Simon Hoggart

Power failure

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You wouldn’t necessarily use the word subtle to describe a programme in which a well-dressed, well-spoken woman describes a speech that’s been altered as ‘pencil-fucked, completely’ but Veep (Monday, Sky Atlantic) is subtle, sinuously subtle. In his way Armando Iannucci is as creative with the English language as James Joyce. He is proof that doing an English degree at Oxford is not necessarily, to adapt another of his phrases, ‘like using a croissant as a dildo — it doesn’t do the job and it leaves a lot of mess’. His neologism in The Thick of It — ‘omnishambles’ — is now as much a part of our political vocabulary as ‘white paper’ or ‘liar!’

Both Veep and The Thick of It  are about being powerless. All the characters are on the fringes of power, and it hangs tantalisingly out of reach. The catchphrase in Veep is ‘did the president call?’ The answer is always ‘No’. Selina Meyer, brilliantly played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus from Seinfeld, devotes herself to good causes, like a Victorian wife neglected by her husband. Some are worthwhile, and so unattainable, like ‘clean jobs’. Others are bonkers, such as her wish to replace polluting plastics with cornstarch, which not only enrages the plastics lobby but also creates cutlery that collapses in anything warm. In Armandoland, everything that will go wrong does, and then gets worse. The Veep, struggling through the pencil-fucked speech, blames an aide: ‘We were hoist by our own retard.’

The disabled lobby bounds into action. The vice-president’s people are lost. ‘Every minute we delay, “retard” goes up a font size.’ ‘I misjoked,’ says Selina, another new word I assume. Sometimes the show breaks into a spoof of The West Wing, as the characters stride down corridors, throwing over their shoulder orders that will never be followed. (If you tried striding in No. 10, you’d bang your nose on the wall in seconds.) Now and again an aide from the White House arrives, to jeer.

In episode two she tries visiting normal people and ‘normalistas’, represented by a frozen yoghurt bar run by a black family who start badly by assuming she’s going to patronise them, but she doesn’t because her mind is elsewhere, having heard that the president has been having severe chest pains. JL-D lets slip a perfect half-second smile of hope, before switching to grave and concerned. When it turns out that it’s only heartburn she does the reverse, just as swiftly. She leaves in a motorcade of eight or nine huge cars — HBO has not done this on the cheap — the length serving only to mock her insignificance. It’s very funny, and it’s also very bleak. These people have allowed their own bursting ambition to lock themselves into a hell of impotence. I am pleased to report that HBO has already booked a second series.

Armando was also the semi-creator of Steve Coogan’s Alan Partridge. You know Coogan — the comedian who has talked to Leveson and to MPs about how the Murdoch press harassed him. He’s on Murdoch’s Sky Atlantic, too, in Welcome to the Places of My Life. These are in Norfolk, and some of the sketches were wondrously funny, especially the take-off of the BBC’s Great Moments in History thumping music mode, devoted to a spat over parking fees. Partridge says what we all think but would never bother to say out loud. ‘Norfolk, Home of the Broads — sounds like a home for fallen prostitutes!’ Or, with ponderous gravity, ‘The more I learn about Hitler, the more I dislike him.’ Suddenly he will go off on a rant: ‘We need league tables for lollipop ladies ...Christening — it’s a gentle form of waterboarding.’

Partridge is a fruitful comic character, like most people who are completely self-conscious but not remotely self-aware. His radio show, now downgraded to North Norfolk Digital, manages somehow to be bland yet alarming. The main problem with this hour, I thought, was that it went on too long. They ran out of ideas. Though you could forgive him much for the road rage scene. We see him in his car, screaming abuse: ‘Yeah, and whoddya gonna do about it, eh?’ before he drives away muttering, ‘She shouldn’t be riding a bike at her age.’

This is my last television review for The Spectator, old age and decrepitude having caught up. I can thank four editors, and the wonderful Liz Anderson, this magazine’s once and future arts editor. I wouldn’t say these days that we have the best television in the world in Britain; the Americans have overtaken on quality, especially in drama and, pace Veep, in comedy. But concealed in those scores of channels and amid the dross there are some awfully good, revelatory, exciting, instructional, funny and even amazing programmes. We are still luckier than we know.