Truth and “The Thick of It”

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Creator of the BBC's brilliantly satirical and true-to-life The Thick of Itin discussion with Peter Thompson at the IPAA conference 2012

Armando Iannucci’s keynote, “It’s funny because it is true” at the IPAA Convention in Melbourne, had 800 people rocking with laughter at the strange similarities between truth and fiction.  Iannucci is the genius who devised The Thick of It for the BBC.  After his appearance at IPAA – the next stop for this global traveller was an appearance at the Emmy Awards.  It’s not an everyday that a speaker from IPAA is dropped straight into Hollywood.

The Thick of It takes up where my favourite ever show Yes, Minister left off two decades ago.  The action has moved on from Sir Humphrey Appleby’s flawless outflanking of minister Jim Hacker to a new reality where a raw and blaspheming Malcolm Tucker advises another baffled minister, Hugh Abbot (no relation to our Abbott, assures Iannucci).  Tucker’s character is uncannily like Alistair Campbell’s.  The journey from Appleby to Tucker represents the real life transition from the permanent secretary’s role as the key source of advice to the upstart media adviser located in the minister’s personal office.

As Iannucci said at IPAA 2012, “the political adviser is a new breed of political animal.  Usually a graduate of politics, with a degree in politics, and whose sole work experience has been researching politics, writing about politics, dreaming of politics, and having sex with other people who work in politics.  This has meant that much government is now in the hands of these curious hermetically sealed individuals, and the great store of intelligence and experience housed in the civil servants who staff a ministry is frequently overruled or ignored.”

The inspiration for the series was Iannucci’s first encounter with Tony Blair, whom he ambivalently terms a supreme political performer.  Years after they met, in June 2007, during a round of farewell speeches, Blair remarked:

“A vast aspect of our jobs today – outside of the really major decisions, as big as anything else – is coping with the media, its sheer scale, weight and constant hyperactivity.”

Blair identified the hazards to good policy making associated with the speed of the political/media process where issues are hatched and despatched in a continuous 24 hour news cycle.

“In the 1960s the government would sometimes, on a serious issue, have a Cabinet lasting two days.  It would be laughable to think you could do that now without the heavens falling in before lunch on the first day. Things harden within minutes. I mean you can’t let speculation stay out there for longer than an instant.”

Blair’s valedictory remarks came as the social media revolution was only just taking off.  He lamented, “Not to have a proper press operation nowadays is like asking a batsman to face bodyline bowling without pads or headgear.”

So, if it was bad back in 2007, pity help the poor undefended batsman in this new era.

Of course, Iannucci’s satire works through exaggeration.   And there is plenty of it in The Thick of It.  But what makes for deeply satisfying laughter is the recognition of truth.  It’s a truth that emerges from thorough research and familiarity with the reality of political life.

As Iannucci said at the IPAA Congress, “If Yes, Minister was about how a civil servant tried to stop a minister from doing anything, The Thick of It is more about how an adviser tries to stop a minister from saying anything.”

Life has a habit of imitating fiction. And, in the latest series of The Thick of It, there have been numerous instances where the fictional story line has been followed by an outbreak of imitative actions in Westminster.  Sean Gray, one of the show’s writers, recently assured BBC News that the team does not have moles inside government.  “The truth is actually much more terrifying: we’re making it up as we go along.  Just like they are.”

Our democracy is much the healthier for the laughter induced by Iannucci’s creations and their observational wit.  Thank you, Armando for making IPAA a stopover on your way to Hollywood.

*Part of an article to be published in Public Administration Today