It’s not a good time to be a politics nerd. The government is too busy checking its watch every five minutes to see how long it has to serve out to do any actual governing. The opposition is too excited about inevitably drifting into power next year to do any opposing. And this has been the state of play for what has felt like an interminable length of time.
Just ask the poor writers of The Thick Of It, who having already examined a government rearranging deckchairs on the Titanic and an excitable opposition looking forward to assuming office in 2007’s special episodes. What is left to satirise now when nothing else has changed?
This wasn’t the only problem facing this new series. After carefully skirting around Chris Langham’s absence in the specials, there was a need to find a new focal character for the show. There also was a need for some sort of series reboot after In The Loop, this summer’s film which took Malcolm Tucker to Washington to push for war, and recast the rest of our Thick Of It favourites in (admittedly, slightly confusing) other roles.
These would be insurmountable problems for another TV show. But that wouldn’t figure on The Thick Of It‘s ability to squirm its way out of such a tricky situation with the slippery finesse of, well, an established politician, and turn those challenges into real strengths.
In the first five minutes, we establish that Chris Langham’s bumbling minister Hugh has gone, that no-one wants to assume his office, and, eventually, that Rebecca Front will take his place as Nicola Murray, despite being a low Number 10 choice. (Tucker: “This is series 10 of the Big Breakfast, and you’re the fucking dinner lady they’ve asked to host the show.”) Special advisers Glenn and Ollie and civil servant Terri jostle for the attention of their new boss. Malcolm blisters through with the most quotable dialogue on telly. It’s hard to remember what exactly the problems facing the show were.
So what to make of the new minister? I’m always lukewarm at best for Rebecca Front’s appearance in a TV show, let alone as valued a beast as The Thick Of It. She always feels like a semi-reliable back-up to use when no preferable option can be found, from her doing the odds and ends on The Day Today that didn’t fit in anyone else’s remit, to featuring in many a forgettable Radio 4 production. Perhaps it’s because that is the brief of the character that she seems convincing in the role; she has the demeanour of a PTA chairwoman who spends her lunch break crying in the Parliamentary toilets.
The shift in cast is the most obvious change, but the tone of the show also feels different in a way that goes far beyond capturing the mood of an nth-stage government. There has been a move away from the scatological pop culture references that verged on live-action Family Guy dialogue; there was nothing more current than Leonard Cohen to contend with here. There also isn’t any referencing back to obscure minor characters, which was threatening to make 2007’s specials creak under their own weight.
There are still, of course, enough killer lines to mark out the writing team as too good to be allowed to fly on the same plane. The always-competitive line of the night competition would probably be won by Malcolm’s dismay at an MP’s daughter planning on running for office: “This isn’t Tsarist Russia, it’s not the Dimblebys,” although Ollie’s description of Malcolm as a ‘thin, white Mugabe’ would also be in the running.
One complaint about tonight’s show – why wasn’t the extra Thick Of It that was shown on the red button after the programme was broadcast put online? If you’re going to broadcast the show on a Saturday night when a lot of people won’t be in to watch it, and may well not have the means to watch a red button-only feature anyway, why not put in on the website?
But that doesn’t detract from what a successful reboot this episode was. After there was an actual policy worth arguing over in In The Loop, it’s good to see our political class back to fighting over nothing of any greater consequence than office furniture. Long may it last.