On May 5, 2005, Tony Blair won his third consecutive term as PM but saw Labour’s majority in the Commons fall from 160 seats to just 66. The writing for New Labour was on the wall.
Two weeks after his last electoral hurrah, a new show aired on BBC Four that was in large part provoked by Blair leading the country into the war in Iraq. The show was also triggered by Blair’s altering of the temperature of British politics by treating the rise of New Labour as a corporate rebranding exercise and tilting the balance of power towards media managers, most significantly Alastair Campbell.
Armando Iannucci developed The Thick of It (pictured below) after fronting a 2004 documentary that was campaigning to have Yes Minister and Yes Prime Minister – Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn’s mellifluously scabrous 1980s political satire – hailed as the BBC’s greatest sitcom. In the end, Only Fools and Horses won the public vote but a darker beast sprang from Iannucci’s fertile mind.
“I thought it would be good to have a show like this but to be much more up-to-date,” he says of its gestation and the swing of focus away from civil servants. “This was the tail end of the Tony Blair, Alastair Campbell, Peter Mandelson media-management era. The key relationship now was between the minister and their senior advisers.”
I was given a sum of money and asked what I could do with it
He felt this age of media control needed to be lanced and traditional news media was unfit for purpose to tackle that particular boil. “It felt to me that the democratic system was broken and the media was absolutely supine to it in a really shoddy way,” he explains. “At the height of Blair, there was a paranoia about the media and not wanting to offend Middle England. That sense of trying to do lots of damage limitation.”
It was the issue of inept damage limitation that provided the spine of the show. “Reading about the inner workings of the Blair government, what I always thought was very funny was the fact that they always made things worse by worrying too much if they were going to get worse,” he says.
Iannucci has been the gold standard of British comedy over the past quarter of a century – creating On the Hour in 1991 for Radio 4 that led into The Day Today, both of which featured a callow Alan Partridge. That was followed by The Saturday Night Armistice (1995-1999), The Armando Iannucci Shows (2001), Time Trumpet (2006), Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle (2009-present) and Veep (2012-present). But The Thick of It may be his greatest creation.
He took the idea of the show to the BBC and was given a budget to make one show. “I was given a sum of money and asked what I could do with it,” he says. “I worked out I could shoot three half-hours in an empty building over the course of seven or eight days – providing we just confined it to a couple of offices. That determined the way we shot it as we had to shoot fast and be able to move from room to room. It was good because it forced a new style and it forced a freneticism.”
A lot of the show was filmed twice – once adhering to the script and then again where the actors were encouraged to improvise. “At one point Chris Addison [as Ollie Reeder] came up with National Spare Room Database,” says Iannucci. “To think that 10 years on it is the much-feared Bedroom Tax – you just think, ‘Oh God’.”
With a clear idea of what the show would be and who the main characters were, Iannucci gathered together a team of writers. The first episode was written with Jesse Armstrong (Peep Show). Simon Blackwell (Peep Show, Four Lions) and Tony Roche (Broken News) joined on episode two, forming the main writing nucleus for the subsequent series.
People ended up saying the most awful things about these people!
“It’s like Charlie’s Angels,” suggests Blackwell. “If Armando’s Charlie, imagine that the angels are fat, middle-aged men. I don’t know why they haven’t made that movie. Charlie’s Fat, Middle-Aged Angels.”
Getting the call to be involved was a rite of passage for all the writers. “Like most writers of my generation, we revered him [Iannucci] but we’d never worked with him,” says Armstrong, who had worked in Westminster as a researcher for Labour MP Doug Henderson but left soon after Labour’s 1997 election win. “I had been in rooms with the Labour Home Affairs team and people like Jack Straw. I saw politicians operate. I have always liked the realism of the show and Armando was always hot on making it feel real.”
The title was something Iannucci had from the off, sitting as a powerful metonym for what the show was saying and how it was saying it, placing the viewer in the maelstrom of panic and ineptitude corkscrewing out of control. “I think it’s the perfect title as it really told you what was going on,” says Blackwell. “And I also liked having the word ‘thick’ in it,” counters Iannucci.Initially the show centered on newly installed minister Hugh Abbott, played by Chris Langham.
Mere months after the first episodes aired, the actor was arrested on suspicion of accessing indecent images of children on the internet. In 2007, he was found guilty and sentenced to 10 months in prison. Partly out of necessity, the centre of gravity became Malcolm Tucker – the wrathfully scatological director of communications – played by Peter Capaldi. He instantly became an antihero for rancorously paranoid times.
“For the two specials, where Hugh isn’t in it, Malcolm goes centre stage and that’s when it became The Malcolm Tucker Show,” says Blackwell. “It’s like the early Happy Days, which was all about Richie Cunningham and his friends, and The Fonz was a side character. Malcolm is our sweary British Fonz. I’m sure he could hit a jukebox and make it play. But if it didn’t, he’d probably just nut the fucking thing.”
Amazingly he almost didn’t make it into the show. “I remember Armando pitching the dynamics of the show, and I thought we didn’t need this Malcolm Tucker guy,” says Armstrong, who christened him, lifting the name of a five-a-side colleague.
“I was a younger man then and I wouldn’t do it any longer because once you put names into the pot in the rehearsal room, and given the nature of the show, people ended up saying the most awful things about these people!” he says, adding there was also a real-life Hugh Abbott on the team. The real Malcolm Tucker is, apparently, “a very nice guy” but “tough in the tackle”. “He would certainly crush you up against the side of the pitch panels, that’s for sure.”
Tucker is merely the sweariest character in a show where profanities are treated like sulphuric punctuation. “I just wanted it to have some kind of slightly poisonous impact,” laughs Iannucci. “The inventiveness is not so much about the swearing as the words that surround the swear words. The rhythm of them. ‘Come the fuck in or fuck the fuck off’. The creative use of the F-word.”
As a result, serious profanity bartering went on to get the show through broadcast compliance. “We had to trade ‘fucks’ with the BBC,” reveals Blackwell. “There was a level of ‘fucks’ we could use. We always had to get ‘cunt’ signed off by whoever was at the top of the BBC at the time. There was a particular ‘cunt’ sign-off. Like there was a Head of Cunt at the BBC.”
This become a millstone, with writers exasperated at being pigeonholed as the people who created the show that turned the airwaves a violent shade of blue (as distilled in what Blackwell calls Tucker’s “baroque poetry of swearing”). They all feel that the show is about how people deal – often very badly – with the pressure of work and how panic causes incompetence to escalate, resulting in the viewer having empathy for their situation.
“You might criticise them for being pusillanimous but you sort of see where it comes from,” suggests Armstrong. “In some ways it’s just a workplace comedy about having the worst boss in the world – which is both Malcolm Tucker and the British electorate. It has a chip of ice in its heart but it’s also got a certain amount of sympathy for those people in those
It was a non-sweary word that triggered Iannucci to call time on the show. He was crestfallen when the team got access to Number 10 to film In the Loop – the film that bridges The Thick of It and Veep – and ministers lined up to have their photo taken with Capaldi as Tucker pretending to hit them. But it was the legs the word “omnishambles” took on that caused the biggest damage. It was a portmanteau coined by Roche when editing a scene between Tucker and minister Nicola Murray (played by Rebecca Front).
It was the moment when Ed Miliband used the phrase during PMQs at the Commons that chilled Iannucci to the bone. “That is when I started thinking it was time for us to go,” he says. “When politicians started adopting phrases from it, I thought, ‘Okay, it’s become such a familiar thing now that it rubs people up the wrong way so it’s time to [kill it]’.”
The show was big on realism and used off-the-record briefing with researchers and ex-ministers to find out more about the dynamics of the office – what time they got in, what time they left – rather than sieving them for stories. So just how real is it?
That is when I started thinking it was time for us to go
“It’s just the sheer ineptitude of the people – not the ones that run the country like Cameron and Osborne but the fucking civil servants,” says an individual who worked with Cameron, speaking anonymously. “They are just star-fuckers in twinsets. If Cameron said he was going to wear the back end of a pantomime horse, everyone would say, ‘That’s a fucking great idea!’ Not one person would say, ‘That’s the worst idea I have ever heard in my life’.”
Another source from deep within Westminster adds: “Some of the things that you have to deal with are actually worse than anything I’ve seen in The Thick of It. Basically, though, the fundamentals of the programme are spot on. The absurdity of the 24-hour news cycle and the horror of dealing with politicians who act like petulant children a lot of the time… Normally you only realise you’re in a TTOI moment when you’re already in it; it’s too late by that point.”
The last episode of The Thick of It aired in 2012 and everyone involved is, for now, adamant that it will not return. Most are involved, anyway, in Veep, which Blackwell describes as “its cousin”. Iannucci, when I ask him if in accepting an OBE he could no longer be a political iconoclast, argues that the final series was “the most nihilistic series of all” and was all about “going out with all guns blazing”.
A decade on with no sign of being resurrected but with an election mere weeks away, I ask Iannucci what he thinks the show’s legacy is. “I do get politicians who say I have put young people off politics – but I hope not,” he says. “It was always a reflection of how politics was. It wasn’t some kind of prediction of [the future]. I hope it also galvanises people into saying, ‘Okay, we can’t carry on like that’.”