Whitehall / White Heat: The Thick Of It

May 15, 2005

Written and directed by Armando Iannucci, The Thick of It is simply the most incisive political satire since Yes Minister, but, beyond the Westminster setting, has little in common with that illustrious forbear. Where Yes Minister was a smooth, elegant piece about the relationship between transient politicians and the eternal civil service, this is a frenetic, whirling, jagged thing, about the government and the media – a rabid, two-headed beast, forever Spinning around, with each end wagging, and trying to bite, the other.

The series centres on a bewildered politician, Hugh Abbot (Chris Langham, of the languorously gangly frame and great, sallow, why-the-long face), but it opens with a scene detailing how Abbot’s predecessor at the fictional Ministry of Social Affairs loses his job, which sets the tone.

This doomed Minister, Cliff Lawton, is alarmed to be unexpectedly visited by Number 10’s infamous advisor Malcolm Tucker (Peter Capaldi). There have been rumours in the press that Lawton is about to be sacked. Tucker is here to reassure him that he has the Prime Minister’s full support. But, of course, now the rumours are out, the PM would look weak if he didn‘t sack him. So Tucker is giving Lawton the opportunity to resign. Although, when he does, they’ll make sure everyone knows that he jumped before he was pushed.

Logic swallows itself repeatedly. Parachuted in to the Ministry, Hugh Abbot plans to make his mark with a new policy, an anti-Benefit-Fraud force. Shortly after leaking the news, he receives a scalding rocket from Tucker, ordering the idea scrapped, leading to a press conference in which Abbot announces  he has nothing to announce.

To prepare for the role of Tucker, Peter Capaldi seems to have gone to a crossroads somewhere and sold his soul. This furious, foul-mouthed creature is entirely unprecedented in his career. The Mephistophelean model is, of course, Alastair Campbell, but Capaldi makes Tucker his own. With fixed, dead eyes running a matrix of calculations, he moves into scenes like a shark, appearing so suddenly you expect a puff of smoke. Rigid and spitting, he’s a furious, switched-on 1; Langham, a lugubrious, burned-out 0. Together, they are the show’s binary code.

Shot on nosing, hand-held cameras, The Thick of It visually resembles The Office, but has a freer, nervier, paranoiac pace. As characters ricochet between smug self-congratulation and utter panic, conjuring policy on the hoof (“what if everybody had to carry a plastic bag?”), Iannucci encourages improvisation, and the cameras scrabble to keep up. For all this looseness, though, it is rigorously honed.

The dialogue is littered with Iannucci’s trademark, absurd distortions of language (the name of Abbot’s planned fraud outfit changes every time it’s mentioned, mutating from “Scambusters” to “Sponge Avengers”) but, with this cast, the lines flow without stopping to congratulate themselves. The series is conclusive proof that the Iannucci who keeps off camera – this, The Day Today, the deathless Alan Partridge saga – is infinitely more watchable than Iannucci the performer (The Saturday Night Armistice).

Appearing on the election’s heels, it’s mercilessly well-timed, like an X-Ray of our jittery government. Yes Minister was Margaret Thatcher’s favourite programme during the early 1980s. Iannucci’s show will never be popular viewing at Number 10. Can there be a higher compliment?

The Thick of It: Rise of the Nutters
(December 31, 2006)

Finally: a Christmas Special that’s actually special.

The personal troubles of Chris Langham mean his character, Hugh Abbot, Secretary of State for Social Affairs and Citizenship, is absent from this week’s seasonal instalment of Armando Iannucci’s ever-astonishing The Thick of It. But the rest of the regulars, including Peter Capaldi’s fearsome press officer Malcolm Tucker and Chris Addison’s splendid hip-weed “special advisor” Ollie Reeder, remain in place. (Malcolm’s opening pleasantry to Ollie sets the festive tone: “Did you have a nice Poofmas?”) Importantly, though, just as Lost has recently let us see more of The Others, this extended episode confronts us with the people from through the looking glass: The Opposition, in the shape of Hugh’s Shadow, one Peter Mannion, and his team.

Whether introducing the Opposition was by design, or a strategy forced upon Iannucci by circumstances, it has opened up a whole new suburb of Westminster avenues for him to run riot through. One of the best gags, though, is how familiar these avenues look. Superbly played by Roger Allam, like Christopher Hitchens with flu, the Mannion character is not so much Hugh’s shadow as his reflection, a long-lost, equally burned-out brother, befuddled by the Conservatives’ attempts to Spin around, modernise themselves up and yoof themselves down in New Labour’s image.

Control is the real name of the game, though. Since the Prime Minister made the mistake of announcing he was stepping down, Malcolm has felt his own days numbered, things slipping away. The Opposition is stirring. Even worse, rival factions inside his party – “The Nutters” – are jockeying for position.

As he rushes to manipulate not merely his own side, but enemy camps, too, we begin to glimpse a new desperation, and Malcolm takes on a truly Shakespearean aspect. If Alastair Campbell is the model for the character, the inspiration here is the wild-eyed Campbell who once barged unannounced onto Channel 4 News to deliver The Truth in a jaw-dropping display of unhinged table-banging. The episode unravels around him with the panic-speed of 24, the grip of State of Play, the wit of The West Wing, and a fuller understanding of the raw motives that drive people than any of them. With laughs. And an extended, obscenely ingenious riff on new ways to use an iPod. Roll on a full new series.

The Thick Of It: Spinners And Losers
(July 1, 2007)

This week’s jaw-dropping special episode of The Thick Of It – the savage political sitcom that is also easily the best British drama of the past five years – begins exactly where the Christmas special ended: the Prime Minister has resigned (where do they get their ideas?), and all Whitehall is in freefall.

With emotions running ragged, the programme is more spectacularly, baroquely filthy and foulmouthed than ever, but for good reason. Strikingly, the episode picks up at precisely the hysterical pitch at which the last left off – then, somehow, actually manages to build on it, rising to a sustained, screaming, rushing pitch as factions scramble to regroup, hold ground and stab each other in the back. An unbelievable, unmissible accomplishment, the programme also contains the week’s most unexpected line. “It’s a pub fight: Motherwell Rules.”

The Thick Of It
(October 18, 2009)

A perilous moment for Thick Of It fans, as Armando Iannucci’s blindingly brilliant political satire returns and makes the leap from the shady cult digital alleyways of BBC Four to the bright lights of the BBC Two mainstreet. What with all the extended special episodes and the sort-of-spin-off movie In The Loop, the show, and its influence, has been with us so long now it’s hard to believe that this is actually only the second proper series.

Peter Capaldi’s now-legendary spin doctor Malcolm Tucker is still in place, of course, along with Ollie (Chris Addison), Glenn (James Smith) and Terri (Joanna Scanlan), all mobilised into action to try and manage the arrival of new Cabinet member Nicola Murray (Iannucci’s former Day Today compatriot, Rebecca Front), the new minister for Social Affairs And Citizenship. The thing is, Malcolm, to his dismay, doesn’t know anything about her. Pretty soon, though, he knows far, far too much. As fast, furious, foul-mouthed and scabrous as ever. “Oh, and by the way, that’s an incredibly homophobic headline, you massive poof.”

The Thick Of It
(September 9, 2012)

A word of reassurance is in order for long-standing constituents of The Thick Of It: relax. Malcolm Tucker, Ollie Reeder and The Right Honourable Nicola Murray MP will all return. Just not quite yet.

It has been three years since the last series of Armando Iannucci’s ravening political satire, and in that time things have changed, all the more to stay the same. The last time we dropped in on The Department Of Social Affairs And Citizenship, we went crashing out on a cliffhanger, as Westminster scrambled for another General Election. As we return, that election has been and gone, and the same old dust has settled over a brand new government – a coalition, of all things.

Iannucci has always taken care never to state to which party anyone belongs in the series, but, if we accept Tucker’s gang as Labour, then the new mob seems some unholy alliance of Conservatives and Lib Dems. This is a television comedy, remember, so you can forgive them for stretching credulity with such a grotesque proposition.

The first episode underlines the new order by sticking resolutely to this new regime. There’s not a glimpse of Tucker, but there are familiar faces, and language, nonetheless.

Now in charge at DOSAC is Peter Mannion, the beleaguered Old Tory we previously knew as Nicola Murray’s shadow, beautifully played by Roger Allam in the style of a man perpetually looking forward to the moment he can take his shoes off. His variously loyal assistants, Emma and Phil (Olivia Poulet and Will Smith), are back, too, as is his party’s own odious spin-doctor, Stewart Pearson (Vincent Franklin).

To Mannion’s distant distaste, however, they are joined by their reluctant coalition partner, junior minister Fergus Williams (Geoffrey Streatfeild), who brings his own rival team: among them a surprise, in the shape of Glenn Cullen (James Smith). Previously Nicola’s special adviser, it transpires Glenn, with his usual luck, jumped ship to join the Lib-Demmish lot, only to find himself landing in bed with the party he has devoted his career to opposing. Meanwhile, fluttering around the Department as ever is Terri Coverley (Joanna Scanlan), the eternal Civil Servant.

The episode is a weird experience. The plot, which sees Mannion given the task of launching a net-savvy, app-friendly, digital education initiative, despite understanding nothing about it, is one we could have had in any series so far, with swearing to match. If there is a single joke hanging over the episode – and The Thick Of It in general – it is that nothing changes. In mirroring the political scene, the programme is actually designed to absorb change, and has, of course, survived a crucial player’s departure before, when Chris Langham left after the original series.

Still, even as you come to relish Iannucci sinking his teeth into coalition tensions, the elephant-sized lack of Tucker and company comes to dominate, and it was with great relief I saw Malcolm’s dead-shark eyes, Nicola’s harassment, and Ollie’s snazzy new hairdo rising in episode two, along with a devious storyline that will run across the series, concerning a Leveson-like inquiry.

The opener, though, is a little like finding yourself watching an episode of Dad’s Army starring the ARP wardens. Semi-improvised, savagely unsentimental and moving like a bullet, The Thick Of It can seem like the most modern sitcom we have. But it turns out it depends on the oldest element in the book after all: characters you just love to watch.