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A Downing St. sendup

In the BBC series `The Thick of It,' paranoia and incompetence get played for laughs.

April 23, 2006|Hugh Hart | Special to The Times

ARMANDO Iannucci got exactly the reaction he was hoping for when his political satire "The Thick of It" first aired in England last year. "All the political journalists were saying, 'This is true,' while all the TV reviewers were saying, 'This is funny,' " Iannucci said.

"The Thick of It," a six-episode series (debuting at 9 p.m. May 12 on BBC America), takes place in a tragi-comically dysfunctional "West Wing"-meets-"The Office" bureaucracy run by bumbling Brits who seem far more passionate about holding on to their jobs than they are about crafting intelligent policy.

Series creator Iannucci and company have clearly struck a chord in England by portraying the inner workings of government as a vicious farce-in-progress swarming with obscenity-spewing back stabbers on par with the "Sopranos" gang. When they're not primping for the press, these civil servants are anything but as they slag their colleagues with expletive-laced diatribes. (The rough language will be bleeped in the BBC America version.)

"I had at the back of my mind 'The Larry Sanders Show' as a template, and it's no coincidence that the language in 'Sanders' was pretty foul too," Iannucci said. "I know from my various off-the-record chats with people from within the Tony Blair administration that the language was pretty foul and macho, and I felt that 'The Thick of It' had to reflect this."

As for high-minded discourse about real issues, forget it. Iannucci said his countrymen simply don't buy politicians as heroes. "I was a massive fan of 'The West Wing,' but in that show, everyone is good. If we tried to do a show like that in Britain, no one would take it seriously."

Ostensibly in charge of the Ministry for Social Affairs is Hugh Abbott (played by veteran comedic character actor Chris Langham). A monumental flip-flopper, Abbott in one episode responds to rumors that he's about to be fired by hiding in the broom closet. Iannucci joked, "Hugh's in the process of selling his soul to the devil but hasn't quite completed the transaction. He wants to make sure his boss, the prime minister, doesn't think ill of him and that the public doesn't think ill of him. That's the daily neurosis he has to operate under, and therefore it's safer for him to do nothing."

Abbott and his sluggish staff live in fear of the prime minister's perpetually enraged advisor-spin doctor Malcolm Tucker, played by Peter Capaldi. During a recent visit to Los Angeles, the jet-lagged Capaldi and Iannucci imbibed coffee at a Pasadena hotel as they explained their techniques for turning bad government into good comedy.

"I'm interested in how people like Malcolm can conduct their lives at that level of aggression," said Capaldi, who made his acting debut in the 1983 film "Local Hero" and has appeared in the "Prime Suspect" series. "After all, he's got five other people to be angry at that day. At some point, you've got to find other, more subtle ways in which to crush people," he said with a laugh.

Capaldi's audition consisted of an unexpected improvisation, he recalled. "Armando said: 'I'm the minister, the press has been saying bad things about me, and you're going to sack me, not because I'm bad, but because if you don't sack me the press will say you're being weak.' " Capaldi reamed his soon-to-be employer with sufficient vitriol that he was hired on the spot.

Iannucci, a longtime political junkie who remembers poring over the Parliament's Hansard journal -- England's equivalent of the Congressional Record -- at the local library when he was 12, believes that England's ruling class has become essentially rudderless and, therefore, ripe for skewering.

"Ten years ago, Labor was very much to the left, Conservatives very much to the right and Tony Blair somewhere in between," he said. "Now, it's all become merged into this ManagementSpeak: 'You, the public, tell us what you want.' They run the country like they run a business rather than from any great moral sense of purpose."

Indeed, Capaldi said, a "Thick of It" sequence in which Abbott completely reverses positions just minutes before making a major policy announcement is no exaggeration. "You talk to people who work in government and they'll tell you that kind of thing really happens. I've spoken to people who used to work with the prime minister and they've seen this situation where you're in the back of the car trying to come up with a policy -- they say, 'I've been there.' "

Iannucci added, "As I learned more about how the government worked, I realized there were kernels of funny episodes in what actually goes on every day on Downing Street. When politicians try to stop something from looking bad, but in trying to stop it, they just make it worse -- to me, that has a natural comic payoff. Once you've got that up and running in your head, well, there you go."

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