It was inspired by 1980s classic Yes Minister and came in the wake of a political environment dominated by New Labour and reeling from the Iraq War. It even gave us the delightful word ‘omnishambles’. But does the award-winning Armando Iannucci sitcom The Thick of It (TTOI), now back on iPlayer, stand the test of time?
Since going off the air in 2012, The Thick of It has rarely been out of popular discussion. It is frequently cited whenever today’s crop of politicians cocks up, whether it be Theresa May during her disastrous 2017 Party Conference speech, or any time a politician’s encounter with the public goes wrong (which, let’s face it, is pretty often).
Given everything that has rocked the political landscape in the last few years … there is a part of any TTOI viewer that hankers for the bygone age it represents
But it was also a cutting commentary on the two dominant parties of the time: Tony Blair and then Gordon Brown’s Labour Party, which ran a tight media spin operation a world away from what today’s government employs, and a modernised Conservative Party under David Cameron.
Given everything that has rocked the political landscape in the last few years, from Brexit to Covid to Trumpian ‘alternative truths’, there is a part of any TTOI viewer that hankers for the bygone age it represents: a time when political worries were exclusive to half-baked digital initiatives or healthy living policies. It all makes it tempting to see the show as having aged, albeit in super quick time, beyond any recognition. Perhaps even more so than its forebear Yes Minister, which remains a somewhat timeless commentary on the mighty power of the civil service.
There does, however, remain something so utterly dark and craven about the characters in the programme which serves its continuing appeal. Take a scene where minister Hugh Abbot bemoans having to meet normal people. Or a brainstorming session which produces the phrase ‘quiet batpeople’. Not to forget the Machiavellian portrayal of Malcolm Tucker by Peter Capaldi, a performance with such depth and flavour that it never fails to enthral me.
Watching the current government, which hardly presents a semblance of stability or unity, you almost miss Tucker’s sacrificial brutality
Tucker is perhaps the most interesting character of the show. We will always have Abbots, Nicola Murrays, or Peter Mannions (the three government ministers who provide the focus of the show’s run), but Tucker was unique.
His character was inspired by Alastair Campbell, the famous Labour spin doctor who laid the path for Blair’s decade in office, before resigning following the Iraq ‘sexed-up’ dossier controversy. Campbell is now a somewhat redeemed public figure, hosting a podcast with former Conservative minister Rory Stewart, but back then he was famous for his tempestuous and forceful approach. Watching the current government, which hardly presents a semblance of stability or unity, you almost miss Tucker’s sacrificial brutality. If only today’s Tory Party had their own Malcolm, prepared to steward it to respectability.
But Tucker, at a deeper level, was always about something else. As his eventual (spoiler alert) downfall demonstrated, the sacrifices he made came at a great personal cost. Politics had eaten him alive. It was all he really had, and he gave everything for it. And in the end, you see him not as a ruthless and nasty henchman but instead a committed public servant. Politics might have been a game, but winning it is what mattered. In today’s man-eating Westminster Coliseum, Tucker is truly a lost art. Perhaps the underlying message of The Thick of It is something for us to strive for.