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The Thick of It

Stephen Tomkins

Directed by Armando Ianucci


It's hard to talk about The Thick of It, without bringing in the BBC's other classic political comedy Yes Minister as the present sentence illustrates only too well. The Thick of It follows the tribulations of a succession of Ministers for Social Affairs and Citizenship - a department as usefully vague as Jim Hacker's Administrative Affairs - along with their team of advisers and press officers. The worst tribulation is generally the terrifying and flamboyantly foul-mouthed Alastair Campbell figure, Malcolm Tucker.

The Thick of It illustrates how much TV comedy has changed since the 1980s. Technically, sitcom seems to aspire to documentary. Shot in a real office building with handheld cameras, semi-improvised and comprehensively researched, eschewing anything so gauche as jokes, and often genuinely painful as well as brilliantly funny, The Thick of It is far removed from the cosy studio of Yes Minister and Sir Humphrey's set pieces.

It also illustrates how far the boundaries of taste and taboo have moved. In fact it has pushed them back quite a distance itself being surely the sweariest TV series ever.

Politics has shifted too. Where Jim Hacker's job seemed to be to try to get the odd policy past the intransigent guard of the civil service, the job of the politicians in The Thick of It is purely PR. Spin was talked of in the 1980s as a new tool of government, now in the world of The Thick of It it is the purpose of government. Take the scene where Chris Langham's minister and two aides are en route to a press conference, desparately trying to come up with a policy initiative to announce 'that is sexy, and eye-catching, and free'. Pet asbos? A national spare room database? Capital punishment?

And our attitudes to politicians seem to have shifted too. Hacker was naive, malleable and ineffectual, Sir Humphrey undemocratic and reactionary, Bernard a lackey, but they were all utterly amiable. In the much larger cast of The Thick of It, with the possible exception of the shadow minister (who will presumably be less shadowy in the coming series), there is nothing likeable about anyone. Your only sympathy is for the way the job wrecks their personal lives. The show reflects a vision of the political world as venal, self-serving, self-perpetuating, pointless, cynical and cold. If Peter Cook broke the ice in 1960 with his shockingly irreverent portrayal of Harold Macmillan as a 'Scottish old age pensioner', it seems the ice has broken us.

More striking than all this though is what The Thick of It has in common with Yes Minister when compared to US TV's vision of government in The West Wing - smart, practical, principled, humane, driven by a desire and ability to protect and serve. It took viewers through the Bush years with a vision of how much better than this  the USA could be and deserved to be, and indeed, deep down, was. In contrast, the BBC consoled us through the Thatcher and then the Blair years with sitcoms that told us it didn't matter which politicians were in power because they are indistinguishable, ineffectual, and ruled themselves by unelected despots.

Doubtless many Christians will object to the strength and depth of swearing in The Thick of It - though it surely gives the lie to the complaint that swearing is lazy.  The creativity of profanity in the show is extraordinary. ('Is that honestly the best swearing you can come up with?' Ollie says to Terri.)

The more serious concern is that in a country where 65 per cent is a good turnout for a general election, we don't really need our political cynicism reflected back to us, amplified and justified. Perhaps we are not ready for a British President Bartlet - Armando Ianucci, the creator and director of The Thick of It has argued that viewers wouldn't be able to believe in him or her, 'It would be laughed at - for the wrong reasons'. But surely, even in Britain, it must be possible to people a sitcom like The Thick of It with at least some characters with warmth, humanity and ideals, making a great programme a better one, in every sense of the word. 

Steve Tomkins