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November 23, 2005

The Thick of It - Armando Iannucci

Posted by Harry Phibbs

The Thick of It
Created and Directed by Armando Iannucci

Those who work in television and radio generally, and the BBC in particular, are overwhelmingly on the Left. But that doesn't mean that Conservatives may not also appreciate some of political satire they produce which seems to have as its overwhelming theme the sheer cynicism of New Labour. The Thick of It has been described as "Yes Minister meets The Office". To be honest it is not in the same class as Yes Minister (or its successor series) Yes Prime Minister, written by (onetime Social Affairs Unit trustee) Antony Jay in the 1980s, to huge acclaim. Ben Elton described Yes Minister as an "anti welfare state sit com". He meant it as a complaint. Policy proposals offered the heart of the plot lines for Yes Minister. Waste, bureaucracy, unintended consequences disdain for the general public, empire building, all were explored with both great wit and intelligence.

In The Thick of It, written by Armando Iannucci, the main theme is media management rather than policy. But this shift partly reflects the changing preoccupations of Ministers. The tone is more coarse but again this is probably about keeping up with reality.

Most of the characters are very thinly veiled from real life. Many of the plots are reworked versions of what we have endured on our news bulletins these last eight years. For instance a press officer is pushed before the TV cameras to apologise for an e-mail full of swear words accidentally sent to a child. (Loosely inspired by Jo Moore's infamous 9/11 email, but in this case the Press Officer was covering for the Minister who was the real culprit).

This parody of the news is a strength rather than a weakness; a meticulous concern with authenticity rather than a lack of imagination. Despite the shocking and hilarious scenes at no point did I ever think what I was watching was unbelievable.

There is Julius Nicholson, a Lord Birt figure who works in Downing Street as a "Blue Sky thinker" and fights for office space with the Alastair Campbell figure Malcolm. "I'm just bouncing," says Julius as he turns up to interrogate hapless Ministers, as in "bouncing around ideas".

Malcolm Tucker (Peter Capaldi) is the Alastair Campbell figure. The idea of the macho team of foul mouthed spin doctors fired up with bullying contempt for their Ministers is given dramatic credence by them all being Scottish. Oliver Reedor (Chris Addison) is commended with much laddish banter for striking up a sexual relationship with an opposition advisor. He is pressed to contact her to gather intelligence. He is asked:

It's make your mind up time. Do you want to be a policy person who says on the one hand this and on the other hand that? Or do you want to be a soldier?
When he speaks to her she asks him if that is Malcolm in the background. He replies:
No, I'm in a Scottish restaurant and a man's complaining because they underfried his Mars Bars.
The Minister for Social Affairs, Hugh Abbott (Chris Langham) is so beleaguered that he becomes an almost sympathetic character despite his many failings. Certainly he has a fragile ego and is preoccupied with his own career. But the viewer is left wondering why he wants to keep his job.

He seems to be unable to do much, certainly anything much that he actually believes in. He is calm, almost languid but this seems due to exhaustion. He lives in a permanent state of fear that Malcolm will appear. On a factory visit he tries to arrange for a signal that he is to be called away on some false claim of urgent business after 20 minutes to relieve the tedium of the two hour tour. It is misunderstood and he has to endure the full visit:

Don't tell me any more because I won't be able to take it in but I will pass on what you've said to the PM because he absolutely loves detail.
On an earlier hospital visit he is confronted by a Sharon Storer figure who confronts him in full view of the TV cameras. She asks him:
Do you know what it's like to clear up your mother's piss?
There is no escape. He tries putting his am on her to calm her down. She responds:
Why are you touching me? You don't know me. You don't want to know me.
Still trying to get inside he replies:
I do want to get to know you.
Reasonably enough the woman responds:
Then why are you walking away from me.
Unable to think of an explanation he responds with a vacuous grin. She responds:
Why are you smiling? Do you think it's funny? Do you think it's funny that I have to clean up my mother's piss?
At first Malcolm comes to the rescue and storms the ITN news room and confronts Mark their News Editor. He asks:
Do you know anything about that woman? BNP, Mark. She's standing for the BNP in Stamford Bridge. Basic stuff, do your research.
Of course Malcolm has made it up but it is enough to make Mark look nervous.

Then a worse story emerges about corruption at the MOD. Malcolm withdraws his objections to the hospital visit story in the hope that the MOD story will be placed lower down the running order. They also hope that the confusing nature of the MOD story will help them. Malcolm bellows to his staff:

Try to fuck up the numbers. Everybody hit the phones. What we do is we overcomplicate. Staff, percentages, international comparisons. Email them with wads of fucking information and tell them that they had better get their heads round it.
When the Downing Street staff nervously watch the news, wild cheering breaks out when they see the hapless Social Affairs Secretary leading the bulletins in his moment of humiliation.

I doubt the spin doctors watching will mind being portrayed as dishonest and bullying. What they may find less comfortable is the message that they are not particularly effective at generating sympathetic media coverage.

Harry Phibbs is a journalist.

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if spin is no longer working, maybe our politicians will consider american advice more serriously, and respond to negative publicity by bombing the offending news agencies.

Posted by: s masty at November 24, 2005 07:51 AM

Dear S.J.Masty,

What a preposterous suggestion! Bomb the news agencies?

May I refer you to the great modern philospher Rumsfeld, who expressed Kurt Gödel's answer to Russell and Whitehead's Principia Mathematica in a form the man in the street can understand. Put, simply, Gödel's thereom states that in mathematics, there are always "unknown unknowns -- the ones we don't know we don't know". I am, of course, referring to the dictum:

Stuff happens.

Posted by: Robert H. Olley at November 25, 2005 10:22 AM
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