Yes Minister meets Larry Sanders

Just how original is The Thick of It?

An intriguing exchange of comments appeared in response to Paul Owen's final post on the Guardian's Thick of It blog just before Christmas. "Doesn't Yes Minister seem so innocent now?" proposed a commenter named "Socket". "I've heard people say, ‘They should do a new Yes Minister.' We've got a new Yes Minister. Long live The Thick of It."

"The thing about Yes Minister is that it involved politicians confronting the civil service to get policies through," argued "vastariner". A few hours later: "TTOI is about politicians aligning with the civil service, with the sole aim of retaining power."

Now that the third season of Armando Iannucci's excellent political satire has come to an end, in a shower of expletive-powered pathos, all thoughts turn to where the show stands, 16 episodes on: its successes, failures, its continued verisimilitude, its relevance, its future (under a Tory government, perhaps). And, inevitably, reflections (here, here and here, to refer to three very different examples) that touch upon such questions struggle to do so without mentioning Yes Minister, British television's only truly canonised political comedy.

This distinctly boring phenomenon has not been helped by Iannucci's own suggestion that The Thick of It might be described "Yes Minister meets Larry Sanders". He was even willing to argue, back in 2005, that the show represents "Britain's Best [ever] Sitcom", with the following gushing recommendation:

Yes Minister made the driest subject possible -- the minutiae of politics -- into sparkling comedy.

No sitcom has been so thoroughly researched -- it used real Whitehall insider moles to spill the beans -- and meant that (unlike Richard Curtis, for example) the writers were considered a threat to national security!

Yes Minister was more than a sitcom, it was a crash course in Contemporary Political Studies -- it opened the lid on the way the government really operated.

It remains the most quintessentially British of the British sitcoms -- understatement, embarrassment, Masonic secrecy and respect for the rules all in evidence.

It had the only sitcom title sequence -- drawn by Gerald Scarfe -- that was a genuine work of art.

And, perhaps above all else, it is the lasting legacy of two of our greatest actors: Paul Eddington and Nigel Hawthorne.

Socket and vastariner's exchange is more interesting than this pointless linking of names, however, because it poses (tacitly) a question hitherto unanswered: to what extent can The Thick of It be said to be a product of direct influence by Yes Minister? To put it another way: is the former, as Socket seems to suggest, really just a kind of remake of the latter, albeit with a slightly altered emphasis? Or are the two programmes, as vastariner implies, fundamentally different entities with only a superficial resemblance to one another?

And, perhaps more importantly, should our opinion of Iannucci's creation be based upon the answers to these questions?

Obviously, this blog isn't the place for the full Yes Minister v The Thick of It evaluation that'd be necessary if one wished to address all these questions properly. It is, however, a good place to get the ball rolling. And I want to try to do exactly that with that most facile of starting points: a list of character comparisons.

Why that specifically? Well, it seems to me that this is the area that represents the most immediately obvious basis for comparison, especially if one focuses particularly on the just-finished third season (new word) of The Thick of It and the magnificent first series (old word) of Yes Minister. Both hinge, after all, on a relationship between a new, naive, inexperienced minister, an unelected but despotic figure, invested with absolute power at the beginning but losing his grip on it later on, and a mediating member of the civil service.

Jim Hacker / Nicola Murray: Fundamentally likeable ministers in charge of peripheral, scrappable departments, Hacker and Murray find their principles begin to fade as they get sucked into the political machinery. Both are more real than their colleagues -- their families are a focus, for example.

Both characters often end up largely overshadowed by: Sir Humphrey Appleby / Malcolm Tucker. Unelected but all-powerful figures who make it impossible for their minister to actually take charge of their department and to represent anything more than a public mouthpiece, a figurehead. Although Appleby and Tucker have altogether different jobs -- Appleby is a neutral permanent secretary, Tucker a party spin doctor -- both achieve their aims in remarkably similar ways: through backroom deals and the potency of their extraordinary rhetorical gifts.

Bernard Woolley / Terri Coverley (and, to some extent, Glenn and Olly): Again unelected figures who invariably find themselves caught between their minister and either Appleby or Tucker. The sympathies of both characters seem to be with the former, and both duly occasionally act in a manner that is more party-political than it is civil service-neutral. Yet both ultimately know that they're likely to see numerous ministers come and go, and so remain objective, sometimes even slightly contemptuous of Hacker/Murray. The actors Derek Fowlds and Joanna Scanlan both do a wonderful, understated job with a difficult brief.

Both also regularly call on a gallery of civil service and party-political grotesques when the time is right. For example: Sir Frederick Stewart / Julius. Bald, brilliantly acted allies to Appleby/Tucker. I could go on. Even journalists (in some cases, themselves recurring characters) play a very similar role in both programmes.

As I say, this hardly amounts to a comparison of any depth. But it certainly suggests that the question of whether or not The Thick of It can be considered a genuinely original piece of progamme-making is at least worth asking. Or maybe I'm just missing the point. Maybe The Thick of It was always supposed to be an elegant tribute to its creator's favourite show. With a side helping of Larry Sanders.

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Politics doesn't just connect us to the past and the future – it's what makes us human

To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

I have long been haunted by a scene in George Orwell’s great novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Winston Smith, the hero, is forced to watch propaganda films depicting acts of war and destruction. He is moved by something he sees: a woman trying to protect a child by wrapping her arm around him as they are attacked. It’s a futile gesture. She cannot shield the boy or stop the bullets but she embraces him all the same – before, as Orwell writes, “The helicopter blew them both to pieces.”

For Winston, what Orwell calls the “enveloping, protecting gesture” of the woman’s arm comes to symbolise something profoundly human – an expression of selflessness and of unconditional love in an unforgiving world. Scenes such as this we now witness daily in footage from the besieged eastern Aleppo and other Syrian towns, people in extreme situations showing extraordinary dignity and kindness.

I read Nineteen Eighty-Four for the first time in late adolescence. I’d dropped out of sixth-form college without completing my A-levels and was commuting on a coach from my parents’ house in Hertfordshire to London, where I worked as a junior clerk for the Electricity Council. During this long daily journey – sometimes two hours each way – I started to read seriously for the first time in my life.

I was just getting interested in politics – this was the high tide of the Thatcher years – and Orwell’s portrayal of a dystopian future in which Britain (renamed “Airstrip One”) had become a Soviet-style totalitarian state was bleakly fascinating. Fundamentally the book seemed to me to be about the deep ­human yearning for political change – about the never-ending dream of conserving or creating a better society.

Nineteen Eighty-Four was published in 1949 (Orwell died in January 1950, aged 46), at a time of rationing and austerity in Britain – but also of renewal. Under the leadership of Clement Attlee, Winston Churchill’s deputy in the wartime coalition, the Labour government was laying the foundations of what became the postwar settlement.

The National Health Service and the welfare state were created. Essential industries such as the railways were nationalised. The Town and Country Planning Act was passed, opening the way for the redevelopment of tracts of land. Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent was commissioned. New towns were established – such as Harlow in Essex, where I was born and brought up.

To grow up in Harlow, I now understand, was to be part of a grand experiment. Many of the families I knew there had escaped the bomb-ruined streets of the East End of London. Our lives were socially engineered. Everything we needed was provided by the state – housing, education, health care, libraries, recreational facilities. (One friend described it to me as being like East Ger­many without the Stasi.)

This hadn’t happened by accident. As my father used to say, we owed the quality of our lives to the struggles of those who came before us. The conservative philosopher Edmund Burke described society as a partnership between “those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born” – and I find this idea of an intergenerational social contract persuasive.

Progress, however, isn’t inevitable. There is no guarantee that things will keep getting better. History isn’t linear, but contingent and discontinuous. And these are dark and turbulent new times in which we are living.

A civil war has been raging in Syria for more than five years, transforming much of the Middle East into a theatre of great-power rivalry. Europe has been destabilised by economic and refugee crises and by the emergence of insurgent parties, from the radical left and the radical right. The liberal world order is crumbling. Many millions feel locked out or left behind by globalisation and rapid change.

But we shouldn’t despair. To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

And part of what it means to be human is to believe in politics and the change that politics can bring, for better and worse.

What, after all, led so many Americans to vote for an anti-establishment populist such as Donald Trump? He has promised to “make America great again” – and enough people believed him or, at least, wanted to believe him to carry him all the way to the White House. They want to believe in something different, something better, in anything better – which, of course, Trump may never deliver.

So politics matters.

The decisions we take collectively as ­humans have consequences. We are social creatures and rational agents, yet we can be dangerously irrational. This is why long-established institutions, as well as the accumulated wisdom of past generations, are so valuable, as Burke understood.

Politics makes us human. It changes our world and ultimately affects who we are and how we live, not just in the here and now, but long into the future.

An edited version of this essay was broadcast as part of the “What Makes Us Human?” series on BBC Radio 2’s “Jeremy Vine” show

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage