The Thick of It

This once-biting political satire now feels strangely dated

So, The Thick of It is back (Saturdays, 10.10pm), and Malcolm Tucker still looks like a stoat with a cattle prod stuck up its backside. It goes without saying that the first series of The Thick of It, and the two specials that followed, were works of genius, capturing our grubby little government in ways we all knew in our gut to be true, whatever Alastair Campbell et al whined to the contrary. But I wonder whether they - Armando Iannucci and his team - shouldn't just have left it there, in the style of The Office.

In the Loop, the film version of The Thick of It, stretched the conceit too far - it strained and groaned like knicker elastic on an elephant - and I have a hunch that this, the second full series, is going to be similarly thin, for all that it has been "refreshed" by the arrival of a new minister.

The trouble is that, out here in the real world, New Labour has enjoyed its last gasp. There is no longer any point in even referring to this government as a fag end; we are at the stage where all that remains of the thing is a yellow stain in a stinking ashtray. Its few remaining control freaks could not spin a plate, let alone some feeble reheated policy. Result: The Thick of It feels weirdly dated. Its writers should have long since switched their attention to a Tory-ish party run by baby-faced boys with one too many secrets hidden in the attics of their parents' verging-on-stately homes (once-loved Purdey shotguns, autographed Bullingdon Club menus, man-sized stiletto heels). Malcolm, meanwhile, could have been seen touting his diaries dis­loyally round our more reputable publishers. Glenn and Ollie, too, probably.

Oh, well. I suppose there's still a certain satisfaction in watching politicians and their dead-eyed cohorts being ripped ostentatiously apart like this, and all the little human details continue to be absolutely right: Glenn (James Smith), the really wussy, brown-nosing special adviser, still reveals a prissy flash of pastel sock whenever he crosses his legs, and Terri (Joanna Scanlan), the director of communications at the Department of Social Affairs and Citizenship, still hides her carving-knife put-downs inside the lace hanky of spinsterish pedantry.

Meanwhile, Malcolm (Peter Capaldi) is ruder than ever, almost lyrically so. Not for nothing was Iannucci once a scholar of Milton. Every line Malcolm utters is as rhythmic as it is sca­tological - though, of course, he is at his most effective when he is being "nice". He uses the word "pop" -as in "Can you just pop along to the by-election?" - with particular menace, I notice, at which point one look at his victims' faces tells you that fear has scooped their bowels clean out.

The new secretary of state is called Nicola Murray, and she was so low on the list of potential replacements for poor old Hugh Abbot that the only candidate below her was Malcolm's left bollock with a "smiley face painted on it" (in a nod to the real world, he compares the reshuffled cabinet to "series ten of Big Brother"). I'm not sure that the Murray character - a terrifying Caroline Flint/Harriet Harman mutation - works, although she's nicely played by Rebecca Front. I know what the writers are getting at: this woman belongs to the patronising,
metropolitan, middle-class wing of the Labour Party, whose members think state schools are great so long as their own children don't have to attend them.

Yet, for The Thick of It to pull off its old magic, the minister, however hopeless, must be sufficiently lovable for us to feel sorry for them when Malcolm pisses all over their latest "initiative". Nicola is not lovable, and she is a touch too feisty where Malcolm is concerned; in the first episode (24 October), she answered him back with quite a good line about an upturned KFC bucket (you had to be there). But perhaps she will grow on me. Here's hoping. God knows, there is plenty of inspirational material for Iannucci lurking among the massed ranks of female Labour MPs. Now and then you see one of these platitudinous lemmings on Newsnight and feel thoroughly ashamed of your so-called feminist self as you mentally place the words "Ann", "Widdecombe", "sane" and "honest" in close and startling proximity.

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 02 November 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Mob rule