Wednesday 30 August 2023

Politics Then and Now(ish)


The BBC seems to be showing a lot of 'classic' comedy to fill the August TV vacuum . Some of it very far from classic (Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em, anyone?), but the Tuesday-night pairing of Yes, Minister and The Thick of It is both entertaining and instructive. Yes, Minister takes us back to an innocent, even polite age of politics, before the wrecker Blair and his thuggish henchmen ruined everything. Jim Hacker, a minister promoted way beyond his ability (surely that never happens?) is locked in perpetual battle with his urbane, devious and endlessly obstructive Permanent Secretary, Sir Humphrey Appleby. Last night's episode, from 1980, had some surprising contemporary resonances. It revolved around the government's efforts to establish a 'National Integrated Database', containing full details of every citizen (compiled, presumably, with snail's-pace computers and no internet). This was being strongly resisted because of its 'Big Brother' surveillance overtones, and citizens' fears of their data being seen by civil servants (how quaint), and Sir Humphrey is commendably determined to kick the whole thing into the long grass. It was interesting to see to what an extent the politicians were finding themselves balked at every turn by the civil servants – even before Blair politicised the service. At one point Hacker described HM Loyal Opposition as 'the opposition in exile' and the civil service as 'the opposition in residence'. Any members of HM's current government watching this would have laughed in weary recognition.
  And then it was down, down, down into the seething amoral snakepit of post-Blair politics with The Thick of It. Once again we have a minister promoted beyond their abilities, and an eminence grise controlling everything – not the smooth-talking Sir Humphrey but the blisteringly foul-mouthed bully Malcolm Tucker (a brilliant performance by Peter Capaldi, his vocabulary enhanced by the show's 'swearing consultant' Ian Martin). Here politics is all about image, how things will look: the policies don't matter, it's all about how the media will react, and that must be ruthlessly controlled with a mixture of low cunning and foul-mouthed intimidation by the appalling Malcolm. It rings all too true, and is probably a pretty fair picture of what went on under Blair and Brown at least. The bewildered minister at the centre of this relentless onslaught of PR panics and desperate firefighting is played by Rebeca Front, who is of course superb. What I had forgotten is that for the first two series the minister in question was a man (Hugh Abbot), played by Chris Langham, one of the finest comedy actors the BBC ever had on its books – but we shan't be seeing him again: he seems to have been 'disappeared', Soviet-style, following his conviction in 2007 for child sex offences. This seems to me a terrible shame – is it not possible to separate the man (or rather one aspect of the man) from his work, much of which certainly deserves to endure? 


  1. Chris Langham - I'll second your sentiments. He was also in the first series of Not The Nine O'Clock News and many others. His Wikipedia page is instructive.

  2. It is indeed. Such a shame he's in danger of being forgotten...