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Armando Iannucci on his new Whitehall comedy

Hot on the heels of Labour’s third election victory, satirist Armando Iannucci has created a new political comedy to help lighten the mood of the often serious-minded BBC Four.

His series In The Thick Of It, is set in the fictional Ministry for Social Affairs, where the beleagured Minister, as played by Chris Langham, and his team of policy wonks – including one played by stand-up Chris Addison – bungle their way through the political jungle.

The show calls upon the cast to improvise many scenes around a predetermined script to help replicate the way many Ministers’ actions and decisions are dreamed up on the spur of a panic-stricken moment.

Here, Iannucci, who describes In The Thick Of It as “Yes, Minister meets Larry Sanders” describes his thinking behind the show…

“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.

“The characters are an amalgam of recognisable types. [spin doctor] 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.

“As part of my preparation, 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.

“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.

“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. I'd be surprised if people didn't make compaisons. 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."

* In The Thick Of It starts on BBC Four on May 19.

First published:May 9, 2005

Published: 22 Mar 2009

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