BBC Satire 'The Thick of It' Heads to America

Armando Iannucci is the creator of the BBC political satire The Thick of It, coming to BBC America in May. He tells Don Gonyea how political satire is often an all-too accurate reflection of what happens in the halls of government.

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DON GONYEA, host:

In the carpeted corridors of Aaron Sorkin's The West Wing, White House staff members are portrayed as driven by political pragmatism clashing with heartfelt ideals, personal ambition colliding with loyalty to colleagues all usually couched in polite words and reasoned phrases. Such is hardly the case in The Thick of It, a British political satire created by Armando Iannucci for the BBC. The Thick of It brings together a bumbling Minister of Social Services, a trio of sycophantic aides and the Prime Minister's attack dog political advisor, Malcolm, all set in shabby offices and portrayed through a stream of profanity unsullied by idealism. The show's first episode opens with Malcolm confronting the soon-to-be former Minister over a growing scandal.

(Soundbite of show The Thick of It)

Unidentified Actor: (As Malcolm) Seriously, the PM likes you personally. I like you personally, and we've absolutely no desire to get rid of you. I just want you to know that. None of this negative stuff is coming from us.

Unidentified Actor: (As character) It makes a big difference, makes me feel a lot more secure.

Unidentified Actor: (As Malcolm) Does it. Well, it's difficult.

Unidentified Man: What's difficult?

Unidentified Actor: (As Malcolm) Just endless headlines day after day is chipping you're your confidence.

Unidentified Man: (As character) Absolutely.

Unidentified Actor: (As Malcolm) You see, the thing is, we're starting to look weak. Everybody's saying, When's he going to go? When's he going to go?

Unidentified Man: (As character) Right. And you don't want us to look weak.

Unidentified Actor: (As Malcolm) Yeah.

Unidentified Man: (As character) No, no.

Unidentified Actor: (As Malcolm) So there you are. That's why you've got to go.

GONYEA: The Thick of It comes to American television in May on BBC America. Joining me from the BBC-TV Center in London is director and creator Armando Iannucci. Welcome.

Mr. ARMANDO IANNUCCI (Director-Creator, The Thick of It): Well, thank you for having me over.

GONYEA: So you don't paint a very pretty picture of the inner circles of British politics here. But I wonder how accurate of a picture is it?

Mr. IANNUCCI: Well, the sad thing is that the more I spoke to people in Westminster and former ministers and politicians, political journalists, the more I discovered that it was much more accurate than I ever dared imagine. Occasionally, we'd come up with a storyline that I would then reject as being too stupid and then I discover that something far worse had actually happened in real life. And I also found that when we were just making things up as we went along, journalists and politicians would get a hold of us and say, how on earth did you find that out? To which I would have to say, Well, we didn't, we just made it up, but you're now acknowledging that it actually happened. So I'm afraid it's a pretty fair reflection of how politics works in the U.K.

GONYEA: Does it disturb you that just some guys sitting in a room dreaming up plotlines were able to reflect reality in the way that you're hearing?

Mr. IANNUCCI: Yes, I'm sort of hoping for a job in central government now as a result of it. It's very bizarre that in the very first episode there's a scene in which the Minister is on his way to a press conference and has been told that the policy announcement he was scheduled to make can't now be announced. So they spend two or three minutes in a back of a car trying to think up of something else that they can announce.

(Soundbite of show The Thick of It)

Unidentified Actor: (As Minister) So what the hell am I going to say is the reason for me summoning all the nation's major news organizations to a school in Wilshire?

Unidentified Actor: (As character) So you want something sexy and eye-catching and free and universally popular and instantly applicable, no one could possibly object to it.

Unidentified Actor: (Minister) Yes.

Unidentified Actor:(As character) Well, really you should've said something before then, because I've got a file about that (bleep) thick of that back in the office, absolutely huge. Those sorts of policies (unintelligible) manifesto is more or less made up.

Unidentified Actor: (As character) You know it really does help when you get cynical.

Mr. IANNUCCI: The number of junior ministers in the House of Commons who have mentioned to us afterwards that they've been in the back of that car and they've been through the very same experience is slightly disturbing.

GONYEA: It's interesting too. I talked about the American political television show, The West Wing, and all of that seems to be in soft focus with very nice film lighting, and yours, your set is very much fluorescent lights just making people look as bad as they could possibly look.

Mr. IANNUCCI: Well, it's all done with natural lighting. I mean part of the technique I wanted to adopt is to make it feel as if the viewer was eavesdropping on something real, so I didn't want to shoot it in a glossy way. I wanted to shoot it in a very sort of handheld, slightly documentary style, but to feel as if the viewer was seeing something that they really shouldn't be privy to.

GONYEA: This is clearly a very British show, but I wonder if you think American audiences will still see some similarities with their own government in your series.

Mr. IANNUCCI: Well, I hope so because we tried to keep it very human. I mean part of the reason for doing it in a slightly naturalistic, improvised way is I wanted you to feel very, very close to the characters and I wanted them to behave naturally and I really wanted it to be, as well as it being about national politics, I wanted it to be about office politics really. But the big difference I think between American politics or the portrayal of American politics and the portrayal of British politics is that whereas The West Wing consists of characters who are all good, they all are devoted to the job and really want to do the best they can possibly do for the country, we'd never get away with that in a similar program in Britain.

The British public wouldn't feel that it was real. They would laugh at it, but for the wrong reason. And it's interesting that we feel in Britain we have to show politicians as failing and as inept and slightly malleable. I don't know what that says. I don't know if it says more about the British character than the American one.

GONYEA: And if the characters on The West Wing are exaggerated, it's toward the idealistic side, whereas...

Mr. IANNUCCI: Yes.

GONYEA: ...if your characters are exaggerated, it's making them more profane, more vulgar, more inept?

Mr. IANNUCCI: I don't know about more profane. I mean the language that I've heard in real life is far worse than anything we've done on the show.

(Soundbite of show The Thick of It)

Unidentified Actor #1: (As character) How do we respond to this?

Unidentified Actress: (As character) Right. We don't exchange insults with bloody silent (bleep).

Unidentified Actor #2: (As character) Honestly, the best swearing that you can come up with?

Unidentified Actor #3: (As character) This is a bucket of (bleep). If someone throws (bleep) at us, we throw (bleep) at them. We start a (bleep) fight. We throw so much (bleep) back at them that they can't pick up (bleep), they can't throw (bleep), they can't do (bleep).

Unidentified Actor #1: (As character) That's top swearing. Well done.

Unidentified Actor #2: (As character) Watch and learn.

GONYEA: Another thread that runs through these episodes is the relationship between the government and the media. Reporters are either being leaked to or browbeaten for what they've written.

(Soundbite of show The Thick of It)

Unidentified Actor #1: (As Malcolm) (Unintelligible).

Unidentified Actor #2: (As character) Malcolm, hope I didn't wake you up. Hewitt?

Unidentified Actor #1: (As Malcolm) Yeah, I'm doing a piece this Sunday. Big piece on focus groups. It's sort of inspired by your latest policy disaster. I'm going to be concentrating on how your man, Abbott, can't do a single thing without focus groups.

Unidentified Actor #2: (As character) I'm shaking with fear.

Unidentified Actor #1: (As Malcolm) Yeah, well, that's sexual jealousy.

Unidentified Actor #2: (As character) You're so very, very witty. A pity none of it ever makes it into your columns.

GONYEA: You talked to journalists and folks in the media about this?

Mr. IANNUCCI: Oh, absolutely, and they were very good at giving me a very detailed description of how things work. The sad thing is though that politicians seem to think that they can control the media, whereas the decisions you find they're making increasingly are determined by how well they'll play in the next day's newspapers and TV shows, and now that we have 24-hour rolling news, the pressure on them to come up with very exact answers instantaneously is enormous. I mean, one thing, although I started making The Thick of It feeling slightly angry about how politics works, is by the end of it, I actually began to feel slightly sympathetic towards the politicians because I do feel we, the public, puts a fairly sort of irrational pressure on them. I mean, we expect them to know every detail of the department inside out. We expect them to come up with an answer to any question we ask them and we expect them not to hesitate or be ambivalent. We expect them to work hard. We in Britain expect them then not to get paid, and we expect them to be able to take criticism very well. So it's no wonder they crash and burn so much and so quickly.

(Soundbite of show The Thick of It)

Unidentified Actor: (As character) They should just clone ministers, you know, so we're born at 55 with no past and no flats and no genitals, just a world of roadblocks in a sort of, it's like a futuristic film, and you'd enjoy that, wouldn't you? You'd been in your little space station surrounded by obedient androids like that (bleep) brush-down (unintelligible) Dan Miller cyber (bleep).

Mr. IANNUCCI: You know, we've constructed the plots in such a way that I want the viewer to think when you do see a minister behave in a terrible way, I want the viewer to think, well, actually under those circumstances, I might've well done the same. I'd kind of like us to feel implicated in it really.

GONYEA: Armando Iannucci is director and creator of The Thick of It from the BBC, airing in the America starting in May. Thanks for joining us.

Mr. IANNUCCI: A pleasure.

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