What better follow up to last Sunday?
These three episodes represent the entire first series of The Thick of It, from 2005, when it starred a pre-fall Chris Langham as hapless Minister for Social Affairs Hugh Abbott, as well as introducing Peter Capaldi’s immortal Director of Communications, Malcolm Tucker, based very heavily on the real-life advisor to Tony Blair, Alistair Campbell, and supportred by the unholy trinity of James Smith, as Glen Cullen, Joanna Scanlan as Terry Coverley and Chris Addison as Ollie Reeder.
The thing is, alerted by the press description of it as a Yes Minister for the 2000s, I started to watch the first episode but didn’t even make it to the end. I just didn’t find it funny and I found the constant profanity off-putting. I was just completely out-of-tune to the general atmosphere, unable then to appreciate the often poetic quality of the swearing – Tucker’s first line was to tell someone over the phone that they were ‘as much use as a marzipan dildo’, which makes me laugh out loud now, just typing that. So I quit it, prematurely.
I didn’t start to appreciate the show until I borrowed the DVD of In the Loop from the library, had a whale of a time with it and decided to get into the show proper, which was by then halfway through series 3. Subsequently, I bught the complete The Thick of It, four boxsets in a presentation pack got up to look like a Ministerial Red Box. Now I’m back at the beginning.
The first series is extraordinarily difficult to summsarise, or even analyse, and I find myself falling back on the factors that distinguishe it from Yes Minister (there’s the swearing, to begin with). Except that they are both set in the realm of Government, there sare very few points of contact. There’s the hapless, inadequate Minister, the same kind of Ministry with amorphous responsibilities that no-one could define, and the same polar opposite who’s the real star of the show. But that’s where The Thick of It kick-starts its own groove.
Instead of Sir Humphrey Appleby, the smooth, quiet pillar of the establishment, we have Malcolm Tucker, the journalist-turned-enforcer, violent of temper and tongue, issuing not guidance but directives. The key difference: Yes Minister was about the battle with the Civil Service, The Thick of It about the battle with Image and Perception. So, instead of structured episodes about a fcussed subject, we get an uncontrolled, impressionistic flurry of confusion, in which there is no stable ground. This is reflected in the filming, done by handheld camera that goes all over the place, unable to settle, looking from person to person, distracted by corners, swinging from side to side, up to down, corner to corner.
It’s as if the camera is an invisible person in the scene, its glance darting hither and yon as it’s ADHD interest is caught by what’s going on. It’s unusual, it’s off-putting, it’s even seasickness-inducing until you adjust to it but it brilliantly captures the uncertsainty Armandi Ianucci wants to portray. Everything is built on shifting sands, disturbable at a second’s notice, or less. In this political word, nothing has any solid footing.
Of course this could not be like Yes Minister. There was an is a massive difference between the politics and the Britain of the change from the Seventies into the Eighties and that of the mid-2000s. Inanucci is too perceptive and brilliant a satirist not to understand this, nor to portray it any way except accurately. The series is chaos loosely grouped into segments: Press Conferences that, despite the presence of cameras, don’t show what Malcolm Tucker briefs has been said, a hopeless Minister who flip-flops from struggling to survive to being bent on resignation and welcoming survival. Everybody is on their own, arguing at all times, directly rude and offensive to people’s faces. It’s an environment I could never survive in as I’m constitutionaly incapable of telling someone to Fuck Off to their face and then carrying on working with them – and I’m not referring here to Tucker, who is the overwhelming monster who is unchallengeable, but to the peons – and it’s simultaneously fascinating and horrifying in its depiction.
Especially as we understand it as being real all along.
The swearing. Oh yes, the swearing. I was brought up in a very staid atmosphere. I’ve grown out of that, a long times back, I use ‘bad language’ but I don’t use it indiscriminately, every third or fourth word. I use it for impact and effect. Repeat Fuck too many times and it just becomes a sound, and thus useless. The plethora of swear words – there was a solitary, half-swallowed use of the C-word in episode 1 – sometimes appears crude and juvenile: dockers’ language, fish-market language as it would be termed when I was young, and it did repel me a little, even today.
But it’s also an accurate reflection of the mindset of these people, masters of the Universe in their own minds and so licenced to talk as they wish, even as they can’t act as they wish. Big boys grown up, look, I can say Fuck. It’s juvenile, and it’s an integral part of what they are. And I can find it funny.
Overall, series 1 isn’t that good. I like Chris Langham, and he’s good here – everybody is good – but I can’t watch him now without being conscious of his flaws. Capaldi is of course monstrous, and monstrously good, and the rest are tight and sharp. But the show is learning about itself at this stage, it doesn’t quite understand itself. It will be back, and it will be better. Another Sunday.