Foul-mouthed favourite returns

JAMES BELFIELD
Last updated 05:00 04/11/2012
The Thick of It

POWER PLAY: Rebecca Front and Peter Capaldi in The Thick of It.

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It would be laughable if it wasn't so true: the world is run by morons in suits.

And the higher up the foodchain you explore, the more ridiculous the power games are, played by those suits as they desperately cling to their ephemeral trappings of dominion.

The nightly news just skims the surface - there's a web of PR and marketing decoys set up to prevent the revelation of the cogs and wheels of influence and the average punter is told just the what, where and when, rather than the how.

So who's left to reveal the Machiavellian machine?

Enter satire, stage left.

The undisputed heavyweight champ of this genre at the moment is Armando Iannucci. Emerging from his red corner in the Britpop 1990s, he jabbed at the establishment from radio with clever, cult, spoof news shows such as The Day Today and On The Hour. These days, he's developed a mighty left hook which he delivers through mainstream fake-fly-on-the-wall political documentaries such as Veep and The Thick of It, which is about to air its fourth series in New Zealand.

Along for the ride throughout Iannucci's career has been actor Rebecca Front, whose blundering government minister Nicola Murray from The Thick of It series three has now become leader of the opposition.

When the Sunday Star-Times catches up with her for a chat about what's been flagged as the final series, it's little surprise that her next engagement is to head into a BBC studio to film an interview commemorating the archetype of British political satire Yes, Minister. "What's great is that it gave me the chance to watch lots of Yes, Minister episodes last night. And what strikes you is how well it all still works. It doesn't feel dated because the themes of politics are all still there and you find yourself looking for parallels," Front says.

"The Thick of It is very influenced by Yes, Minister. It's about how politics works and how those who are part of politics operate."

Although, like Yes, Minister, The Thick of It's storylines are heavily guided by current themes in Westminster (series four has a coalition government and a Leveson-style public inquiry), it's not filmed week-to-week to keep up with the news agenda.

This makes for a far easier transition to foreign screens, especially those in New Zealand where British news is piped on to our broadcasts and into our newspapers daily and where our politics and politicians seem whelped from a similar breed.

"I was quite surprised when I heard that it did well in other countries," says Front.

"I suppose it's because it's not about procedural politics. It's about the desperate clinging on to power. It's about people. On the basic mistrust that all the characters have for each other.

"Since I've been part of the show I've heard from MPs that they say it's very close. One ex-cabinet minister even said he liked it, although sometimes it wasn't as harsh as it actually got.

"No matter what the storyline, every episode has something which will ring true with the audience."

And much of that is down to Iannucci.

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"He's a politics geek. He understands power and is able to fairly accurately represent it while at the same time creating something which is a successful comedy.

"He's not so hands on as he used to be because he's got so many other projects and there's simply not the time.

"But he's exactly the same as a person. From the beginning he's been able to make a type of creative chaos out of which would come these wonderful lines. You know that if Armando gets in touch, whether it's weeks or months before the event, you just assume it's going to be good."

One of The Thick of It's greatest coups was when the word "omnishambles" - coined by the show's foul-mouthed lord of the dark art of spin-doctoring, Malcolm Tucker (played majestically by Peter Capaldi) - found its way into a House of Commons' Prime Minster's Questions debate in April via the soundbite-seeking leader of the real opposition, Ed Miliband.

Most of Tucker's outbursts are so X-rated that they'd be edited from a Tourette's debate in a Scottish dockworkers meeting (one of the cleaner ones gives you the sense, though: "Well, you know me, I'm a man of principle. I like to know whether I'm lying to save the skin of a tosser or a moron.").

But being "Tuckered" has become a badge of honour for Capaldi's fellow actors and has spawned online fan sites of his vitriolic verbal slapdowns.

"It's brilliantly scripted with a tiny peppering of improvisation," says Front. "But Peter's great. It has to be quite cleverly executed and when you've been ‘Tuckered' it can be terrifying."

From its inception in 2005, The Thick of It has pecked at the entrails of political power games while also picking up a couple of Bafta awards for best British sitcom and best comedy actor awards for Front and Capaldi.

That this is to be the final series seems a shame but, because our era of "open government" has bred little more than distrust and disenchantment, there's still ample room for more satirical outpourings from the likes of Iannucci.

In many ways his comedic touch has become an important part of our acceptance of democracy. The world is run by morons in suits: it's laughable because it's true.

The Thick of It, Friday, 9pm, UKTV

- © Fairfax NZ News

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