The Thick of It (BBC America, NR)

The-Thick-of-It 75You don’t have to be up to date with British politics to enjoy The Thick of It, because the character types, and the battles they fight, exist in many other situations. 

The-Thick-of-It 500

If you liked In the Loop—and it was one of my favorite films of 2009—you really owe it to yourself to go back to the source from which it sprang. That would be the BBC television series The Thick of It, which aired from 2005 to 2012 on BBC Four, and whose complete run is now available on DVD.

The Thick of It is a biting satire on the contemporary British government, their spin-doctors, and the British press, with many characters and incidents modeled on real people and situations current at the time of filming. It’s shot with handheld cameras and has a semi-documentary feel, with lines partly improvised and lots of deliberately bad framing and camera motion, an approach I usually don’t care for but which works perfectly for this series. It’s partly an update of a previous BBC series Yes Minister and Yes Prime Minister that ran from 1980 to 1984, and 1986 to 1988, respectively. And when I say “biting,” I’m not kidding—The Thick of It makes House of Cards look like an afterschool special.

Everyone in the show seems to be phenomenally busy all the time, but very little of that activity is related to anything the average citizen would care about—you know, like governing the country, including little details like seeing that the police department has adequate staffing to handle their caseload. Instead, it’s all a zero sum game played at the macro level—where the goal is to keep your party in power—and the micro level—where the goal is to maintain and improve your status within the system, including that most local of systems, the office in which you currently work.

The very absurdity of the lengths the characters will go to win the tiniest and most insignificant of battles is part of the joke; although, if you’ve ever worked in an office you’ll probably be familiar with those sorts of skirmishes already. If you’ve worked within higher education, as I have for years, that goes double—the more insignificant the turf, the more ferocious the battles that will be fought over it. That means that you don’t have to be up to date with British politics to enjoy The Thick of It, because the character types, and the battles they fight, exist in many other situations as well and can thus be understood by just about anyone.

There are many, many characters in this series, but fortunately, there’s only a few that you really have to keep track of, and they’re so memorable that it’s not really a problem. Central to it all is Malcolm Tucker (Peter Capaldi), the government’s senior director of communications and a man with a truly awesome gift for creative swearing—one of the show’s great pleasures is observing his rants, from a safe remove, of course, as he puts anyone unfortunate to have crossed his path firmly in his or her place. Like Bebe Glazier (Harriet Sansom Harris) in Frasier, he’s someone of whose methods you may not approve, but still you’re really glad he’s working on your side. I’ve never been a big Doctor Who fan, but now that Capaldi has been announced as taking over the lead role, I may have to give it another chance.

Also, working in the press office is Oliver Reeder (Chris Addison), an arrogant yet endearing bumbler and Oxbridge grad who looks to be about 14 years old, yet holds a position of responsibility and also manages to get laid by some truly desirable women. Terri Coverly (Joanna Scanlan) is a civil servant working as director of communications, and the object of a constant stream of abuse from everyone around her; although, she manages to get her own back from time to time. Glenn Cullen (James Smith), a senior advisor, is a calm and competent presence within the office, although he also endures a great deal of abuse from the younger generation, who are all wrapped up in their self-importance and cooler-than-thou-ness—one of the highlights comes in the final episodes of the series, when he finally tells everyone what he really thinks of them.

The actual elected officials play a relatively minor role in the series, a no doubt deliberate choice to emphasize that governing is the last thing on anyone’s mind. Chris Langham plays Hugh Abbot, an inept cabinet minister, for the first two series; he is replaced in series three and four by Rebecca Front, who portrays an equally inept minister. Both actors are fine, but the script portrays them up as big children who hardly know how to blow their respective noses, so they don’t provide the best foils for the much sharper media staff.

The box set of The Thick of It features seven discs, with about 12 and a half hours of programming and a generous package of extras including commentaries, deleted scenes and outtakes, featurettes, and photo galleries. Audio and visual quality are both excellent as you would expect from so recent a television series. | Sarah Boslaugh

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply