Back in The Thick Of It
Imitation is supposed to be the sincerest form of flattery. Not so with Armando Iannucci’s satirical series The Thick of It – a scornful dissection of the inner workings of British government, one which portrays ministers as hapless, hopeless, powerless fools. And yet such is its popularity – particularly in and around the Westminster village – that life and the art have begun to bump into each other in increasingly puzzling ways.
The phrase ‘It’s like something from The Thick of It’ is now never far from cropping up in any given convers-ation about politics and politicians. Government insiders appear to be especially enthusiastic, apparently mistaking the show for some form of documentary journalism.
Someone from Nick Clegg’s office recently approached Iannucci at an awards ceremony promising to dish some of the dirt on the coalition.
Talking to the writing team behind the news series as it kicks off on the BBC, it seems the satirists now find the overlap between fictitious events and the news – the proper news – a little bewildering.
Tony Roche, the writer who put the term ‘omnishambles’ in the vocabulary of foul-mouthed spin doctor Malcolm Tucker in the last series, was tickled to find Ed Miliband stealing the phrase as George Osborne’s June budget unravelled in slow motion. Headlines writers, bloggers and broadcast pundits used it for weeks on end.
Is it surprising how devoted the politicians are to a programme that makes them look, largely, like incomp-etent idiots? “In some ways it is,” says Roche. “But then if you work in politics and like politics and want to watch a show about politics, what other choice do you have? This Week with Andrew Neil? A lot of the time they’re laughing at jokes they think are about other politicians.”
Fellow The Thick of It writer Sean Gray agrees. “When people who work in Westminster come up to you and say ‘I work with people like the characters in the show’ or ‘I am that person’, you think – really? Because these people are terrible at their jobs.
"It’s somewhat petrifying. But the truth is, people who work in politics are no more competent than the people who work in any job.”
Iannucci believes the comic success of the programme comes from its authenticity, so scripts must deliver a ring of truth as they send up imagined machinations, meltdowns and cock-ups. But trying to match the absurdity of Jeremy Hunt’s bell-ringing calamity or Francis Maude’s panic-mongering call for the nation to fill its jerry-cans can be a tricky business.
Ian Martin, the writer tasked with coming up with the show’s brilliantly creative swearing, concedes the team can sometimes be outdone by reality. “There are times when we perhaps pause for thought – is this believable? But then quite often the ludicrous policy or the hasty statement in a script emerges in the real world in a slightly different form.”
Co-writer Gray recalls the time they even suspected scripts had been leaked and transformed into government policy. The opening episode finds Tory minister Peter Mannion (below) announcing the “silicon playground” strategy – school pupils designing apps to offset future tuition fees. As they were developing the scenes, education secretary Michael Gove announced plans for digital code-writing in classrooms.
Martin offers a different example from the one that occurred in first episode, a policy that has not – yet – come to pass. “A thorn in the government’s side is a homeless nurse who’s set up a one-man protest camp to highlight the selling-off of keyworker housing.
The Thick of It coalition has instructed hospital trusts to dispose of staff flats to developers. Which, you know, is pretty believable.”
One development that may disappoint fans of the programme is Malcolm Tucker’s slightly more subdued role (at least for the first few episodes), as the bully-boy adjusts to life working for new leader of the opposition Nicola Murray.
“There’s actually a bit less classic Malcolm Tucker high-octane baroque swearing,” admits Martin. However, the narrative arc means he “sharpens up” before the finale.
Does Martin ever worry the well of vulgar neologisms will run dry? “No,” he assures me. “You have to believe that the possibilities for creativity – including swears – are infinite.”
Series 4 of The Thick of It has begun on BBC Two. Catch up on iPlayer