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The Thick of It: first as tragedy, then as farce

Armando Iannucci’s political sitcom has little profound to say about our bankrupt politics, but it is very funny.

David Bowden

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‘Milton! Thou shouldst be living at this hour. England hath need of thee.’ William Wordsworth’s plea has never had more resonance than in Britain in 2012, as press freedom has come under attack with the Leveson Inquiry. Sorry though, Bill: principled free-speech defender John Milton wasn’t coming back then and he isn’t now. Malcolm Tucker has returned to our screens though, as Peter Capaldi’s notoriously foul-mouthed spin doctor popped up in the new series of hit political satire, The Thick of It.

There has been much anticipation to see how lead writer Armando Iannucci would adapt the show to the changed political landscape. The Thick of It began life back in 2005 as a savagely funny take on the already ailing New Labour government, with hapless ideas-lite ministers almost literally falling over themselves as they surrendered authority and leadership to the demands of image-obsessed spinners and misplaced political egos. Closely mirroring contemporary events (it even employed recently sacked civil servant Martin Sixsmith as an adviser), the show offered the perfect combination of political bite and broad office-based comedy that Ricky Gervais quickly abandoned for everyman jokes about hanging out with new Hollywood pal, Bobby De Niro.

Of course, following the end of the last series in 2009, the world changed. New Labour were kicked out of office, with the standout image being Gordon Brown’s ‘bigotgate’ gaffe, and was replaced with a coalition government of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. Iannucci and his team, which includes a writer whose sole job was to devise surreal and filthy insults for Tucker’s hilarious tirades, were faced with a challenge familiar to long-running shows. Did they keep their familiar cast and risk slipping into self-reflective complacency (who cares about satirising the shenanigans of the Opposition?) or take a bold leap into the unknown?

It was not the first time the show had faced a problem: its only genuine star when it started, Chris Langham, notoriously had to be jettisoned swiftly following the actor’s imprisonment for possessing child pornography. Indeed, it’s easy to forget that the 2009 series was only its second set of six episodes, the franchise being continued in Langham’s absence through one-off specials and a feature film with half an eye for rebooting it for an American audience, In The Loop. For a show which derives much of its humour from the frenetic activity of people who believe their job depends on the next day’s headline, The Thick of It is an extremely well-crafted and lovingly put together show. It’s tempting to call it old-fashioned but, frankly, nobody with a film camera has been granted this much languor since the heady days of Charlie Chaplin.

In the end, Iannucci opted to start with the new government, leaving our reintroduction to Tucker and friends till episode two. So the series started with Conservative minister Peter Mannion (kindly and principled, but somewhat out of touch with modern multi-racial, banker-bashing Britain) and his team, having been foreshadowed in previous shows, but with entirely new Lib Dem partners (nicknamed ‘the Inbetweeners’ for their youthful naivety). In last week’s episode, we left them entirely to rejoin the familiar faces in the Labour camp, as they adapted to life without the trappings of power but with no particular desire to take the time in the shadow Cabinet to have a good think about politics, ideas and the like.

While dramatically it has been bold and jarring, then, its targets have a smooth continuation. Mannion’s team have a softly spoken hippyish spin doctor steeped in management consultant speak rather than Tucker’s Glaswegian street-fighting bile. But Iannucci’s central theme that politicians are often decent and ordinary people exposed to and utterly prepared for the impossible pressures in public office remains the same. The coalition is treated much like a company merger, with unseemly squabbling over job titles, offices and how precisely credit and blame gets shared. Similarly, while ex-minister Nicola Murray has been a somewhat unlikely elevation to party leader, the joke that these people – with the pomposity and vanity of living in ‘the thick of it’ – really have as little power as they have a clue has been cruelly extended but not profoundly changed.

All perfectly accurate satire, no doubt, as political parties increasingly become hollowed-out shells more concerned with managing their brand and utilising the managerial pronouncements of behavioural economics to generate policy. Yet there also more subtle problems afoot. The current government, after a series of high-profile bungled policy announcements, have been widely denounced as an ‘omnishambles’, a line coined by the show. The people doing the name-calling, however, are the same ones who were originally being attacked by the term. When youthful junior Treasury minister Chloe Smith made an appearance on Newsnight earlier this year, widely regarded as disastrous, the first point of reference came from a fictionalised parallel on The Thick of It.

Such is the eternal dilemma of the satirist, feared yet always powerless. Iannucci, who publicly backed the Lib Dems in 2010, is no great radical himself; for all its modern foul language and witty absurdism, The Thick of It is farcical rather than a devastating critique. Alastair Campbell, clearly rattled by his fictionalised counterpart Tucker, made a misjudged attempt to accuse Iannucci of hypocrisy for accepting an OBE earlier this year, overlooking a general absence of principled republicanism.

More alarmingly, though, it was the media who really got it in the neck in the opening two episodes. The Thick of It was never particularly enamoured of the media before, perhaps out of a healthy distrust of how elected representatives were surrendering their power to unelected journos and their press officers. Ultimately, however, they were there to keep these bungling politicos in check. Yet in the first two episodes, the media appeared only as a stalking mob, door-stepping MPs as they popped home for an anniversary lunch and viciously leaping on unfortunate announcements.

In the wake of Leveson, I’m not sure this is going to cut it as satire. The Thick of It was as funny as ever on its return and, of course, it is early on in new uncharted waters. But you start to wonder whether Iannucci, who abandoned a PhD on Milton to pursue his successful career in comedy, should maybe go back to school.

David Bowden is spiked’s TV columnist. He is chairing a Battle Satellite on Riots and revolutions: Europe’s young radicals? at London’s Foyles Charing Cross Road on Monday 8 October.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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