sun 14/08/2022

The Thick of It, BBC Two | reviews, news & interviews

The Thick of It, BBC Two

The Thick of It, BBC Two

Heavyweight satire clambers back into the ring

To think the unthinkable, are we now getting towards the thin end of The Thick of It? The show remains unchallenged as the most bilious, urgent comedy on television. No argument there. It coruscates, it eviscerates – even a thin Thick of It does all those aggressive things to the body politic that satire should. But is there now the merest hint, just the faintest smidgin, of weariness, of heaving itself once more into the ring to land a few more blows on the clapped-out mob currently downing dregs of Pinot Grigio in the Last Chance Saloon?

The Thick of It kicked down the door again last night. Like all those ministers who turn up in each new incarnation of the show, it’s had its own little promotion. Booted upstairs from the set-top-box ghetto onto BBC Two, this is in a sense its actual first series. Those early BBC Four episodes which established its reputation for holding a mirror up to the farce that is Whitehall went out in random, piecemeal fashion. The odd special was made here and there. And then there was In the Loop, the film in which the sitcom went to DC and returned with a not implausible theory about the circumstances behind the sexing-up of the dodgy dossier.

Meanwhile, returned to the telly, there is a back-at-school feel after the high water mark of that big-screen triumph. Everything is very much as it should be, all very tickety boo. The regular characters are still flagrantly scheming. Clueless ministers are once more coming through the revolving door. And over the vast edifice constructed of spin and spittle, mire and murk, presides Malcolm Tucker, the foam-flecked demon genius of the pan-governmental machine. (His joint creators Armando Iannucci and Peter Capaldi don’t, but you can call him Al.) However, as New Labour sinks slowly, mock-tragically into the drink, it’s difficult to avoid the impression that The Thick of It has already completed its work.

The plot seems already to know it. The joke about Nicola Murray MP, the incoming Minister for Social Affairs coughed up by the latest reshuffle, is that she comes from so far down the pecking order that the embarrassing skeletons in her closet were unknown even to the all-seeing Malcolm. She has a dodgy husband and is about to send her child to an independent school rather than the “knife-addled rape shed” that is a regular state secondary. As plotlines to thwack New Labour with, these feel very first-term, very late-Nineties.

One of the abiding USPs of Iannucci’s comedy has always been that it responds nimbly to events. That’s harder to do within the sitcom format. Even the greatest sitcoms rely on a lack of character development, on the cosmic joke of eternal stasis. The Thick of It, in its serial incarnation, seems to have given up on overcoming that hummock. The expenses scandal has so far been whittled down to a small running joke about an office chair with lumbar support. All of a sudden the comic situation in Whitehall remains the same, much as it did in the Fawltys’ hotel or the Steptoes’ yard. Outside the minister’s office it’s business as usual for the two squabbling special advisers Glenn and Olly (James Smith and Chris Addison), jostling as ever for position and firing off second-hand one-liners at each other. Malcolm’s got the measure of them: “Hinge and Bracket, time to go and hang up your lady cocks.” Or maybe even just do something new with them?

But then you slightly worry about Malcolm too. A bit like entering the charts at number one, he achieved instant gold-card membership of sitcom’s hall of infamy. Now the abuse is tripping off his tongue just because it must. Some random samples... “Ninety per cent of dust is made of dead human skin. That’s what you are, to me.” “I’ve got more on my plate than a spinster at a wedding.” “I’ve got a to-do list that’s long than a Leonard Cohen song.” And so on.

The writing is a little bit written. Once upon a time the baroque curlicues of riotous invective were tossed out like the best heckle put-downs. Now they are part of something less freeform, more artificial. As last night's episode finally ripped the name tag off the door of Hugh Abbot (played what seems like aeons ago by the now unemployable Chris Langham), it was as if it was laying to rest a bygone performance style. You can lay a fiver that this time round there’s been a lot less improvisation: respect for the known product has engendered a kind of ossification.

It feels, in short, as if The Thick of It has entered Blackadder territory. The main trope of Ben Elton and Richard Curtis's scripts was to exceed their own lapel-grabbing similes. The hilarity of hyperbole: discuss. It's a good territory for a historical frolic to be in. Maybe not so great for a political satire.

That said, it’s a joy to find Rebecca Front exercising her great skill as a comic actress in a main role. There are wonderful teeth-baring asides about the Tsarist Dimblebys and the pate of Nick Robinson. But the true test of greatness for this series will be its treatment of a government facing electoral Armageddon. Seconds out for round two.

The Thick of It continues on Saturdays on BBC2. Watch the first episode on BBC iPlayer here.

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