The Thick Of It is back! To many of us, this will come as something of a big deal. This is the show which spawned the movie In The Loop, produced a political insult (“omnishambles”) which was actually used in the chamber of the House of Commons, and created the folk-villain Malcolm Tucker, a figure which looms so large in the collective mind that apparently reasonable people used to stop the actor who played Tucker (Peter Capaldi) in the street and ask him to scream abuse at them. (The next time a BBC arts show wants to talk about works which explore the British character, they could do with ignoring Brideshead Revisited and having a think about what The Thick Of It accidentally revealed…)
There had been talk after the end of the last series that it would be impossible to carry on now that Tucker’s party was out of government (the show roughly tracks British politics as it takes place), but for whatever reason – narrative, arc, character development, massive merchandising opportunities, who knows? – it faileth not, it abideth. The second lot of problems which the producers faced were due to the way in which Tucker’s party (the Labour Party of Tony Blair and more recently Gordon Brown, before Ed Miliband took over) left government. They lost alright, but in a rather magnificent display of the directionlessness which has characterised the parliamentary Labour Party for some time, they didn’t manage to lose to anyone.
The Conservatives had the largest share of seats in the Commons (though not the landslide which they felt was due them in the unspoken contract the party had made with its leader David Cameron – give us power and we’ll try to forget we loathe you) but not enough to form a majority government. The Liberal Democrats had increased their share of the vote to the point where they were the deciding factor. For once in their recent history, they had to decide what their distinctive values might be: was it their “classical” free-market liberalism which marked them off from the statist approach of the Labour Party, or their social liberalism which should have prevented them from going into coalition with the Conservatives? As that last sentence spoilered somewhat, the rightish leadership of the Lib Dems took them into coalition with the Tories, ushering into power the specific party which many in Britain (yup, me too) were trying to keep out when we voted Lib Dem.
So the writers and producers of The Thick of It had the odd situation of needing to write in a set of characters for which there was not an established set of stereotypes. Well, actually there is – Lib Dems are typically depicted as bearded, sandal-wearing, ecology-bothering well-meaners who knit their own organic yoghurt – but there aren’t stereotypes for Lib Dems in power. Certainly not for the kind of all-too-comfortable-in-coalition-with-the-nasty-party Lib Dems which we have seen over the last couple of years, but which we had never seen at the time when this show’s events were taking place. Having woolly do-gooders on screen wouldn’t really have worked, because no-one believes that about them anymore. They solved the issue in a brilliant twist, by making the Liberal Democrats the villains, and pushing the audience towards sympathy (in a highly relative sense) with the Conservative MP Peter Mannion. Peter Allam, as the Mannion in question, has been provided with a lot more depth suddenly: he’s always been the stereotype old-style Tory, out of touch with the nation and his own marriage, but now he’s bleaker, looks beaten down and greyer. Perhaps sympathy is the wrong word, it’s more like a bare narrative identification – one is on the side of the Tory characters if only in a vague “rooting for their storylines” sense. The unpleasant and indistinguishable pair of Lib Dems sharing Mannion’s department are Fergus Williams and Adam Kenyon, described by Simon Blackwell (who’s on the writing team) as “a horribly self-posessed and overconfident pair…They play squash together. They do squat thrusts in the office together. They ‘banter’. “If a magazine existed that was a cross between the New Statesman and Nuts, they’d buy it.” The Thick Of It really has no peer in pointing out the particular varieties of awful in the modern “left”. That last line about magazines is pitch-perfect, as any brief trawl through the online comments at the New Statesman (particular anything written by Helen Hastley-Lewis) will demonstrate.
This episode doesn’t give us any Malcolm, or indeed any of the Labour Party. Instead the plot centres on an initiative to get school students to design apps, the royalties from which will become a “digital dividend” to help pay their tuition fees at university. Mannion manages to declare the policy wrongly, whilst also getting an Asian student’s name wrong and causing a minor kerfuffle which his coalition partner helpfully sorts out by suggesting a cash equivalent (the kind of policy – like the Education Maintenance Allowance – which was supposedly too cash-nexus-crass for the Tories and too free-market for the Lib Dems when Labour implemented it) and providing several quotations with which the press can ambush Mannion. (The writers seem to have decided Mannion needs more Ken Clarke in the mix, so he’s jowlier, more prone to speech gaffes which might look more innocuous in a party without a racist and misogynist rump on its right wing, and more fond of classic jazz.) It’s not a particularly involving narrative, since the episode spends most of its time letting us adjust to the slightly different roles the characters are settling into. Terri Coverley is just as fond of Mannion’s personal form, Glen Cullen has started working for the government and is vaguely manic to stave off the horror, and Emma Messinger is visibly changing her style from bright urban uber-researcher to Tory ministerial female support. Olivia Poulet manages to suggests in every scene someone who desperately wants (and intends) to be referred to as “indispensible” before long. Another reason for the more character-centred tack this week might be Will Smith’s name topping the writing credits – he’s been working his slightly clueless Southern chap schtick through a standup career and a BBC Radio sitcom, and it relies more on recognisable social types than political satire. I can’t wait to see how the Labour characters look next week. And that’s probably exactly what the producers intended…