‘Curses were a currency’: The Thick of It cast and creators look back on the scathing sitcom as it turns 15

The comedy that gave us Malcolm Tucker was funny because it was true, but for politicians it was harrowing, says Ed Cumming. He speaks to Armando Iannucci, Peter Capaldi, Rebecca Front, Chris Addison and others about marzipan dildos, loudmouth spads, and ministers with no status or power

Friday 15 May 2020 15:06
‘Armando was immensely creative and clever in the way he made the show,’ says Capaldi
‘Armando was immensely creative and clever in the way he made the show,’ says Capaldi

n 2004, the writer and producer Armando Iannucci appeared in the BBC’s Britain’s Best Sitcom campaign to make the case for Yes Minister, Antony Jay’s comedy about a naive MP whose plans are confounded by his cynical mandarin Sir Humphrey. Researching his argument, Iannucci saw a gap for a new programme that addressed contemporary politics.

“This was the height of Blairism and the dynamic had changed,” he says. “It was no longer about the civil servants stopping the minister from doing anything. This was more about ministers being completely drained of any personal power, and everything being controlled from Number 10.”

So was born The Thick of It, a comedy so attuned to the chaos of British politics that it would be routinely described as documentary. It won Baftas, spawned an Oscar-nominated film and now, 15 years since it premiered, consistently features in lists of our greatest sitcoms. It was funny because it was funny, and it was also funny because it was true, except if you were a politician, in which case it was harrowing. It created the word omnishambles, which has since entered the everyday political lexicon.

“I didn’t want to show crooks or criminals,” Iannucci says. “Our eyes and ears would be the minister, and Malcolm Tucker would be the enforcer figure who came in from outside and spoilt everyone’s fun. Most episodes of The Thick of It are about how something small happens but it is made worse by the attempt to prevent that small error getting out.”

He took the idea to the BBC Four controller Roly Keating, who gave him “about £100,000” to shoot a pilot. Iannucci decided that he couldn’t show what he wanted in one episode, but that if he stretched the budget he could shoot three half-hour episodes in the same time. He asked Jesse Armstrong, Tony Roche and Simon Blackwell to draft the scripts and set about finding his cast.

“My casting director Sarah [Crowe] had seen Peter Capaldi in a Fleet Street play [Feelgood, by Max Stafford-Clark] and suggested we meet him,” he says. “I was a bit surprised because I’d always thought of Peter as quite an affable type, probably because I still remembered things like [Bill Forsyth’s 1983 film] Local Hero.”

They caught the Scottish actor in the right frame of mind.

“I was fed up,” Capaldi says. “I’d had another audition in the morning – ironically enough to play an MP – and they’d made me wait around and go on tape for a part I could have spat out in my sleep. I was 47 years old, still trailing round trying to get these jobs, and angry about having to jump through these hoops. You get tired of the lack of confidence that’s shown in you. By the time I met Armando and Adam [Tandy, the producer] I was keen for them to prove their worth to me as opposed to the other way round. By the time I got there, I couldn’t care less whether I got it or not. When you’re an actor you carry round a briefcase full of hope, but when I went in I had a heart of sourness.”

Iannucci asked him to improvise the scene that became the opening of the first episode, in which Tucker sacks a minister, gently at first but then turning vicious when the minister tries to resist.

“I hate improvisation,” says Capaldi. “I had no idea about how a spin doctor sacked an MP, but really it’s a comic kind of circling, energised by a power struggle, because obviously the minister felt he had status and power, but he was wrong.”

Capaldi, who played the snarling Malcolm Tucker, admits he ‘hates improvisation’

In Iannucci’s mind Tucker hadn’t been Scottish, but the moment Capaldi turned on the minister in the improvisation, he and Crowe knew they had their man. In this snarling, lupine vision of an adviser, one of the great TV characters was created.

“After Peter did his session we were like, ‘That’s it,’ Crowe says. “We were pretty excited. One of the great things about Armando as a showrunner is he has a clear vision and is very decisive. He described himself recently as a ‘benign dictator’, which is probably why he is so good to work with.”

Iannucci cast Chris Langham as the minister, Hugh Abbot, on the basis of Langham’s performance as George Orwell in a BBC docudrama the year before. He says: “Chris had the right slightly battered demeanour and face for someone who’d been in the game for 20 years and was getting their first taste of power.”

The rest of the cast fell into place over the final months of 2004, the roles based on Iannucci’s conversations with people in politics.

“I wanted to know who was actually in the room,” he says. “There would be the senior civil servant, who’s a non-political appointment [Joanna Scanlan as Terri Coverley]. Then there’s the minister’s old friend and former agent, who’s a kind of chief of staff [James Smith as Glenn Cullen]. The revelation was that there’ll be this adviser, a 21-year old with a degree, who’s coming up with health policy all of a sudden.” For his boyish spad Ollie Reeder, Iannucci turned to Chris Addison, a stand-up with no acting experience.

Chris Addison was cast as a young adviser despite having no acting experience

“The others were all proper actors,” Addison says. “I remember sitting around the table in the rehearsal room and everyone was talking about their characters in the first person, and I thought, ‘I’ve got to take this on.’ But I didn’t really. There was a moment when I thought, ‘Ollie’s quite callow, he’s more eager than his competence ought to allow him to be, he’s a bit loudmouth and gauche – he’s me!’ It wasn’t a stretch.”

Scanlan based Terri on former colleagues at the Arts Council of Great Britain. “When I worked there I was really aware of the difference between the people there who were absolutely about the arts, and the others who just didn’t care.” She also drew on her experience as a hired focus group participant, pretending to be different people from day to day, which became the plot of the second episode.

“It was a very fortunate gathering of people at a certain time in their lives,” says Capaldi. “But I think what most of us would say is that Armando was immensely creative and clever in the way he made the show. Filmmaking is an old-fashioned kind of process. The way things are filmed today is not that different from the way Chaplin would have filmed it. Armando didn’t work that way at all. We shot with two cameras on zoom lenses, so you couldn’t tell whether you were full figure or tight on your eyes, and they could move between those images. He would plant grenades and bombs in the script. If you go back there is so much detail in them. In one of the later episodes Malcolm’s not at work because he has become the story, and there’s a man at home with him. It’s never said in the script, but I thought it was saying Malcolm was in AA and this was the AA buddy who would show up in desperate situations to keep him off the demon drink.”

The shooting process was fast and improvisational, often rewritten up to the last minute, shot using two handheld cameras and radio mics, so the cast could continue to improvise out of shot or in another room. No heed was paid to continuity. An hour’s worth would be cut back to 25 minutes, with the favourite five minutes of cut material readded afterwards. Scripts were sent to Ian Martin, a comedy writer from Lancashire tasked with making the swearing more creative. “His marks would be in red, so we’d scour the scripts for them when they came back,” Iannucci says. “His first one was, ‘He’s as useless as a marzipan dildo,’ which is at the start of the first episode.” Curses were a currency. In order to get a “c***” past the BBC, they had to row back on a few f***s. Capaldi would use “f***ing” as a holding word rather than um or ah, so scripts would be “de-f***ed” in advance.

“It was about 80 per cent script and 20 per cent improvisation,” says Blackwell. “Most episodes started with a three-act structure and then we’d try to hide it a bit to create the illusion of reality. We wanted the viewer to feel ‘in the thick of it’. The shooting and editing style, allowing ourselves jump cuts, meant we could pack it with story and incident and gags and plot. It’s not a show you could watch and tweet about at the same time. Sam [Bain] and Jesse do something similar with Peep Show.”

Rebecca Front, who played Nicola Murray MP, says it was ‘nerve-wracking’ joining the show 

The director of photography, Jamie Cairney, says Iannucci’s vision was clear from the start. “He and I watched the film Festen, which had been made according to Lars von Trier’s Dogme 95 chastity rules,” he says. “You’re not supposed to use music, or film and TV lighting, you’re supposed to shoot entirely in script order, using real locations. It was exciting. I was keen to push the boundaries and enhance what was a great script. I had come from documentary, and this messy style went against all our instincts as professional camera people. In the first few days, Armando would keep saying, ‘You’re being too good, it needs to feel more messy.’ He wanted it to feel like it was just being caught, as if the crew had walked into the room.

“There was a backlash from the community,” he adds. “One former BBC colleague wrote a letter to the Radio Times complaining about it. Some people said we were belittling the art of camerawork. They thought it was an insult to documentary rather than the vérité feel we were going for.”

The improvisation was invigorating but could be stressful, too, when scenes would be allowed to run and run, in one case for 39 minutes. Terri was the only woman, as well as being the civil servant charged with pouring cold water on the men’s ideas, so was a target for lots of the aggression.

“It was intensely creative but there were also very high levels of concentration and intensity,” Scanlan says. “One time it went too far. I said, ‘That’s my boundary. I’m not going to have that.’ I was really upset. Armando was very understanding. The other thing about the first series was that as the only woman, I had to have a lot more time spent on how I looked. Men would shave, put on a suit and go out to the set, where they could start petitioning for their own ideas about what should happen. Everything was up for grabs, but I could never get in there because I was stuck in the bloody make-up chair. Much as I loved it, it was still really frustrating. There was an element that was true in the show, but also in real life, of [how] women having to pay attention to their appearance detracts from the amount of time they have left to do the business.”

Rebecca Front, whose character Nicola Murray MP replaced Hugh Abbot, agrees. “When you’re improvising [but] not on set there are blurred lines. On one occasion Peter as Malcolm was having a pop at a pair of boots I was wearing, and said, ‘What the f*** are those? You’re not a f***ing cowgirl.’ And I was like, ‘They’re actually mine.’”

‘The Thick of It’ received rave reviews from the start

Three episodes on BBC Four led to another three, which meant six could be sold to BBC Two in the corporation’s internal market. The reviews were brilliant. AA Gill wrote that “Tony Blair is never going to say this is his favourite TV show – unless a focus group tells him to, of course”. Nancy Banks-Smith, in The Guardian, said it was the kind of programme that would get you a seat on the Tube because “if you thought about it, you started to laugh”. The audience started to grow.

“It was also the start of iPlayer and highlights going up on YouTube,” says Iannucci. “We were getting into that time where there’s an afterlife of television after its transmission date. By the time it came back for the later episodes we had a bit more money and could get out of the office. The cast were a bit more famous, too, so that had to be accommodated.” Nevertheless, the aggregate budget for every The Thick of It episode was reportedly less than the pilot for HBO’s Veep, a kind of beefed-up The Thick of It made by the same team and starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus.

As the series expanded in scope, new characters were added. In November 2005, Chris Langham was arrested on child pornography charges. Two specials were made, which danced around his absence and introduced an opposition MP, Peter Mannion (Roger Allam). “Armando to his credit said the justice system had to make its decision, which is exactly right,” says Addison, “but the justice system was slow to make its decision. They’re odd, those episodes, because Malcolm no longer has something balancing him.” After Langham was convicted, Nicola Murray was introduced.

“It can be nerve-wracking joining an existing thing,” Front says. “But I had time to go off and research the part. One of the people I spoke to told me about the expectation that women in power would wear high heels in the office, but she said, ‘Oh no, we all keep trainers under the desk.’ And I asked what would make a minister a nightmare for someone like Malcolm, and they said, ‘If she believed in stuff.’ I don’t know that they were joking. I came away with less respect for politicians but more empathy.”

“I decided quickly that it wouldn’t be funny if Nicola was scared, it would just be, ‘Malcolm bullies a woman,’” she adds. “If she starts crying, it’s not a comedy. If she stands up and tries to Malcolm him, that’s funny.”

Armando Iannucci wanted the show to be the ‘funniest thing on TV’

A film, In the Loop, followed, using many of the same cast and characters, with the addition of Tom Hollander as the secretary of state for international development and James Gandolfini as a US general. “The Iraq War was part of the emotional impulse for The Thick of It,” says Iannucci. “How something so monumentally stupid could happen when you had a leader with a big majority, even if everyone knew how stupid it was. So I thought, ‘Why don’t we actually hold it up to the light.’ We had an amazing cast, but fundamentally it was quite a low-budget BBC Films [movie]. I hadn’t quite expected to end up at the Oscars in a stretch limo (it was nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay).”

In the Loop contains two of Simon Blackwell’s favourite jokes. He says: “I really like ‘Shut it, Love Actually!’, which Jamie says to Toby (Chris Addison’s character, an Ollie Reeder analogue), because it’s an insult without swearing. And Tom Hollander’s line ‘difficult difficult lemon difficult’, which shouldn’t work, because it ought to be “difficult pifficult lemon squifficult​”, but does.”

Through the later series, the pressure of being Malcolm started to wear on Capaldi.

“It becomes harder because everybody who joins the show decides they have to attack you,” he says. “That became exhausting, having to defend that territory, because people would think I’m going to top him. It’s ironic because it looks the other way round, that Malcolm is attacking them. The Thick of It has a potent gladiatorial kind of culture, where the best jokes rise to the top, so for me personally it was exhausting. I loved it but most things start to calcify. Malcolm had started to become a ‘thing’ where certain boxes had to be ticked. You reach a point with any TV character where people just want you to do that thing you do.”

Iannucci agrees. “It’s good to stop when you feel you could do another series,” he says. “I’m glad we got Malcolm’s live on-air crumble.” The final episode, a Leveson-style public enquiry in 2012, saw Tucker finally exposed. It felt like the end of an era, but in hindsight The Thick of It increasingly looks like a quaint documentary about a high-point of trust in British politicians.

“There was the facade of competent government, and behind it was the chaos,” says Blackwell. “You needed the facade to facilitate the comedy. But the facade fell away in 2016. People have asked if we would do a Brexit programme, and maybe there’s a version where you’re following the civil servants in the negotiations. I’m glad people say they still stand up comedically, because 15 years is a long time in comedy. We weren’t trying to make a comment. We were just asking, ‘How can we make this the funniest thing on TV?’ Everything else was a bonus.”

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