Let me explain the comfy trainers

If you enjoy watching the BBC series The Thick of It, you may well have wondered which female cabinet minister my character, Nicola Murray, is meant to be. It's a question I am frequently asked these days, and I can honestly tell you two things. One: by the end of this article, I will have revealed the truth; and two: it won't be who you think it is.

Before I got the part, I'd only ever met one MP - a Conservative backbencher who came to give a talk at my school. As head girl, I was charged with the meet and greet. I don't know if he was struck by my manner, a strange combination of deferential charm and cynical disdain. But had he asked the reason for it, I would have explained that a few months earlier I had written to him asking if he was aware of the mortal dangers we all faced from nuclear weapons; and if he was, why he hadn't single-handedly set about disarming them. He had replied on House of Commons notepaper, which seemed to me wildly impressive, hence the obsequiousness.

My cynicism was occasioned by the brevity of his response: "Thank you for your letter. I have taken note of your concern."

Blears for fears

So deep was my feeling that something should be done - about nuclear weapons, poverty, unemployment, you name it - that, for about six months afterwards, I was convinced I should go into politics. But then I remembered how much fun acting and singing were, and how very much I hated having arguments, and decided to go back to plan A. I don't think I was a loss to the political stage. My odd mixture of moral judgementalism and woeful indecision wouldn't have made me a great asset.

Since filming The Thick of It, I've had many more political encounters. Shortly before the series aired, a screening was held in a Westminster conference room. As we gathered beforehand, I was disappointed to see no well-known MPs in the room; but just as the lights were going down, there was a rush of last-minute arrivals. While we'd been filming the series - in which I play a hapless and sometimes hopeless secretary of state - real female cabinet ministers had been having a rough ride. Jacqui Smith, Hazel Blears and Caroline Flint had all had bruising moments in the media spotlight. Now, under cover of semi-darkness, all three had arrived in the screening room.

Perhaps someone had told them that the character was based on them. She was not.

Nor was she based on any of the other women MPs who have since sidled up to me with a friendly handshake and an anxious: "Is she supposed to be me?"

The Thick of It is not Spitting Image, mocking recognisable establishment figures of the day. The writers don't so much react to real events as predict them. Armando Iannucci and his team are extremely well versed in politics, but even if they wanted to write about real people and situations, the length of time between writing something and it appearing on screen would make that impossible. So they have instead created a fictional world in which absurd things happen to harassed people. Reality often emulates that fiction. But the actors in the show are not impersonating real people. We wouldn't know where to start, and we wouldn't have the flexibility to improvise if all we were doing was copying someone we'd watched on the telly.

All in a spin

I did some research to enable me to play the part. A former female cabinet minister gave me a few helpful insights into the exhaustion and pressure that the likes of Nicola live with. It's useful, when you're playing a scene in Malcolm Tucker's office, to have a sense of what your character's day has been like: how much sleep she will have had (not much), whether there will have been time for lunch (probably not), whether she will have found a minute to reapply her make-up, or whether she will look a bit of a mess (no, and therefore yes). It was from the minister that the idea of Nicola wearing comfy trainers around the office came, something the writers delighted in.

I also spoke to someone who had helped politicians with media management. I wanted to know what would make a politician a spin doctor's nightmare. His answer was chillingly simple: "If she believed in things."

I took those thoughts to Armando, and he and the writers did the rest. Nicola Murray is, in effect, the politician I would have become if, at 17, I hadn't changed my mind. Because the writing is so brilliant, I was able to play a complex character who means well, does badly, and feels knackered. And just to keep Malcolm awake at night, she believes in things.

Rebecca Front won a Bafta in June for her performance as Nicola Murray in "The Thick of It"

This article first appeared in the 02 August 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Politics and comedy

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An English hero for the ages: Ian Botham at 60

Botham blends his sportsmanship and deep-seated passion for cricket with a lust for life.

Begging W H Auden’s pardon, it is possible both to honour and to value the vertical man, and in the case of Ian Botham, who turned 60 on 24 November, it is our bounden duty. No sportsman has given Britons so much to enjoy in the past half-century and no sportsman is loved more. Two decades after he retired from first-class cricket, his reputation as one of life’s champions remains unassailable.

No mere cricketer is he, either. Botham is a philanthropist, having raised more than £12m for various charities, notably Leukaemia and Lymphoma Research. In December, 30 years after his first walk from John o’Groats to Land’s End, he will set off again, in South Africa, where England are on tour. And he really does walk, too, not amble. As somebody who accompanied him on one of his dozen walks said: “You can’t keep up with him. The man is a phenomenon.”

Of all postwar sportsmen, only Bobby Charlton and, at a pinch, Henry Cooper come close to matching Botham’s enduring popularity. But Charlton, a shy man who was scarred by the Munich plane crash of 1958 (and may never have recovered from its emotional effects), has never comfortably occupied a public stage; and Cooper, being a boxer, had a solitary role. Botham, by contrast, spoke for England. Whenever he picked up his bat, or had a ball in his hand, he left spectators in no doubt.

Others have also spoken for England. Bobby Moore and Martin Johnson, captains respectively of England’s World Cup-winning football and rugby teams, were great players but did not reach out to people as naturally as Botham. Nick Faldo, Lester Piggott, Sebastian Coe and, to bring us up to date, Lewis Hamilton have beaten the best in the world, but they lacked those qualities that Botham displayed so freely. That is not to mark them down. They were, and are, champions. But Botham was born under a different star.

It was John Arlott, the great cricket commentator, who first spotted his uniqueness. Covering a match at Taunton in 1974, he asked the young colt to carry his bags up the rickety staircase to the press box, where Arlott, wearing his oenophile’s hat, pulled out a bottle of red wine and invited Botham to drink. Forty years later Botham is a discriminating wine drinker – and maker. Along with his friend and fellow England great Bob Willis, and their Australian wine­making pal Geoff Merrill, he has put his name to a notable Shiraz, “BMW”.

Arlott, with his nose for talent and good company, saw something in the young Botham that Brian Close, his captain at Somerset, was beginning to bring out. Later, Mike Brearley, as England captain, drew out something even more remarkable. As Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote, you’ve got to be carefully taught. And Botham, a fine team man as well as a supreme individual performer, has never withheld praise from those who enabled him to find his voice.

If sport reveals character, then cricket is the game that reveals it most clearly. In no other sport is the individual performance rooted so firmly in a team context. Every over brings a contest of skill and intelligence between batsman and bowler but only a team can win the match. “A cricketer,” as Arlott said, “is showing you something of himself all the time.”

Cricket also reveals national character more than any other sport. Football may be the most popular game in the world but cricket, and cricketers, tell us far more about England and Englishness. It is instructive, in this regard, to hear what Philippe Auclair, a French journalist and author long resident in London, has to say about Botham: “He is essentially an 18th-century Englishman.” In one! It’s not difficult to sense a kinship with Tom Jones, Fielding’s embodiment of 18th-century life, who began his journey, as readers may recall, in Somerset.

A country boy who played for Worcestershire after leaving Somerset, and who lives by choice in North Yorkshire, Botham is an old-fashioned Englishman. Although nobody has yet found him listening to the parson’s sermon, he is conservative with a small and upper-case C, a robust monarchist, handy with rod and gun, and happiest with a beaker in front of him. He represents (though he would never claim to be a representative) all those people who understand instinctively what England means, not in a narrow way, but through something that is in the blood.

Above all, he will be remembered for ever as the hero of 1981. Even now it takes some believing that Botham bowled and batted with such striking success that the Australians, who were one up after two Tests, were crushed. Some of us who were actually at Headingley for the famous third Test – thousands who claim to have been there were not – recall the odds of 500-1 on an England victory going up on the electronic scoreboard that Saturday evening.

Botham made 149 not out as England, following on, beat the Aussies by 18 runs. For three hours the country seemed to stop. In the next Test, at Edgbaston, Botham took five wickets for one run as Australia fell under his spell. Then, at Old Trafford, on a dank Saturday afternoon, he played the most memorable innings of his life and one of the greatest innings ever played by an Englishman: 118 magnificent, joyful runs. Joy: that’s the word. Botham brought joy into people’s lives.

Yet it was the final Test at the Oval, which ended in a draw, that brought from him a performance no less remarkable than those from before. He bowled 89 overs in that match, flat out, continuing to run in when others withdrew with injury. That was the team man coming to the fore. Little wonder his comrades thought the world of him.

Modest, loyal, respectful to opponents, grateful to all who have lent him a hand, and supported throughout a turbulent life by Kath, his rock of a wife, and their three children, this is a cricketing hero to rank with W G Grace, Jack Hobbs, Wally Hammond and Fred Trueman. A feature in the lives of all who saw him, and a very English hero. 

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State