bells left with red faces during public events to even redder faces on Newsnight, British viewers may be forgiven for thinking The Thick of It had never been away.

Yet, when Parliament returns from its summer recess, so too will the acerbic Westminster satire after a three-year hiatus.

Rebecca Front, who plays hapless MP Nicola Murray, said: "The jokes write themselves in political terms," adding: "The writers are so in tune with the vicissitudes of political life, that often politics follows storylines we have done."

The show cannot be reactive, she said, as it is filmed months in advance. "Instead it looks at the political landscape and satirises a broader picture." While much has been kept under wraps, season four will get its teeth into a coalition government.

After a season as Secretary of State for the fictional Department of Social Affairs and Citizenship, dubbed DoSAC, Murray is now in Opposition scheming, along with foul-mouthed spin doctor Malcolm Tucker, to get back into power. "I was only too delighted that the show is covering the Opposition," Front said. "This is a bonus for me; I thought we might not be in it at all."

The Thick of It has been hailed alongside Yes Minister as one of the great political TV satires produced in the UK. It has twice picked up the Bafta for best sitcom. In 2010, Front and Peter Capaldi, who plays Tucker, won Baftas for best male and female performers in a comedy.

Front said the reason it works is the "claustrophobic" nature of politics. "Westminster really is a village; it's completely up itself and self-referential. That really works in comedy terms because these people are solely obsessed by the thinking: 'How will this play and how will I look? Will the other guy look worse than me?' There's a lot of that in the next series."

Despite the venal view of politics, those working in Westminster have told Front it is actually "a fairly gentle portrayal. That's when you think: 'My God, these people are really up against it. No wonder they're behaving like idiots'."

She even admits that while the programme has made her more cynical, "I'm also more sympathetic". During Tory minister Chloe Smith's recent car crash interview with Jeremy Paxman, "I groaned all the way through, because I could imagine it being Nicola Murray. I thought: 'Oh that poor woman, this is agony.' I found it funny afterwards. She is a government minister, and should have done better."

The major reactive nod to events, Front said, is the next series' own Leveson-style inquiry. Front said she did not see as much of the inquiry into press ethics as she would have liked, but was "riveted" when not filming by some of those called to give evidence. "It's as big a draw as Wimbledon," she said, and revealed she was a fan of Robert Jay QC.

Front is a veteran of the satire circuit and had an association with the Thick of It creator Armando Iannucci from her early days of radio and television comedy. They worked on Radio 4's satirical news show On The Hour in 1991, which was adapted for television as The Day Today several years later, and Knowing Me, Knowing You with Alan Partridge. The pair had been contemporaries at Oxford, although were not friends at the time.

The satire first tore on to British screens in 2005 on BBC4. Iannucci said at the time he wanted to show politics as "rough and messy, slightly improvised and realistic" and developed it in response to a series of studied political dramas.

He invited Front to join the third season in 2009 as the new minister for DoSAC. While she was "ridiculously excited" by the offer, Front said: "I'd watched the show since the beginning and there was a great sense of trepidation going into a fairly visible role in something you already love." On her first day, her husband waved her off with the encouraging words "Please don't balls this up. It's my favourite show."

Before the character even had a name, she experienced a verbal volley from Malcolm Tucker. "Armando asked us to improvise. Peter, this nice gentle man, stood up and suddenly turned into Malcolm. It was terrifying."

Yet being "Tuckered" as the cast call it, is a particular pleasure for Front. "Peter is one of the best actors I've ever worked with, he's extraordinary. There's a real pleasure in having a scene where you're being screamed at by somebody who's a fantastic actor."

Returning for the fourth season as an established character "means it's less scary going in this time round". She added: "Nicola Murray is a dream character, I would be delighted to carry on playing her until she goes into some sort of politicians' retirement home or goes mad. Or both."

She defended Iannucci, who was recently criticised by Alastair Campbell, who Tucker is believed to be based on, for accepting an OBE. "It's not like he's taking a seat in the House of Lords or been conferred with a superpower. Someone said: 'We like your work,' and he said: 'Thank you.' I don't see what all the fuss is about. Maybe because he's my mate."

Front has found regular comedy work since starting out in the industry, with one-off appearances to series including Al Murray's Time Gentlemen Please, to Nighty Night, The Catherine Tate Show and more recently Just William and Grandma's House with Simon Amstell. She has also taken on serious roles, most notably that of Chief Superintendent Jean Innocent in Lewis.

Currently, Front is shooting a new comedy, The Spa, for Sky Living written by Derren Litten, who also wrote comedy-drama series Benidorm. "It's a bit of a departure for me, it's very much a mainstream broad comedy."

While she appears regularly on topical news shows such as Have I Got News for You and Radio 4's The News Quiz, she sees herself "not as a comedian, but as an actor who does a bit of chat".