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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Would the BBC's Nazi drama SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago?

This alternate history is freighted with meaning now we're facing the wurst-case scenario. 

Would SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago? Though the clever-after-the-fact Nostradamus types out there might disagree, I can’t believe that it would. When it comes to the Second World War, after all, the present has helpfully stepped in where memory is just beginning to leave off. The EU, in the process of fragmenting, is now more than ever powerless to act in the matter of rogue states, even among its own membership. In case you hadn’t noticed, Hungary, for instance, is already operating as a kind of proto-fascist state, led by Viktor Orbán, a man whom Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, jokingly likes to call “the dictator” – and where it goes, doubtless others will soon follow.

The series (Sundays, 9pm), adapted from Len Deighton’s novel, is set in 1941 in a Britain under Nazi occupation; Winston Churchill has been executed and the resistance is struggling to hold on to its last strongholds in the countryside. Sam Riley plays Douglas Archer, a detective at Scotland Yard, now under the control of the SS, and a character who appears in almost every scene. Riley has, for an actor, a somewhat unexpressive face, beautiful but unreadable. Here, however, his downturned mouth and impassive cheekbones are perfect: Archer, after all, operates (by which I mean, barely operates) in a world in which no one wants to give their true feelings away, whether to their landlady, their lover, or their boss, newly arrived from Himmler’s office and as Protestant as all hell (he hasn’t used the word “degenerate” yet, but he will, he will).

Archer is, of course, an ambiguous figure, neither (at present) a member of the resistance nor (we gather) a fully committed collaborator. He is – or so he tells himself – merely doing his job, biding his time until those braver or more foolhardy do something to restore the old order. Widowed, he has a small boy to bring up. Yet how long he can inhabit this dubious middle ground remains to be seen. Oskar Huth (Lars Eidinger), the new boss, is keen to finish off the resistance; the resistance, in turn, is determined to persuade Archer to join its cause.

It’s hard to find fault with the series; for the next month, I am going to look forward to Sunday nights mightily. I would, I suppose, have hoped for a slightly more charismatic actress than Kate Bosworth to play Barbara Barga, the American journalist who may or may not be involved with the British resistance. But everything else seems pretty perfect to me. London looks suitably dirty and its inhabitants’ meals suitably exiguous. Happiness is an extra egg for tea, smoking is practically a profession, and
the likes of Archer wear thick, white vests.

Swastikas adorn everything from the Palace of Westminster to Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace is half ruined, a memorial to what the Germans regard as Churchill’s folly, and the CGI is good enough for the sight of all these things to induce your heart to ache briefly. Nazi brutality is depicted here as almost quotidian – and doubtless it once was to some. Huth’s determination to have four new telephone lines installed in his office within the hour is at one end of this horrible ordinariness. At the other is the box in which Archer’s mutinous secretary Sylvia (Maeve Dermody) furiously stubs out her fag, full to the brim with yellow stars.

When I first heard about The Kettering Incident (Tuesdays, 12.20am; repeated Wednesdays, 10pm) I thought someone must have found out about that thing that happened one time I was driving north on the M1 with a more-than-usually terrible hangover. Turns out it’s a new Australian drama, which comes to us on Sky Atlantic. Anna (Elizabeth Debicki), a doctor working in London, pitches up back in Tasmania many years after her teenage friend Gillian disappeared into its Kettering forest, having seen a load of mysterious bright lights. Was Gillian abducted by aliens or was she, as some local people believe, murdered by Anna? To be honest, she could be working as a roadie for Kylie, for all I care. This ponderous, derivative show is what happens when a writer sacrifices character on the altar of plot. The more the plot thickens, the more jaw-achingly tedious it becomes.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit