Monday, 29 March 2010

The Second Best Television Programme Of The 00s


Back in the 1980s, when we were tiny, Yes Minster always held a strange kind of fascination for us. BrokenTV’s dad used to love the show, so we got to watching it quite often, and while we couldn’t really understand many of the jokes, or even why the funny bits were meant to be funny, we couldn’t help but enjoy it. Maybe it was Nigel Hawthorne’s avuncular grin, recognising Mr Derek from the Basil Brush Show, or the funny facial expressions Paul Eddington would pull when something went awry. Maybe it was for the jokes we did get, along the lines of “they don’t care who’s Prime Minister, as long as she’s got big tits”. Whatever the reason, on re-watching the series as a grown-up (well, as close as we’ve come to growing up since then), the rest of the jigsaw clicks happily into place, and we can now appreciate it fully. It truly is one of the greatest comedy series in the history of television.

But, this isn’t about Yes, Minister. Well, in a way it is (Reader’s voice: “Bloody hell, make your mind up”), because had Jay and Lynn’s masterpiece continued to rumble on away from the cameras beyond 1988, it may well have evolved into The Thick Of It. In between, the Sir Humphreys would have been overthrown by an army of spinners in a bloodless coup some time in the mid-90s, who would indeed have continued to shape policy as they saw fit, only replacing about 40% of the former’s Machiavellian chicanery with shouting. The cosy, leather-upholstered smoky gentleman’s establishment policy hub would have been shaped into open-plan offices fenced with smoked glass and chrome. The rotary telephones and reams of paperwork would have made way for 3G, VOIP and IT ‘solutions’. However, the splutteringly hapless decision makers at the centre of it all would have remained pretty much the same; very little actual evolution has taken place between Jim Hacker MP and Hugh Abbott MP.

imageWe’d hope that everyone reading this is already familiar with the premise behind the series, so here is just the briefest of primers. For the first series, The Thick Of It followed Hugh Abbott, played by Chris Langham, a Member of Parliament for an unnamed British political party (see footnote), and Minister of the Department for Social Affairs. Hugh is aided by his advisors Glen Cullen (James Smith) and Olly Reeder (Chris Addison), as well as his Press Secretary Terri Coverley (Joanna Scanlan). Their main task throughout the series is to carry out their jobs under the wrathful gaze of Number Ten’s ferocious ‘policy enforcer’, Malcolm Tucker (played by the excellent Peter Capaldi), a walking volcano ready to explode with boundless fury, swearing and spittle should the need arise.

From the beginning, The Thick Of It proved to be a little different. For starters, given a budget with which to make a pilot episode, show creator Armando Iannucci managed to make three entire episodes. These were transmitted in May 2005 on BBC Four, and saw Hugh Abbott getting to grips with his new role while trying to stamp his somewhat bumbling authority on his new department. After the success of the tri-pilot, three more episodes were commissioned, recorded and broadcast, making up either a second series (as most episode guides have it), or completing the first series (as the DVD release of the show has it). These take place just as a cabinet reshuffle looms, causing Hugh to fight for his job, to avoid being used as a political pawn, and to avoid becoming embroiled in a number of minor scandals.

Despite the success of this first (or “first and second”) series, the programme itself was affected by a very real scandal, namely that lead actor Chris Langham had been charged by police with the possession of indecent images of children. With a new full series already planned, the team instead began work on two special episodes of the programme in which Hugh Abbott would not appear, the character supposedly holidaying in Australia as events unfolded. This allowed the focus of the series to shift to Malcolm Tucker, with the rest of the Department (since rechristened ‘the Department for Social Affairs and Citizenship) coming into play as they babysat Junior Minister for Immigration Ben Swain.

imageThe first of the two specials, “Rise Of The Nutters”, promoted as a Christmas special and aired in early January 2007, looked at rapidly spreading divisions inside the government, and also gave the viewers their first glance of The Opposition, chiefly DoSAC’s counterparts at the desperately modernising party, with their own policy enforcer Stewart Pearson displaying his own special brand of buzzword Tourettes. The second special, broadcast to coincide with Tony Blair stepping down as PM, followed six months later, but with events following on directly from the end of the first special. All events in the episode took place over a single night, following on from the PM’s resignation just prior to the beginning of the episode.

Chris Langham’s subsequent conviction for downloading indecent images of children in September of 2007 made him returning to the series pretty much untenable (though in the first of the specials, it seemed the door had been left open for his return, with a quick shot of a newspaper story revealing the headline “Where Is Hugh?”). Luckily for the future of the show, the success of the two specials proved that the series could easily carry on without the lead actor, which might not have been the case otherwise. After all, for the first six episodes, Hugh Abbott had been the hub of the programme, with Chris Langham winning a British Comedy Award for Best Comedy Actor in 2005, and the BAFTA for Best Comedy Performance in 2006. Without the central character, there may well have been concern that things might go a bit, well, ‘Green Green Grass’.

Fortunately for fans of top-drawer comedy, this was not the case, and 2010 saw the return of The Thick Of It, with long-time Iannucci collaborator Rebecca Front taking on the role of Nicola Murray MP, Hugh’s post-reshuffle replacement at DoSAC, in a very welcome eight-episode series. But, that didn’t take place in the 00s, so we’ll leave that for BrokenTV’s Top 100 TV Shows Of The 10s, coming your way in early 2020. Keep an eye out for that.

imageInstead, on to why we liked the bloody thing so very much. For much of the decade, fans of British comedy have had to put up with a lot of broadsheet handwringing over how “American comedy is so much smarter than ours”. “Why can’t we have a Curb Your Enthusiasm?” They’d holler (and hey, we did, Jack Dee’s Lead Balloon, so be careful what you wish for). Well, in The Thick Of It, British television got a series every bit as smart, possibly even smarter than the best HBO has to offer. Oh, and no, we’re not classifying Little Britain USA or their half of Extras as ‘the best HBO has to offer’.

Like Curb, the dialogue is partially improvised. Like Curb, it’s home to more Premier League-standard swearing than you could shake a Jerry Sadowitz at. Like Curb, you could justifiably feel a little bit self-satisfied about the fact you own all the DVD collections of it (providing you’re sickening comedy snob twonks like us). However, for our money, Thick just pips Curb in terms of all-round splendidness. While Curb delights in playing up the mundane until it becomes the most important thing in the world for the characters in the show, Thick does much the same, but looks at how these pointless things can somehow really matter, even if it’s only inside the heads of the real decision makers in charge of a nation. Larry David mistyping an email address might have led to a bollocking from Susie and a scornful glance from Cheryl, but in The Thick Of It it can lead to a potential end to a 40 year political career, the end of a lifelong friendship and the ritual humiliation of a blameless individual on a rolling news network. It’s the little differences like this which help make The Thick Of It our second-favourite television show of the decade people still haven’t fully agreed on a catchy nickname for.


FOOTNOTE: “Aah, but it’s clearly New Labour, isn’t it?” seems to be the assumption from anyone covering the series, as if they’ve uncracked some kind of clever code, but the name of the party is never actually revealed within the series itself. Neither is any clue given to the ideology of the party in power within the series. the policies mentioned within couldn’t be said to be left-wing, right-wing or centrist as we never get to see what they actually are. It’s only because the party in question is in power during the first decade of the 21st century that people seem to assume it’s dealing directly with Labour. Really, had the Conservatives won the 2005 general election, this series could just as easily have taken place without any real changes.

Indeed, the only real clues as to the parties involved come in the first of the two special episodes, where we see The Opposition for the first time. They are clearly a political party undergoing a transformation into a more modern, electable concern, reflecting the transformation of The Conservatives under Captain Airbrush. It could be said that even then, the identities of the parties involved are still not clear – any political leanings displayed by The Opposition are drowned in an a tsunami of buzzwords and flowcharts. The truth, such as it is, was finally uncovered in “Malcolm Tucker’s Election Briefing”, a series of articles for The Guardian written by TTOI pensmith Jesse Armstrong, in the guise of Malcolm Tucker. These took the form of rallying memorandums to party members in the run up to the 2010 General Election, and it’s here that Tucker is formally revealed as a New Labour man, with statements such as “they know the Tories are dipping. But we are still losing.”

Even then, it takes until the third of these ‘briefings’ before the word ‘Labour’ is used for the first time, with a section on Samantha Cameron’s pre-election babybump leading to Tucker commenting “The reality is – everyone here got a bit excited that the public had seen through Cameron. But we have to be very careful in terms of taking the parliamentary Labour party as a good barometer of what the British public think or feel about anything whatsoever.” And thus, a not especially mysterious mystery is solved. We could join Scotland Yard’s Really Obvious Crime Squad with analytical powers like that, you know. If it existed.

imageWATCH IT NOW ON: For series one and two (or, as the box it comes in claims, ‘Series One’), DVD. Plenty of places are selling it for less than seven of your Earth Pounds, so why not pick your favourite online store from here? For the specials, much the same – eight online stores sell the DVD for between £6.85 and £6.99.

Series three is due to be released on DVD next month, with the cheapest price currently being at CD Wow, where it can be yours for just £11.99. If you just can’t wait to re-watch it, the whole series is currently available on YouTube. Start from here, but don’t be surprised if the whole lot of them are removed as the proper DVD release approaches.


2 .:

Anonymous said...

So it's The Wire @ #1 then...

Do you have to be so bloody obvious?

Mark X said...

Of *course* it's not The Wire. Nor is it The Office.

I realise this means I may well be banned from reading The Guardian, as this is pretty much tantamount to denouncing Islam for gushing Guardian television columnists.

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