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24 September 2014
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The Thick Of It
Armando Iannucci

The Thick Of It

Coming to BBC TWO in January 2006

Interview with Armando Iannucci

What's been your inspiration in putting the series together?


I'd describe The Thick Of It as Yes, Minister meets Larry Sanders - Gary Shandling's American sitcom about the behind-the-scenes activities of a late-night primetime chat-show host.


The Larry Sanders Show, though very funny, buried its comedy in authenticity; the viewers felt they were not only watching something that was very funny, but it must be pretty much like what actually goes on. I wanted to get this same smack of realism.


Are the characters based on any real-life political figures?


They're an amalgam of recognisable types. Malcolm Tucker isn't meant to be Alastair Campbell, but more a personification of many, many different people who lurk in Number Ten and who go around Ministries telling people what to do - or who ring up journalists and shout at them for not writing what they want.


Will viewers recognise them?


I hope they're shocked to find out they exist.


How topical is the series?


It's not a topical show in the sense that it refers to recent news stories. However, the incidents depicted in it will have a certain resonance with recent political events, such as an inquiry, a resignation, focus groups, or Middle England.


What sort of research did you do?


As part of my preparation for The Thick Of It I had a sequence of discrete lunches and tea-time drinks with former government researchers, advisors, and civil servants, as well as with current political journalists.


I thought their take on how politics works today would vary depending on which party or Whitehall cadre they belonged to; what was more startling was how similar a picture each one of them painted.


It was as if, staying alert over my spicy tomato-juices, I'd stumbled across a fixed, unimpeachable truth about how we are governed. And the truth goes something like this.


Ministers have very little power. They are financially and politically restrained by a centralised bunch of twenty-something policy-wonks and adminolescents at Number Ten.


These people are abetted by a gang of political bouncers or 'enforcers' from the Prime Minister's Delivery Unit, who tell each Ministry what it's to do, how it's to do it, who's to get the credit for doing it if it goes well, and how to take the flack if it goes badly.


The members of the Delivery Unit occasionally call in on the Ministries to make sure everyone's on message; it's rather like a school being inspected by OFSTED.


Cabinet Ministers also have no power in that they are petrified into inactivity through fear of the media, especially The Sun and The Daily Mail.


I have heard of one Cabinet Minister being presented with two completely contrasting and contradictory policies and only making a final decision on which one to go with when he'd taken soundings from his advisors over which one would play best with the press.


I've heard about another Cabinet Minister who sat his staff down and told them their principal aim was to get him a positive story in each week's News of The World.


Media coverage has such a dominant hold over political life that appearance can often take greater precedence over substance.


And there are acres of journalists who are more or less on the books of the government: unquestioning scribblers who will write anything the government asks them to write, in return for flabby scoops such as photos of Cherie Blair in a nighty.


Are you interested in politics?


Yes, and I've been interested in doing a comedy about Whitehall for some time - but only got interested in it after championing Yes, Minister last year for the BBC's Britain's Best Sitcom.


Watching the shows again made me realise how revolutionary they must have appeared to viewers when they were first broadcast. It's easy to forget that Yes, Minister was really the first time the workings of Whitehall had been seen on television.


Although Yes Minister remains timeless comedy, the situation it depicts has changed dramatically over the last 20 years.


Did you ever want to be a politician?


Sort of, but I hate labels, and hate the notion of having to identify yourself with one particular set of beliefs. I'd be a terrible politician, because I'd spent all my time thinking, 'Well, I suppose, on the one hand… but then again, on the other hand...'


Many people have a jaundiced view of politics - do you think this is justified?


Absolutely. Politicians treat the public with contempt. They reduce their beliefs to single, monosyllabic promises on the grounds that they think the public is too thick to deal with anything complicated.


What are the pros and cons of having the cast improvising around the scripts?


Pros: it looks real. Cons: it can be scary, which is also a pro.


Are people likely to make comparisons with Yes, Minister?


I'd be surprised if they didn't. But I think it's a companion-piece to Yes, Minister rather than a replacement. Yes, Minister is great, and timeless. The Thick Of it, on the other hand, has loads and loads of swearing.


Who are your comedy heroes?


Woody Allen, Buster Keaton and Billy Connolly.

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