The Thick of It

Thursday, May 19, 2005 by

As he had been away from our screens for a while Armando Iannucci’s new political comedy had been something to look forward to, especially as the initial run had been put back due to the General Election.

Iannucci has brought us some of the best comedy on both television and radio over the course of the past few years, a large amount of which has had a distinct political bias. From previews and interviews it looked as if his new show was going to be quite an entertaining and amusing look at the behind-the-scenes machinations of government. And on this count it was. But The Thick of It was utterly ruined for this reviewer by the annoying and dizzying use of “shaky-cam”.

Yes folks, shaky-cam is back, ready to give you a dose of motion sickness every time you watch, through the use of constant swaying and swooping around, as the camera desperately attempts to catch up with the action and reflect the apparent fast-paced nature of governance. It is worse to watch here than the vertigo-inducing technique that has recently been employed on the new BBC weather forecasts. The field of vision is moving all of the time, sometimes incredibly rapidly, making it hard to enjoy what you are supposed to be seeing on the screen.

The show concerns the fictional government Department of Social Affairs, which is supposed to be presided over by Chris Langham’s ineffectual minister Hugh Abbott, but in effect is operated and controlled seemingly by a wide variety of people. While Abbott is meant to be in overall charge, in practice he is advised, goaded, steered, twisted and spun by his assistants, his deputies and by the enforcer from Number 10, Malcolm Tucker. None of the deeply unpleasant characters appear to like each other and backstabbing and one-upmanship is the order of the day.

Given that the script advisor on the show is former BBC journalist and ex-government advisor Martin Sixsmith, it is likely that much of what we witness is closer to the truth than the government would like us to think. The people we see are incompetent buffoons. As has been long proposed by political pundits it looks as if it is the unelected government advisors and civil servants who actually run the country. Tucker instructs Abbot what to do, think and tell the press. And then, when he finds he’s been wrong, tells him to do the opposite.

This first episode deals with the department’s plan to set up a new taskforce to see out benefit cheats. The mark of Iannucci is all over the script here in the names the proposed team would have: Sponge Preventers; Sponge Avengers and Scambusters are some of the titles they manage to come up with. After mistakenly announcing the creation of the new squad, Abbott and his assistants Ollie and Glen find they are forced into doing an about-turn on the initiative, just as they’re on their way to present the scheme to the assembled media. Having successfully managed to do this somehow in a way that isn’t made entirely clear, Abbott is then told by Tucker that the idea of the taskforce is back on.

It is abundantly clear none of the people we see in the show are remotely bothered about the public they are supposed to be there to represent and serve. The only group Abbott is concerned about appearing positively to is the media. It is the name of the new task force that is the most important thing for the department to worry about and not what it is actually going to do. Everything is about gloss and presentation. We hear nothing about the electorate who got Abbott into the House of Commons, and subsequently the position he currently holds other than in the context that some of them are the spongers that the task force is being created to tackle.

Langham is very good as the perpetually troubled and befuddled Abbott, while Peter Capaldi fits the bill nicely as enforcer Tucker. The rest of the cast is made up of unfamiliar actors which seems to be a sensible tactic given that they are supposed to be representing a group of “faceless” bureaucrats.

The Thick of It is certainly worth sticking with, despite the fact this depiction of people with a slender grip on democracy is continually undermined by the equally shaky visuals.


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