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Bitter truths

Bitter truths

21 May 2005

12:00 AM

21 May 2005

12:00 AM

Tragically, I missed the recent reality TV show in which celebrity love rat (and, weirdly enough, brother of my old riding teacher) James Hewitt was filmed receiving hand relief from a young woman desperate (very, clearly) to win £10,000. Instead I’m going to talk about something if possible even more depressing: Armando Iannucci’s new sitcom The Thick of It (BBC4, Thursday).

What’s depressing isn’t that it’s bad — it’s not: it’s quite brilliant, the new Yes, Minister — but that it dissects with such merciless accuracy the failings of the New Labour project that you find yourself thinking, ‘Phew! Thank God, we’ve finally seen through those charlatans. Imagine how awful it would have been if we’d gone and elected them for a third term!’, before realising a millisecond later: ‘Oh, Christ…’

The running joke in Yes, Minister was that while politicians may wish to change the world with their big ideas it’s the civil servants who really run the show and forever ensure that things stay exactly as they are because that’s the way Whitehall likes it. At the time, the series probably seemed like a trenchant satire on bureaucracy gone mad. Now, though, it comes across more like a rose-tinted tribute to the golden era when politicians still had ideals and when civil servants weren’t pliable nobodies in the service of sinister spin doctors but voices of tradition and authority with the power and good sense to keep the government’s more excessive idiocies in check.


In The Thick of It when nothing happens it’s not because of Whitehall obstructiveness but because for nothing to happen is at the very heart of the government’s ideology. If something happens, then there’s always the possibility that voters might object, which won’t do at all. Far better merely to create the illusion of momentum (forward not backward, anyone?) by announcing and reannouncing endless eye-catching policy initiatives to be rolled out at unspecified intervals in the bright and glorious future.

This, at any rate, was the theme of the opening episode. A new minister (Chris Langham) has been given what he imagines is the prime ministerial go-ahead for an eye-catching initiative, only to be told by the evil Alastair Campbell figure (a magnificently reptilian Peter Capaldi) seconds before the press conference he has called to announce it that when the Prime Minister said ‘should’ it meant ‘yes, it would be a nice idea’, rather than ‘I want this thing to happen.’ The pay-off, of course, is that, having gone to extravagant lengths to turn the announcement into a non-announcement (blaming earlier hints that there was going to be an announcement on a disgruntled civil servant), they then have to reannounce it because the Prime Minister has changed his mind.

Besides being bitterly funny, it has the feel of observational truth about it. Perhaps it’s because it has been filmed like The Office in fly-on-the-wall-documentary style or perhaps because it has an awful lot of swearing in it, but I suspect that a lot of it is based on insider information. Except, perhaps, for the scene where the spin doctor from No. 10 explains to a young Standard hackette why on balance it might not be a good idea to expose the real story.

‘If she did,’ he explains, ‘she’d be dead to me, to this department, to the government and she’d never get a fucking whiff of a story so long as she kept her sorry hack bitch face lingering around Westminster because I would call every editor I know —which obviously is all of them — and I’d tell them to gouge her name out of their address books so she’d never even get a job on hospital radio.’ Now you could never imagine Alastair Campbell saying anything like that, could you?

Is Vic and Bob in Catterick (BBC2, Monday) a) too weird to bother with or b) the darkly inventive, constantly surprising, delightfully surreal new sitcom which confirms Reeves and Mortimer as the most inspired comic talents of our age? It’s the former, so far, for me, I’m afraid. I don’t doubt that like The League of Gentlemen (from whom it borrows not only several cast members but also its technique of presenting a very strange, twisted world with absolute sincerity, a massive joke which no one inside it is aware is a joke) it’s one of those things that becomes very involving once you’re sucked in. The problem is that The League of Gentlemen has already been there.

Thanks, 100 Greatest War Films (Channel 4, Saturday and Sunday), for wantonly giving away the endings to some of the few war films I haven’t yet seen. But I suppose the station redeemed itself when it broadcast The Dambusters — watched by a pretty impressive 2.3 million people — and gave Guy Gibson’s dog back its proper name. During the dark years of PC, its name was invariably censored during TV screenings. So well done, Channel 4, for not acting like a panty-waist, and understanding that history is not something that should be rewritten simply to accommodate bien-pensant squeamishness. Hurrah for Nigger!


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