Monday, February 3, 2014

Pop Between Realities, Home in Time for Tea 76 (The Thick of It)

We’ve talked about comedy a few times before, and The Thick of It, in many ways, extends from those discussions. It is of course ridiculous to talk about British comedy as a monolithic entity, but if one were to try to one could be substantially more wrong than suggesting that the heart of British comedy is exposing the absurd foolishness of structures of authority. The most straightforward, standard issue joke in a piece of British comedy is, in essence, that the inmates are running the asylum - that how the world works is, in fact, determined by idiots who are immune to reason. Far from the comforting fiction that there’s actually some nefarious asshole running the show and screwing everyone, British comedy at its best suggests that the reason everything is completely fucked is that the world is run by blithering fools who aren’t malicious so much as they are wholly and entirely incompetent.

The previous classic of British political comedy was, of course, Yes (Prime) Minister, a sitcom in which the functioning of government is revealed to be inept because of the backbiting between elected officials and the civil service, and the bureaucratic nonsense each side engages in to establish power over the other. Principles and the actual issue of what would be best for the country are wholly extraneous concerns, and it is really the cold war between two groups who are ostensibly on the same side that drives government. 

In that regard, at least, The Thick of It is a simpler program - a reversion to the more classical British comedy trope of everyone being an idiot. Yes Minister is ultimately a story about systemic breaks in the structures of power - about the idea that the divide between elected representatives and permanent government employees created fundamentally perverse incentives that rendered government dysfunctional. The Thick of It, on the other hand, is largely about a bunch of incompetent buffoons who cause trouble because they’re fundamentally bad at what they do. 

There are, of course, stylistic things to note. The Thick of It is shot in a handheld style with lots of authentic-seeming conversation that puts it as a British cousin to the American mumblecore movement (added to by the partially improvised nature of the final performance). It’s of the style of modern British comedy that goes with long, extended discomfort as a mood, and that doesn’t bother with the unnaturalist structures of comic timing. There are handfuls of scenes that are done as straight-up, typically structured humor, but for the most part it’s a sitcom that isn’t hugely concerned with selecting the moments when the audience is or is not going to laugh. 

But under the hood, in its attitudes, there’s something classical about The Thick of It that puts it firmly in the BlackAdder/Jeeves and Wooster/Monty Python’s Flying Circus/The Goon Show tradition of being about stupid people in charge of things. And yet in its own way this paints a bleaker picture of politics than Yes Minister ever could. Ultimately, The Thick of It isn’t just about how the people in charge are buffoons - it’s about how the nature of political power is something that attracts incompetent and selfish nitwits. This is, in its own way, far and vastly more cynical viewpoint than Yes Minister, in that it suggests that it is not a structural deficiency that leads to the absurd and sorry state of the world, but rather that the world is broken so long as people try to run it at all.

It is, in other words, a profoundly nihilistic show. As comedy is, compared to something like Doctor Who, and, indeed, to most dramas. At the end of the day, any drama is about the weight and value of human actions, whereas comedy is, in many cases, about the absurd pointlessness of things and about how we are all basically doomed (and, in most of the other cases, not funny). Certainly The Thick of It is an angry, exhausted howl at the world, which is why it was never funnier than when it started coming true, as it periodically seemed to, particularly in its third and fourth seasons. To start it just had New Labour to rail against, and, starting in 2005, it was so far into New Labour that there wasn’t that much new to puncture. But in its final two seasons it got to watch the steady and inevitable collapse of New Labour and the rise of a whole new flavor of political idiocy, it seemed to get ahead of events, to capture the mood before it even formed. So much so that the show acquired a strange glamour that made it influential and important in excess of its ratings. 

Central to all of this was Malcolm Tucker, the inventively foul-mouthed political operative around whom The Thick of It ultimately revolves. Tucker is on the one hand the series’ ruthless bastard, repeatedly demonstrating a streak of cruel and ruthless pragmatism that usually results in him controlling any given situation. He is, oddly, the only character who might not actually be an irredeemable, selfish, and incompetent bastard. He’s just a regular sort of bastard. 

He is also, of course, played by Peter Capaldi, and is, at the time of writing, still Capaldi’s iconic role, although this is a statement that will surely be changed for the book version. To be fair, there are reasons for this, first and foremost that Capaldi is phenomenal in the part. He generates a slightly strange demeanor that leaves Tucker inscrutable almost all of the time, even though he’s clearly active and making decisions. It’s a performance with all the density of decision-making and conscious acting of David Tennant (or Matt Smith, or Benedict Cumberbatch), and yet it remains impossible to quite tell what Capaldi (or Tucker) are thinking. It is a performance that is in many ways more alien than the Doctor. (Not for nothing did Capaldi speak of having to banish the character - like some mystical demon called up - in order to play the Doctor)

But Tucker also seems to challenge the underlying assumptions of The Thick of It. He is, after all, not incompetent. Far from it, he’s seemingly superhuman, always able to come out on top no matter what absurd situation unfolds within a given episode. The real message isn’t, in other words, that the world is broken by incompetent buffoons in power, but rather that it is held together, desperately and by the skin of its teeth, by complete and raving madmen like Malcolm Tucker. The other characters are dunces, but Tucker is actually completely mad. And yet it’s hard to treat this as a particularly pleasurable fantasy. One hardly wants to live in a world run by Malcolm Tucker; it seems scarcely more satisfying or comfortable than one run by idiots. Nevertheless, it’s the then reed of salvation and hope the show offers - that in the face of the right kind of bastard we might somehow all be OK.

In that moment, at least, the line between the character and Doctor Who becomes momentarily clearer. Tucker is the same basic fantasy - the hypercapable man who can figure out a way out of any problem with his wits and charm. But where Tucker’s charm requires a swearing consultant, the Doctor is, ultimately, a fantasy of a wonderful hero - one whose charm is, in fact, the very fact that he is fun. Malcolm Tucker saves the world through aggressive and cruel political savvy. The Doctor saves it by being wonderful. That they’re both inhumanly clever is only one distant point of similarity. 

And thus as much as this essay is one that’s been essentially demanded and assumed since the Capaldi casting was announced, there’s not actually a ton to say. It’s Capaldi’s best-known role, but it’s not a clue to how he’s going to play the Doctor. Not really. A clue that he’ll do it well, certainly, but not a clue as to exactly what that will look like. In that regard, there’s very little to say.


Somewhat more interesting, then, is the casting of Peter Capaldi as a civil servant and politician - the sort of character who appears in The Thick of It, if not, strictly speaking, a character in the vein of Malcolm Tucker. And the casting of him not in Doctor Who, but in a show that is altogether more cynical and dark, and that comes much closer to The Thick of It’s point of view - that the world is irretrievably broken and that it’s the existence of people that is the real problem. And, perhaps more to the point, the view that ultimately the world is only held together by the persistence of absolute and total bastards. Because, of course, it’s time to return to Torchwood. And after a spectacularly unsatisfying second season that seemed to abandon all case that the first season had made for why this show might be a good idea, Torchwood is about to make a serious bid to be the best thing Russell T Davies has ever written.

22 comments:

  1. Meanwhile in 2014, Capaldi is playing Cardinal Richelieu in The Musketeers. Insert your own joke here.

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    1. The interesting thing is that the much calmer Richelieu can actually do the things to people that Tucker could only ever threaten them with.

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  2. I disagree that Tucker isn't incompetent, he is, but his bullying and psychosis enables him to shift blame onto others or else intimidate others into taking responsibility for his errors. A lot of problems that occur in the show are made worse by Tucker's interference, but he is such a bully, micromanager and meddler that his only solution is to yell and swear at the politicians and civil servants until they end up carrying the can for his meddling.

    The one character who may not be incompetent is Peter Mannion, played by Roger Allam. Mannion is like a hang dog version of Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart: The one sane man in a world gone insane but is too world weary, ground down and with a problematic past so he can't change anything.

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    1. Yes, this is one of the most glorious aspects of Series 4 - with the shift of focus, Mannion becomes clearly cast as an essentially decent man involved in politics out of sincerely-held principles, whether the writers or audience agree with him or not; inable to effect any change or influence whatsoever, though, he becomes the closest thing to an identifiable central character that the show has ever had.

      Also, piss-funny.

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  3. Tucker is based on a real person, toned down because you can't get away with this shit in fiction. Here's Alistair Campbell, director of communications for Tony Blair, just showing up unannounced on the Channel Four News and demanding an interview about the (rival) BBC's coverage of the build up to the Iraq War.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8a5uJmq5X4I

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  4. I disagree that Tucker is in any way a good force; he's certainly the most intelligent character and he's the only one who's able to have any actual effect on what happens, but the show ultimately portrays his ruthless pragmatism as wrong. Without Tucker and the political system existing the way it does, it's possible that some of the (admittedly idiotic) idealists would be able to change something; Tucker just restores the status quo, usually at immense personal cost to someone else.

    I think that The Thick Of It actually offers some clues as to how Capaldi will play the part. I predict the most important aspect of Tucker re: the Doctor is Capaldi's ability to suddenly deflate Tucker, in the brief intervals where his anger and bluster suddenly drain away and he's incredibly weary and aged-looking; for example, when he apologizes to Glen for punching him in the face. This is something none of the Doctors have been able to pull off since Hartnell, with the possible exception of John Hurt.

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    1. Tucker just restores the status quo, usually at immense personal cost to someone else

      I wondered about that, since this is what he does rather spectacularly and chillingly in In The Loop. I've watched that, but haven't gone back to watch The Thick of It yet, so I wondered if the film was a reversal of his usual M.O. or its apotheosis.

      This is something none of the Doctors have been able to pull off since Hartnell, with the possible exception of John Hurt.

      It's not the draining of anger and bluster so much as charm and whimsy, but Matt Smith has one of these suddenly-weary-and-aged moments in "Closing Time." It's as remarkable as anything else we've seen from him, I think.

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    2. Matt Smith is a genius, and that scene in Closing Time is great, but I was thinking more along the lines of Hartnell in the Massacre when Steven leaves. Matt Smith would be able to give it a lot of emotion, but he wouldn't be able to portray the lonely, worn-down, broken old man that Hartnell does in that scene, and I think Capaldi would be able to do that.

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    3. In "In the Loop", Tucker does more than maintain the status quo. He cobbles together a deliberately misleading and fraudulent intelligence dossier to provide a thin justification for the US and UK to attack a middle eastern state.

      Amazing how they think up these ideas.

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  5. I massively disagree with this reading of The Thick of It. It's not about a bunch of idiots. It's about a bunch of normal people with perfectly ordinary human foibles, forced to operate in a political/media environment that is insane.

    Take the very first episode, for example. Hugh gets all excited because he thinks the PM has given backing for his new policy initiative, and proudly announces it in a radio interview. Immediately Malcolm Tucker is on his case, explaining that the PM saying "This is something we should be doing" doesn't mean "Yes" - and the PM is away on a foreign trip and unable to provide clarification. This provides the driver for the main comedy plot of the episode, as Hugh tries to cope with the impossible situation of backtracking on his previous announcement without admitting that's what he's doing, a problem that is eventually resolved by Malcolm Tucker using his skills with the dark arts of media manipulation and bullying to save his skin. In the end, the PM gets back and it is revealed that he did intend to back the policy all along.

    Nobody is an idiot in that plot. The PM's comment is subtly ambiguous, and Hugh and Malcolm interpret it differently. It turns out that Hugh's interpretation is correct, and if Malcolm had just left well alone everything would have been fine. But Malcolm's actions are logical too: he wants to present a facade of slick, perfectly functioning government, and even the potential for a contradiction between a minister and the PM must be ruthlessly erased.

    Armando Iannucci's core contention is that the public makes impossible demands upon politicians, then punishes them for failing to meet those demands. As Hugh Abbott says, "They should just clone ministers, you know, so we're born at 55 with no past, and no flats, and no genitals."

    Malcolm Tucker represents one solution to this problem, drawing on the real-world examples of Labour advisers Alistair Campbell and Damian McBride. It's a seductive response to the debasement of politics, but it ends up debasing it even further while destroying the people who practice it.

    If you've never been in politics, whether running a campaign or holding elected office, it may be hard to appreciate the intensity, panic and paranoia of life within that bubble. The Thick of It captures that beautifully.

    It really works as a modern form of bedroom farce, in which situations that could be readily resolved if everyone concerned just sat down and talked about it sensibly are allowed to escalate to comic proportions through social constraints and clear of embarrassment. It's the same in The Thick of It, except that the reason why the characters can't just admit their human failings and carry on is that the voters would punish them for being as imperfect as they are themselves. It's like a farce where the most powerful character is always off-stage, but has a presence that looms over all the on-stage action.

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  6. Yes! I really think Iain has hit the nail on the head. None of the characters in In The Thick of It are initially inept (a few creep that way in season 4, namely Phil) or indeed misguided. Terry Coverly is like a lot of Comms people I've met. In most situations she does the thing her position dictates. Same with the majority of other characters in the programme.

    I interviewed Alastair Campbell once, and he's phenomenally good at working the media, like Tucker is. It's like magic, using words and managing of situations to modify the reality that people outside of the circle see.

    Iain is also right that The Thick of It is a played for laughs version of the realities of political life, the world of leaks, briefs, counter-briefs, three line whips, press conferences. Tucker isn't a madman at all. He is seldom wrong about the relationship between actions and perceptions.

    I think Tucker's speech to his team before the election his party loses is one of the most moving bits of telly I've ever seen. Like the real Campbell, the motivation is the huge psychic scar of having been on the losing side during the eighties and nineties. The Fucker, the opposition's Malcolm Tucker, is shown to be unhinged and empty, while Tucker is the long tradition of british characters who are doing what they see as the right thing, despite the fact it is eroding their soul and hollowing them out. Tucker's wish at all costs to keep the opposition out is the real story. He has cynicism coming out of his ears about the processes he himself is involved in, but far less cynicism about the world. He mostly very careful of 'civilians', unless they compromise the greater goal of preventing the opposition getting in.

    His own characterisation of politics as a war, of people as soldiers, is very macho, but also fits with having been a figure in a party that spent years and years in opposition while the opposition took the country down a different path to the one his party would have preferred.

    As with Campbell, Tucker is tribal. It's something The Thick of It plays with a fair bit in the relationship between Tucker, Glenn and Ollie. Ollie is from a less tribal generation than both of them. Glen and Tucker are old comrades from, we assume, the battles and skirmishes of the eighties. I think your sense of Tucker as a negative force depends on whether you can feel that sense of what drives him. If you can't it's power for powers sake, if you can it's by any means necessary to keep the other, worse people getting in.

    Politics and civil service stuff is very rarely the right person doing the right thing at the right time. It's more likely to people trying to do things in the pursuit of some aim (not always the same as their stated aim) in circumstances where they are in a web of other people trying to do things towards some aim (not always the same as their stated aim).

    Tucker wants the job because no one else can do the job. And he's right, according to the show. As with the real Campbell, his problem is too much loyalty to the idea of keeping the opposition out. Which is really a kind of idealism, or at least knowing that the fuck up you make will be less bad than the fuck up that 'they' will make.

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    1. The Fucker, the opposition's Malcolm Tucker, is shown to be unhinged and empty,

      The Fucker only appears once, as I recall, and in series four the new government's Malcolm Tucker is Stewart Pearson, plainly based on the Conservative's Steve Hilton. This was a good choice, as it is much more fun to see the new dynamic rather than trying to reiterate the old one, and also closer to reality, in that different parties do operate in different ways and have different pathologies.

      And just as Tucker gets his rousing man-the-barricades speech, Pearson gets a sympathetic moment at the end as he sums up his career in politics:

      "You know, I've spent ten years detoxifying this party. It's been a bit like renovating an old, old house, yeah? You can take out a sexist beam here, a callous window there, replace the odd homophobic roof tile. But after a while you realise that this renovation is doomed. Because the foundations are built on what I can only describe as a solid bed of cunts."

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  7. I think it's interesting how much Stewart is modelled on Steve Hilton, who came up with policies, ideas. A strong platform to detoxify a party in opposition, a weak one in power. Tucker doesn't come up with policies. He's a campaign manager, a line enforcer. Stuart, once the opposition gets in doesn't really have a role and is increasingly sidelined as their coalition continues. In essence, Stuart runs into the reality that Tucker has always operated in. He gets screwed by his own side far more effectively than by his opposition.

    What is also interesting is Tucker's scrupulous concern (perhaps insincere) for the little people, the aids, the waiters, the cab drivers. Stuart is very rude to people most of the time, and is especially rude to service staff.

    I thought the final season was weaker, as it relied on characters becoming slightly more archetypal, but the Tickle death was played very, very well. I watched it as one big marathon and it became the desperate last fight of an over-the-hill fighter who just doesn't have the faculty and speed anymore.

    Tucker's assertion that; 'everyone lies, everyone briefs'; is of course correct. And is fascinating, going back to some of the responses above, that he is effectively saying 'you can't blame us for being in politics and doing politics in this way. This is what politics is. It will always come back to this' If you wnat things to happen, or other things not to happen, you will eventually pick up this weapons and you will eventually use them. No clean hands. Ever.'

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    1. Both Tucker and his attack-dog Jamie are genuinely decent to the "little people",as you put it. One of my favourite little moments in The Thick of It is when Jamie, having delivered another blistering bollocking in DoSaC, turns round, accidentally bumps into one of the cleaners,and automatically apologises in a calm and polite tone.

      It reminds me of Damian McBride, who wrote in his diaries that of all the brutal character assassinations he performed on Gordon Brown's behalf, the one he most regretted was the one which included a junior civil servant who had absolutely nothing to do with the issue. There's a real sense of a distinction between people who are in the game and people who are not.

      You noted earlier that Tucker, like Campbell, is motivated ultimately by party loyalty. We never get a handle on Jamie's motives, but McBride makes it quite clear that his motivation was not political partisanship, but an intense love for Gordon Brown.

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  8. a British cousin to the American mumblecore movement

    Are there American antecedents to the UK Office you're thinking of? I always thought of the latter as the wellspring of this comedy of awkward moments and faux-documentary style, but I'm curious if there's something earlier that inspired it.

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    1. Spinal Tap is the one that immediately springs to mind.

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    2. Well, not American, but John Morton/Chris Langham's People Like Us is surely an antecedent.

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    3. The work of Christopher Guest is an antecedent to the Office, and the Office is an antecedent to The Thick Of It, but I wouldn't say the mumblecore movement is related to the Office. Most of the mumblecore aesthetic is established in the movie Clerks. I would say The Thick Of It is a hybrid of the Office, Lars Von Trier's the Kingdom, and Yes, Minister. The camera style is especially reminiscent of the Kingdom.

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    4. Ah yes, how could I forget Spinal Tap? About time I watched it again...

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    5. Again, not American but I recall a number of sequences on early 90's Chris Morris news satire shows The Day Today and Brass Eye which employed and parodied the then trendy 'fly on the wall' 'shaky cam' docu-verite style.

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    6. Thanks for the examples! I've always thought of Guest's movies as being a bit warmer toward their characters than The Office or The Thick of It, but maybe that's a minor difference.

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  9. it suggests that ... the world is broken so long as people try to run it at all.

    It is, in other words, a profoundly nihilistic show


    What you call nihilistic, some of us would call the great insight that points us away from nihilism, then.

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