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.

WILDSCOTPHOTOS/ALAMY STOCK PHOTO
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That’s no moth, it’s a wisp of delight on the wing

In recent years, some of the most beautiful moths have either died out here or are now only rare summer visitors.

Many years ago, I was a volunteer moth-hunter. I wasn’t a collector (I’ve always been puzzled by the impulse to capture a live creature, gas it and then pin its motionless corpse to a board); I was just another helping hand for a number of surveys aimed at estimating the variety and size of local populations. At the same time, I was working at one of Cambridge University’s zoology field stations, an idyllic smallholding just off the Huntingdon Road, where my boss, Gerry, bred cockroaches, locusts, tobacco moths and other insects for study purposes.

I was the merest factotum at that facility, a rather feckless boy taken on to tend the gardens and glasshouses, but Gerry did his best to include me in the more interesting work, including his daily, highly security-conscious visits to the tobacco moths, which were kept under dark netting in a double-walled building within the complex.

At that time, as I recall, you needed a letter from the head of zoology to hold a key to the tobacco moth house, and government documentation was required by anyone seeking  to transport the creatures – because tobacco moths are potentially devastating pests of any commercial crop that belongs to the Solanaceae (nightshades) family; and because these include potatoes, tomatoes and peppers, we had to be extremely careful not to release these insects into the wild. For me, however, they were a source of wonder and a dark, almost Gothic pleasure.

An even greater source of wonder was to set up a moth trap and count the various species that drifted into the light – necessary work to estimate loss of species, changes in distribution and migration patterns. (Some moths – the hummingbird hawk-moth, for instance – can travel very long distances.) Moth losses rarely get the column inches reserved for birds or butterflies, but 62 British species in total became extinct during the 20th century and a further 81 are gravely endangered.

In recent years, some of the most beautiful moths – gorgeous creatures such as the orange upperwing, the bordered Gothic, the Brighton wainscot and the stout dart – have either died out here or are now only rare summer visitors. At the same time, species that have never been recorded before in these islands are taking up residence in parts of southern England – a sign of climate change, perhaps.

I am not an entomologist, nor have I ever been one. Nevertheless, insects – especially the larger moths – have brought me a great deal of pleasure over the years. Even the names are cause for delight. “Garden tiger” and “snout” are self-explanatory, but who came up with “Brighton wainscot” for an exquisitely beautiful creature that looks like nothing so much as a tiny bride in her wedding gown, or “Clifden nonpareil” for that astonishing specimen whose underwing – a very dark blue, fringed with silvery white and streaked all the way across with a sky-blue stripe – is actually a defence mechanism, startling any predator that might descend upon it with a riot of unexpected colour?

Meanwhile, even though many of the nocturnal moths are subtler in hue, there is a delicacy to them when in flight – the faint, sometimes tiny wisps of what might easily be myrrh or chrism on the wing – that makes a night in the woods all the more enchanting. Back in my surveying days, they seemed so abundant that I didn’t mind watching the one bat that would circle the street lamp outside my window, picking the papery morsels from the warm glow of it.

Now, though, I worry: the losses of these magical creatures have come to seem too much to bear, especially as the reasons for their extinction – loss of habitat being the main culprit – could be so easily avoided.

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism