Comfort Classic: The Thick of It

Comfort Classic: The Thick of It

Wednesday, 6th July 2022
Chris Addison, James Smith, Joanna Scanlan, Rebecca Front and Peter Capaldi in The Thick of It (credit: BBC)
Chris Addison, James Smith, Joanna Scanlan, Rebecca Front and Peter Capaldi in The Thick of It (credit: BBC)
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Steve Clarke revels in the dog-eat-dog world of principle-free political advisors roving the dank undergrowth of power.

Armando Iannucci, who cut his creative teeth on such wondrous radio fare as the news lampoon On the Hour, revealed recently that the inspiration for creating his era-­defining political satire The Thick of It, was the Iraq war. He was infuriated by what he saw as Prime Minister Tony Blair’s willingness to “twist the narrative” in order to justify his support for what many regarded as a woefully ill-thought-through conflict.  

Recently the subject of Radio 4’s excellent This Cultural Life, he told interviewer John Wilson that, like so many of us, he had – uncharacteristically – taken to the streets in protest at the war.  

He said he didn’t want to write a polemic but to craft a comedy that genuinely had something to say. The aim was to make a show from which the public could glean an idea of what went on behind the closed doors off the corridors of power in Whitehall and Millbank, where spin doctors, special advisors (Spads) and their hapless accomplices practise their dark arts. “It’s not about showing a scandal. I want to know the dull stuff – what time does a minister get in,” explained Iannucci.  

The result was The Thick of It, a comic masterpiece famously described by its creator as “Yes Minster meets The Larry Sanders Show”. Over seven years and four series, initially on BBC Four before promotion to BBC Two, this part ­improvised show delighted fans, thanks to a cast of fully realised characters, superb acting and a script that crackles and fizzes with so much energy that you could almost run the National Grid off it. Its shaky-camera, documentary style adds to the feeling of verisimilitude.  

What started out as a manic, expletive-laden satire on the Blair-Brown years morphed into a mordant, expletive-laden commentary on the Cameron-led coalition by the time of 2012’s season four, The Thick of It’s final bow.  

While we are on expletives – more of which later – it is said that the show holds the record for the number of “fucks” uttered in a single TV episode – averaging one every 12 seconds for episode 7 of season 3, since you ask.  

The comic monster at the apex of The Thick of It is, of course, viper-mouthed Scottish spin-doctor-in-chief Malcolm Tucker, played to uptight perfection by Peter Capaldi.  

Iannucci, who also directed The Thick of It, denied the character was modelled on Alastair Campbell, New Labour’s tormented communications maestro. Tucker was, according to his creator, based on Harvey Weinstein, whom Iannucci presumably encountered when pitching what became the spin-off movie, In the Loop.  

For connoisseurs of bad language, Tucker’s ability to be jaw-droppingly profane borders on the Shakesperian. The internet is littered with such choice examples as Tucker dressing down an MP: “You’re so back-bench, you’ve actually fucking fallen off. You’re out by the fucking bins where I put you.” Or Tucker complaining about a minister: “He’s about as much use as a marzipan dildo.” And Tucker to a pair of rival advisors: “Laurel and fucking Hardy! Glad you could join us. Did you manage to get that piano up the stairs OK?”  

Researching The Thick of It, Iannucci was struck by how young the people who inhabit this tawdry world are. They had “no life experience” and didn’t know “how to run a car, let alone a country”.  

This characteristic is personified in Ollie Reeder (Chris Addison), a gauche and gawky Oxbridge-educated Spad who inevitably takes over as head of comms when Tucker meets his nemesis in series 4.  

Rebecca Front is consistently compelling as gaffe-prone MP Nicola Murray, as, too, is a young and not yet famous Joanna Scanlan, who plays prudish press officer Terri Coverley.  

It is sometimes suggested that today we need a satire like The Thick of It more than ever, but when rules are regularly flouted by populist leaders, the satirist’s job becomes especially challenging. Tellingly, Iannucci said on This Cultural Life that The Thick of It came “from a golden time when there were rules in politics”. What would Malcolm Tucker make of Boris Johnson’s ­beleaguered administration? For once, would he be lost for expletives?  

The Thick of It is streamed on BritBox.