The fantastic and long awaited fourth series of The Thick Of It has seen hawk-faced media strategist Malcolm Tucker (Peter Capaldi) swap the glossy corridors of the Department of Social Affairs and Citizenship for the gloomy back rooms of the shadow cabinet.
The series started with omni-shambolic Nicola Murray promoted to leader of the opposition, while back at DoSAC an ill-matched, uncomfortable coalition of MPs were (and still are) fighting like dogs in a blender. The new Head of Social Affairs is the stately, plump Peter Mannion, but he has to share the job with brattish junior minister Fergus Williams. Their ongoing rivalry and frequent attempts to trip each other up have been the icing on top of the series so far.
That conflict (combined with the fact that DoSAC civil servants Terri and Glenn continue to be about as effective as Lego panty liners) means that Williams and Mannion have about as much chance of actually getting anything done as our current, real life government.
Every coalition episode so far has been filled with more miscommunication, idiocy, infighting and dropped balls than a Premier League championship. Yes, it's very funny, but it's hard to laugh at something that so accurately mirrors the ongoing failings of the ConDem alliance...although lines like 'he was homeless only in the sense that he had no home' (delivered by Peter Mannion) definitely help the chuckle count.
The coalition chumps certainly haven't been helped by their own doublethink-addicted PR guru Stewart Pearson, who keeps dragging them off for brainstorming sessions in remote locations: horrible, jargon-filled circle-jerks that will be familiar to pretty much everyone who has ever had a job, political or otherwise.
Switching the balance of power has refreshed The Thick Of It immensely, not that it really needed to be refreshed as the sudden sidelining of Malcolm at the end of series three left things wide open anyway. However, Tucker's many fans were no doubt pleased to see their favourite 'Iago with a Blackberry' back at the wheel for series four, plotting and manipulating like a Roman emperor's heir on Ides of March-eve.
As well as quickly manoeuvring his party leader Nicola Murray out of the door so he could replace her with gurning Miliband clone Dan Miller, Tucker also engineered several leaks that led to last week's Goolding Inquiry: a gripping hour of TV that saw cast members filmed under inquest conditions with the minimum of rehearsal time.
The inquiry revolved around the death of Mr Tickle (a vocal NHS housing campaigner) and the political posturing, leaks and illegal obtaining of information that surrounded his untimely demise. Leaks that included an entire back catalogue of DoSAC emails laughing at his death:
"How many Mr Tickles does it take to change a lightbulb? He doesn't have any lightbulbs, he's in a tent. How do you turn Mr Tickle into Mr Happy? Lithium. What's the difference between Mr Tickle and Captain Oates? Captain Oates has a less stupid name."
...and so on.
Tickle-gate has been a slow burner, glimpsed in fits and starts- possibly to highlight the fact that quite trivial annoyances have the potential to turn into career-burying avalanches of political failure if they aren't handled in the right way.
The fact that Mannion received the information about Tickle's death while standing on a children's slide (the only place in Pearson's ridiculous 'thought camp' location that he could get a phone signal) certainly didn't help the subsequent media outcry.
As usual it's all about posturing, image, slip-ups, leaks and spin- with Tucker at the centre like a gimlet eyed spider. At the end of the Goolding Inquiry it looked as if he'd finally been caught out, so he responded by engineering media distraction after distraction to deflect attention from the hearings: even smearing Baroness Sureka (one of his main inquisitors) to the extent she had to withdraw to deal with the fallout.
It showed the extent of Malcolm's power. It was also a timely and worrying reminder of the fact that real life unelected advisers and strategists like Tucker still exist: in fact they're setting agendas, engineering cover ups and influencing policy as we speak.
The government itself has said that 'the position of special advisers is a sensitive one: they occupy influential positions within Whitehall and have the potential to destabilise the relationship between ministers and officials' (interestingly, that quote comes from a public administration select committee report called 'Special advisers in the thick of it').
In dark times like these it's doubly important that we don't forget who's really pulling the strings- we need programmes like TTOI more than ever.
The Thick Of It is a rare breed: comedy with a clear message that gets extremely close to the political bone. As well as making us laugh, series creator Armando Iannuchi is also saying 'be vigilant, be attentive- and the next time there's a big, loud, glossy story in the newspapers, ask yourself who's got the most to gain from the revelations and what else might be going on behind the scenes'.
But- even more importantly- don't forget to chuckle at phrases like 'thoughtgasm' and 'having an accurate wee into a moving train toilet would make a great round on The Cube with Philip Schofield'.
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