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The Thick of It – Series I (Review)

The wonderful folks at the BBC have given me access to their BBC Global iPlayer for a month to give the service a go and trawl through the archives. I’ll have some thoughts on the service at the end of the month, but I thought I’d also take the opportunity to enjoy some of the fantastic content.

The British sure know their political comedy. The Thick of It is something like a spiritual successor to the cult British political comedies Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister, from the mind of creator Armando Iannucci. Iannucci is perhaps best known for his work with Steve Coogan on the character of Alan Partridge, and there’s a lot of the same awkward comedy here. Perhaps it’s best to describe The Think of It as the ideological opposite of The West Wing, a bucket of cold British water chucked over America political idealism. It’s crass, profane, cynical, sly and absolutely brilliant.

Thick and thin...

It’s a decidedly unglamorous portrayal of the political system, delivered with a wry British self-deprecation. While Josh and Toby had seemingly endless corridors to stroll through while speaking in grand philosophical terms, Minister Hugh Abnett and his staff are more likely to be found idly plotting in some forgotten storage cupboard somewhere, trying desperately to hide their own attempts at furthering their own agendas from Terri, the meddling civil servant, and Malcolm, the Prime Minister’s “terrier” – or, as one character describes him, “that evil Scottish guy.”

It’s a system of government that isn’t dedicated to improving anything. In fact, the bureaucratic structures of British democracy seem dynamically opposed to any sort of movement whatsoever. The best approach is try to maintain a sense of equilibrium on the lumbering giant of  government, trying not to fall off as half the ministers pull one way and the rest pull the other. The first episode is about a policy announcement from the fictional Department of Social Affairs.

Add minister-ing a department...

It isn’t about the policy itself. It isn’t about ideas. It’s about taking credit for the idea, and trying to decide whether to suggest the idea. The policy is entirely pointless and barely even discussed over the course of the episode. Instead, it ends up serving as a political football caught between the Department of Social Affairs, the Prime Minister and the Treasury, as Abnett and his staff end up leaking it, retracting it and republishing it all over the same day. There’s more than the slightest hint of Orwellian double-talk as Abnett mutters down the phone, “I didn’t say we weren’t doing it, which is as good as saying we were.”

The irony is that there’s no ill will there. There’s no truly sinister force driving these policies. It’s just small men in very silly competitions of ego, trying to avoid getting fired or putting their feet in each other’s mouths. It’s a comedy of manners and errors, in the style that the BBC does so well. Iannucci was allegedly inspired by the march to the Iraq War, which seems like more a collection of misunderstandings and miscommunications than some truly evil conspiracy, and a lot of that is reflected here.

One bad mother Tucker...

Indeed, I prefer the first season over the second season precisely because of that sort of charming ineffectiveness. The plots are driven by Hugh Abnett and his three primary staffers, none of whom are especially nice people, but none of whom seem truly evil. In the final episode, during a resignation scandal, all three are quick to blame each other, but that’s relatively understandable. The youngest of the three, Olly, is arrogant and ego-centric, but he actually seems genuinely optimistic here. Glenn might be more cynical, but he seems like a true friend to Hugh. Even Terri, the bitchy civil servant, is astute enough to warn the gang not to get ahead of themselves as they zealously pursue media attention.

In the second season, the three characters would become considerably less likable and more outright evil – with the team veering dangerously close to outright sociopathy at points. Here, there’s something charming about a gang of world-weary officials who are simply too inefficient and too narrow-minded to make a difference, trapped within a system that seems designed to run on autopilot, rather than encouraging active engagement. It’s a subtle distinction, but it makes the show feel a bit more human.

Rushing to the Minister's aide...

This is especially true of Hugh Abnett, brought to life by Chris Langham. The poor Minister looks perpetually dazed and confused, more than a little dishevelled and slightly out of it. This is a man who doesn’t have time to stay in touch with current affairs, and so has to watch a “zeitgeist tape.” There’s something pitiable and hilarious about the poor guy left to fend by himself in his office while his aides are at Downing Street. “Yes!” he proudly declares. “I am king of remembering my own password!”

While he’s undoubtedly a careerist at heart, lamenting missing his “ideal resigning point” and only really looking out for himself, there is something almost tragic about his small errors in judgment compounding to create some truly epic disasters. Even when he gets caught in the inevitable expenses-related scandal around his flat scam, we feel somewhat sorry for the guy who just wants a good night’s sleep. “This is madness!” he insists. “I just own a flat! I haven’t raped anybody!”

He's only Hugh, man...

He’s not a radical or an idealist by any means, and he isn’t necessarily exceptionally principled, but he seems like a character who is just trying to do a job that has worn him down to a bitter nub of a man. There’s something strangely pitiable about the character and his circle of advisors here, and I think that makes the comedy more effective – it’s not divine retribution for corruption or moral decay, but their own inefficiencies bouncing back inside a system that is fairly fundamentally broken.

Chris Langham attracted a great deal of controversy surrounding his departure from the show, arrested for downloading child pornography. It is a little difficult to divorce that piece of trivia from the actor in the role, but I do think that he’s wonderfully effective as the hapless Minister for Social Affairs, and I certainly don’t think the first season of the show would have worked nearly as well without Langham’s somewhat awkwardly out-of-touch comedy stylings.

Backseat driving official policy...

That said, while Abnett and his staff are nominally the focus of the show, and their plots drive the action forward in these first three episodes, the real star is Peter Capaldi as Malcolm Tucker. Tucker is the party’s spin-man, the person in charge of managing the media message from the highest levels of government and ensuring that the numerous blunders from various departments stay out of the limelight.

While real British spin doctors like Alistar Campbell obviously inspired the character, Iannucci apparently adopted the character’s mannerisms from Hollywood executives and agents, with Harvey Weinstein cited as a major influence. Even within the very first scene of the series, Capaldi’s Tucker perfectly channels that style of management. He aggressively blusters in and immediately takes charge of the situation from elected officials, gradually winning them over through a shrewd application of vulgar threats and pseudo-philosophical logic, only to inevitably drop a bomb at the end of the conversation. When he needs something from you, he’ll get it.

A Social (Affairs) call...

Capaldi is a revelation as Tucker. He’s been one of those British actors who has been around for years, and whose face is probably recognisable to audiences, but here he really gets a chance to stand out. Appearing in shows like Torchwood, I have a huge respect for him as a dramatic actor, but he’s also emerged as one of the most brilliant comedic actors in recent years. Malcolm’s “bollocking” of elected officials and their staff are inevitably the highlight of a given episode, if only because Capaldi channels so much energy into his performance. It’s hard to convey how effective Capaldi is by reading his lines printed on the page – that’s how perfect his performance his.

At the same time, I think that Malcolm Tucker works because Armando Iannucci and his writers keep him barely on the right side of political caricature. He’s profane, he’s rude, he’s manipulative, he’s aggressive, he has no respect for the staff or the media or the principles of democratic government. However, he’s also presented as a guy who is simply doing his job. He’s trying to tidy up the on-going mess so that his political party can go about governing. It’s not his fault that the mess, for the most part, is the government. He’s able to see the big picture in a way that Hugh Abnett and his staff can’t. More than that, his own brutal style might lack any sense of grace or nuance, but it’s worth pointing out that Tucker is the one truly effective character on the show.

Go on, give it a spin...

The first season of The Thick of It is gleeful fun, and a must-watch for any fans of political comedy or drama. Apparently the show has quite a cult following in the government itself, and several high-ranking individuals have reportedly stated that it paints and alarmingly accurate picture of governance. It’s brutal, it’s funny, but it’s also somewhat endearing and never malicious. Much like Tucker, it tends to choose its targets selectively.

You might be interested in our other  reviews of The Thick of It:

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