Looking Back At THE THICK OF IT - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Looking Back At THE THICK OF IT

Tony looks back on a golden age of political discourse…
Every now and then, Britain loves a great political sitcom.

We mention this because it has traditionally stood out in this respect. Most politically-based shows in the US have been dramas that have taken the ups and downs of politics very seriously (at least, they had done until after The Thick Of It).

In Britain, the corridors of ineptitude and occasional power had been gently if brilliantly skewed by Jonathan Lynn and Antony Jay with Yes, Minister, and its elevated sequel series, Yes, Prime Minister. A more anarchic, less realistic political satire had been a success for a post-Young Ones Rik Mayall when he starred as scorched-earth Thatcherite MP Alan B’Stard in The New Stateman (written by another impressive writing team, Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran).

Then in 2004 came a new kind of political satire. The Thick Of It would mix the general underpinnings of Yes, Minister – clueless ministers, Svengali advisers, a screw-up of the week and a look behind the doors of power – with a much less genteel, post-watershed attitude, and a style of candid filming familiar from the likes of The Office. Bearing in mind that Yes, Prime Minister had last been on-screen in 1987 and that a week is a long time in politics, The Thick Of It would be familiar on the one hand, but something totally new on the other.
From the beginning, both the similarities and the differences were obvious. Originally starring Chris Langham as Hugh Abbot, Minister at the Department of Social Affairs, the first two series have a lot of roots in Yes, Minister – a fact that’s understandable, as it was lead writer Armando Iannucci’s promotion of Yes, Minister in a Best British Sitcom Poll show that saw him given the money to make the first few episodes.

Abbot is practically a 21st century clone of Yes, Minister’s Jim Hacker – frequently clueless in government, but an experienced fighter for survival in party terms. The Department, too, like Jim Hacker’s Department of Administrative Affairs, has an overarching role, allowing the writing team to throw political footballs at the minister from practically every direction and watch him flail.

The filming style was expanded though, like The Office, and where Yes, Minister kept the action mostly tight with Hacker and his two leading civil servants, Sir Humphrey Appleby and Bernard Woolley, in Abbot’s department, we saw a lot more interaction between the staff that kept the modern minister afloat from breakfast till bedtime – initially including Senior Special Adviser Glenn Cullen (James Smith), Communications Director Terri Coverley (Joana Scanlon), and Junior Special Adviser Ollie Reeder (Chris Addison).

This was a reflection of the political and administrative changes from the days of Yes, Minister and Margaret Thatcher, when the Civil Service was seen as being the prime mover of governmental action, to the days of The Thick Of It and Tony Blair, when special advisers and spin doctors were the order of the day.

Ahhh, yes. The spin doctor. If you watched the show, you’re probably amazed we’ve got this far without mentioning HIM, aren’t you?
The phenomenon of unelected advisers with an undue amount of power was technically nothing new – in the 1970s, governments were advised by trade union officials. In the Thatcher era, by unelected economists. But the Blair era – the era of The Thick Of It – brought the role of the eminence grise firmly to the fore, with the likes of Peter Mandelson and Alistair Campbell kicking off a trend that in recent times has led us to marvel at the influence of Dominic Cummings and, in the US, Steve Bannon.

The Thick Of It’s leading spin doctor – technically working for Number 10, rather than for any individual department – was Malcolm Tucker, played in a towering, edge-of-the-seat crackle of nervous energy by Peter Capaldi. In the show, his role was to be the foul-mouthed Hand Of God, the diabolical consequence hanging over every slightest error, ready to descend on your head like a Mozart of profanity and rearrange your intestines till he wore them like a hat. It was a performance that was nationally captivating, and it gave us perhaps the greatest insight into the political age in which we lived – ministers chronically out of control, trying to survive from day to day under the Sword of Damocles that was Tucker.
When Chris Langham’s career more or less imploded under him for personal reasons, the third series of The Thick Of It replaced Abbot with Nicola Murray MP (played with much more life behind the eyes by eternal script-helper, Rebecca Front). This was another important difference about The Thick Of It, compared to the likes of Yes, Minister. In the earlier show, the core cast were maintained all the way through. In The Thick Of It, people – both ministers, advisers, and even spin doctors – could be kings and queens of their domain one day, and out on their ear the next, reflecting the reality of consequences in 21st century British politics.

With Murray, the wrath of God that was Malcolm Tucker was initially softened slightly, though there was still plenty of Scottish invective to throw around. While Murray was no great political operator, Front played her with enough of a pulse to see potential catastrophes coming down the line and sometimes manoeuvre herself out of their path – earning the vaguest glimmer of admiration from Tucker.

This kind of turnover of staff would go on to mark out The Thick Of It and keep it fresh. When Murray came in after a ‘reshuffle’ that explained Abbot’s removal, the Department itself was renamed the Department of Social Affairs and Citizenship – in a none too subtle swipe at the real-world government’s apparent move towards putting this idea at the centre of many of its initiatives.

Capaldi’s Tucker looked increasingly under strain throughout the course of the third series, with thorns in his side including a different spin doctor nipping at his heels (David Haig as the oily smile that was Steve Fleming), and a continuing conflict with Julius Nicholson, the always creepy, whispering Anti-Tucker, played with magnificent restraint by Alexander MacQueen. The battle for control of the levers of power showed how little is actually done or decided by those the public elects, and while we won’t tell you how the battle ended, it’s a thing of almost Shakespearean rises - and falls.
The fourth series reflected real-world reality even further – after calling an unwise election, Tucker is on the outs, while Nicola Murray has defeated popular leader-in-waiting Dan Miller to become the unlikely Leader of the Opposition (think Battle of the Milibands). That split the focus of the show between Murray and Tucker working tirelessly to regain power, and a Tory/Lib Dem coalition government filling cabinet roles, including at the Department of Social Affairs and Citizenship.

Heavy dramatic hitter Roger Allam stepped in as Senior Minister at DoSAC, Peter Mannion, constantly irked by Fergus Williams (Geoffrey Streatfeild), his junior partner. The switch not only showed the way real departments adapt to the changing political fortunes of the parties at elections, it allowed the writers to show yet a different style of political operative, with Mannion for the most part proving to be a shrewder operator than either of his predecessors in the office.

Almost mercilessly following real-world events, the final season also saw the wheels increasingly fall off Malcolm Tucker’s war wagon. Nicola Murray resigned over an engineered matter of conscience, and when a public servant ended up dead by suicide, Tucker found himself and his methods one of several subjects of an inquiry, akin to the real-life Leveson inquiry on the power and unrestrained abilities of the media and those who feed it.

Again, it would be criminal to spoil the ending for you, but Peter Capaldi gives one of the performances that illuminate his career at the end of the show. Commenting on the pressure and the strain on those who make the levers of politics work, and giving an admittedly self-justifying but nevertheless chilling statement to the inquiry on the state of our world, it’s an ending that’s up there with the “I’m as mad as hell and not going to take this anymore” speech from Network. In fact, it’s almost a version of that speech for the age of freedom of information.
Using an American-style writer’s room, and allowing the actors to ad-lib some of their performance to add a visceral reality to the show, The Thick Of It became much more than a political sitcom. It helped spread the desire for some similar shows in the US, and Iannucci would go on to write Veep in the same vein. Every major actor that stars in The Thick Of It came away with their careers enhanced, and across four series, it clued us in to the chaos, the cowardice, the viciousness and even, occasionally, the virtue that operates every day in what we still call the corridors of power.

The nature of politics is such that, just as The Thick Of It updated the political world of Yes, Minister, a mere nine years later, The Thick Of It could well be hopelessly outdated for all we on the outside of politics know.

But somehow, with leading strategists and advisers still making headlines and admitting there was chaos at the heart of government while they were there, rewatching The Thick Of It in 2021 still feels horribly relevant, as well as mercilessly, gloriously, breathtakingly funny.

Watch The Thick Of It today with a seven day free trial of BritBox.

Tony lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the 70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By day, he runs an editing house, largely as an excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book. With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk

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