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”