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The Thick of It—ten years on (almost).

Updated: Nov 20, 2022

The final episode of The Thick of It aired on the 27th October, 2012—convenient, given the impulse to revisit “the man who makes the bhaji go away” on YouTube has, once again, flooded my recommended videos with clips and spurned a whole series re-watch. As is tradition.

The Thick of It is something of a weird fish in the pond as far as British television satire goes. There was still the emphasis on character comedy, the one-liners embedded in cultural memory (A personal favourite being “I’ll shove a fucking magnet down your throat and watch your face implode,” screamed at a man with facial piercings), the farce and sardonic wit that attracts obnoxious humanities students the nation over like mould particulates to a rotting plum (guilty as charged)—but there was no laughter, no incidental music. The cinéma vérité style, replete with naturalistic acting and dashes of improv, made the whole thing feel very chic and HBO, as critics who likened the series to Larry Sanders on its debut would reiterate ad naus. If The Office had made this mock-doc approach trendy at the turn of the decade, The Thick of It surely refined it—gone was the acknowledgement of form, the illusionism, the awkward injections of sentimentality… What filled the void was arguably the finest writing team assembled in 21st century British comedy, an unprecedented level of profanity, a complex and charismatic antihero in Malcolm Tucker, and an approach more purgative than analytical. There was never really any chance the series could fail. And it didn’t. Obviously.

Half of the comments underneath clips of the show on YouTube cry, “The Thick of It MUST return to lance this Trump-Brexit-COVID-Ukraine maelstrom we’ve been fucked into!” with their little drooling moron caps on, while the other, more erudite half proclaim, “You could never do this now! Politics is beyond satire now! I am very clever!” with their little smirking, wanking brain caps on. The truth, though, is that The Thick of It was never timeless. Wise, yes, even prophetic—it could forewarn, but it belonged to an age foregone. An age when three to four ministers constituted a mass resignation. When a spat between senior cabinet members seemed grandiose, fateful even, rather than just another symptom of the endemic, anti-entropic denialism that upholds our current sense of apathy towards party politics. When the politico-media complex was evolving, the idea of spin coming to the fore as a precedent for post-truth—a new frightening means of normalising alienation among those opposed to things like amorality, lying, elitism, cronyism, bigotry, war crimes, etc. “It was not about the civil service but about advisers and the whole Campbell-Mandelson communications thing,” Iannucci professed at the series’ close, but now that whole communications thing has been replaced with new cabals and new media, what sense does it make to call for The Thick of It to return? Like Super Hans saying the word “Zoella” in the last series of Peep Show, a Thick of It special on Partygate would stick out like a sore and insincere thumb.

By its end, The Thick of It had become quite a moralistic programme. As the budget and the cast and the set pieces expanded, so did the scope of its subject matter. The initial venting of frustrations at the inefficacy of Blairite comms strategies gave way to a more nuanced and character-driven exploration of power. Tucker evolved from the archetypal angry sane man, the conniving, scene-stealing “Iago with a Blackberry,” into a sad and bitter individual whose personage had long been gouged out and ground up by the abstract party line. The question of who is most pathetic in a line-up of shit cabinet ministers, self-serving policy advisers, incompetent civil servants, or any one of the detestable figures populating the coalition DoSAC officer had a simple answer: all of them. The moral compass was always Tucker, plugging holes he’d more often than not drilled into the boat himself. And what was the thesis, at the end of it all? Nothing. Because there is no real thesis to modern politics. There’s the odd inquiry, the odd scandal, the leaks, the prejudices, but The Thick of It was never dishonest in its portrayal of a system without direction or foresight. A system that would spiral on and on and on until, eventually, we wind up with something as mental as [INSERT ANY ARBITRARY POLICY SINCE 2019/2016/2010/ETC. HERE]. As if there were any better claim to timelessness.

The Thick of It stands firm in the pantheon of British comedy greats, but it belongs in its own class as well. It was capable of blending vulgar laughs with succinct and poignant statements on our dire condition without ever seeming saccharine. The People Just Do Nothings and the This Countrys of BBC iPlayer can try all they like to bottle that Gerv-Merch lightning, but the legacy The Thick of It left evades recapitulation.

Armando Iannucci’s COVID poem in all good bookshops now.


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