No, Minister

Armando Iannucci's new satire savages the world of political spin. James Rampton meets up with the cast on set
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The Independent Online

Cliff Lawton, the Minister for Social Affairs, has turned up for work to discover that Malcolm Tucker, the spin doctor at Number 10, is already waiting in his office.

Cliff Lawton, the Minister for Social Affairs, has turned up for work to discover that Malcolm Tucker, the spin doctor at Number 10, is already waiting in his office.

Lawton's right to be afraid. Tucker tells him that even though he and the Prime Minister like the Minister personally, the constant drip-drip of negative headlines about him - the morning's Daily Mail lead reads "Lawton Hangs By a Thread" - is making the Government look weak. "And you don't want us to look weak, right?" Tucker says with quiet menace. "I've made the announcement," he continues with barely suppressed aggression. "I've told the lobby you're going. I've booked you in for the usual soapy tit-wank farewell at Number 10 in 20 minutes. I've also drafted a letter of resignation. Gives you the chance to say that you are jumping before you were pushed, although obviously we're briefing that you were pushed." Tucker adds a curt and sarcastic "sorry" and, before Lawton can murmur "spending more time with my family," he's out on his ear.

To the casual observer, the exchange might appear to be an astonishing behind-the-scenes glimpse into the back-stabbing world of contemporary politics. It's something of a relief, then, that the brutal conversation which I have just witnessed has been uttered not by the political ghouls that surround cabinet ministers, but by actors sitting in an office in a purpose-built set in west London. Lawton and Tucker are characters in a coruscating new political satire, The Thick of It. And in a week of reshuffles and resignations across the political spectrum; the new series, conceived and directed by the satirist Armando Iannucci, could scarcely be more topical.

Headphones clamped to his ears, Iannucci is clearly in his element. He dashes between actors, editing script drafts and working up new ideas. A master of reality comedy, Iannucci has insisted on improvising at least 20 per cent of the dialogue to give it more authenticity. And the action has the air of spontaneity and borderline chaos that makes it seem very life-like - an impression confirmed by the presence of Martin Sixsmith, the former government director of communications as an adviser.

The Thick of It exposes the often infantile behaviour of the adults who rule us. The drama pivots on the attritional, expletive-laden tussles over presentation that are waged between the formidable Tucker (played by Peter Capaldi) and Hugh Abbot (a splendidly dithering Chris Langham), the terminally vacillating Minister who has replaced Lawton at Social Affairs. And the timing of the show, which airs this week, couldn't be better.

Adam Tandy, the producer of The Thick of It who has worked with Iannucci for the past decade, reflects that "everybody has to live with spin these days. Politicians are supposed to be above reproach, and yet they're using the same techniques as admen would use to sell us toothpaste. We feel tricked - and that's what makes us so cross about spin."

We may all be cross about spin, but it nevertheless offers rich terrain for satire. Over the past 15 years Iannucci has produced and starred in many of the landmark shows of British comedy: On the Hour, The Day Today, Knowing Me, Knowing You and I'm Alan Partridge. Over lunch, he tells me that "spin is about making things real that aren't real. I love the twisted knots of logic that gets politicians into. At the end of the first episode, Abbot's team are all frantically ringing the press to say 'you know that announcement we were going to make today, but didn't? Well, in fact we did make it'." Abbot is heard telling a journalist plaintively: "I didn't say that we weren't doing it, which is as good as saying that we were."

Iannucci explains that the great thing about spin doctors is how often they get it wrong. "Remember when John Kerry marched on stage at the Democrat Convention, saluted and said, 'I'm reporting for duty'? To me, that was like when Neil Kinnock yelped 'we're all right' at that Sheffield rally in 1992, the moment he lost control of the campaign. Kerry clearly did that salute because some spin doctor had told him 'this would be a really good idea'."

The humour of the series derives largely from the idea that people who think they're masters of all they survey are in fact hopelessly at the mercy of what the Conservative Prime Minister Harold Macmillan once called "events, dear boy, events".

According to Langham, "the characters in The Thick of It may think they're in control of everything, but basically everything is spinning out of control, and their attempts to impose order is like trying to herd cats."

"It's about how government, rather than one particular party works," Iannucci stresses. "The Tory aim is to ape the Blair machine. If they were in power, they'd be exactly the same, with a daily grid pinning ministers down and not allowing anyone to go off-message. Even the Lib Dems have been talking about something called 'tough liberalism'." Like the poor, spin will always be with us. "The latest spin is that there is no spin," Iannucci snorts.

The series also reflects the general sense of disillusionment with politics. "Spin has poisoned our attitude towards politicians," Tandy argues. "There was once a reason for spin; politicians found themselves in a position where if they said the wrong thing, it was jumped on and could be used against them.

"So they had to make sure they never said the wrong thing. But now it's got to the point where the electorate never believes what politicians say, which obviously defeats the object. The first assumption now when we hear a politician talking is often 'you're lying, aren't you?'"

For all that, The Thick of It is not designed as a show exclusively for political anoraks and policy wonks. "At first I was quite insecure about doing this," says Langham, "because I thought I didn't know enough about the ins and outs of politics and didn't follow the Blair-Brown feud closely enough. But then I realised that what this series comes down to is humans with hopes and a little bit of dignity. They pin their hopes on something happening and then are disappointed when it doesn't or are proud when it does. Those are human traits rather than political traits."

So what do the producers of The Thick of It think the show will achieve? "We certainly don't want to morally improve people," Tandy smiles.

"But if we can peer through a small chink in the bullet-proof windows of Westminster and allow people to look at the lives of politicians and their appointed advisers and see that they're desperate people in the midst of a situation they can never hope to control and that a state of panic is how the country is often run, then maybe it will have been worthwhile."

Langham draws a similar conclusion. "You feel that if the spin machine didn't work so well, we'd have better government. If principled politicians weren't having to compromise to please publicists, wouldn't we have a more morally acceptable political landscape?"

So, does the relentlessness of the spin culture every get even satirists down? "Occasionally," Iannucci admits, "but it doesn't depress me that much because every time I hear the latest outrageous piece of spin, I think, 'oh good, that'll keep me in material for the next year.' It does have an up side."

'The Thick of It' starts on BBC4 on 19 May. Armando Iannucci's 'Charm Offensive' begins on Radio4 on 18 May.

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