TV's most creative pottymouth is back in The Thick Of It. But how will Malcolm Tucker cope with a female minister?
There are those who believe that the movements and decisions of our current government are as pointless as the rearrangement of deckchairs on the Titanic as it sank into the icy depths below. But there's a line in the new series of The Thick Of It – BBC2's scabrously brilliant portrayal of ministerial machinations – which describes the stagnating position Gordon Brown's party finds itself in far more accurately: New Labour is just like The Big Breakfast. Typically this metaphor comes during a characteristically venomous assault from spin doctor-in-chief and the fictional Pm's all-seeing, all-swearing, all-Scottish eye, Malcolm Tucker, as he pinpoints the reality of the impending dark clouds of general election failure.
"Remember how Chris Evans started that, remember how it was a big success," scowls the magnificently foul-mouthed Tucker, jabbing his finger demonically. "And then they had that guy Johnny Vaughan, remember him? Everybody loved him, fuck knows why, but they loved him. You see this here? This is fucking series 10 of The Big Breakfast."
For those who missed it – and many did, thanks to its debut in the outer territories of Freeview, irregular scheduling and unfortunate events (actor Chris Langham left the show after being convicted of child porn offences; in the two hour-long specials his character's absence was attributed to a holiday) – The Thick Of It is usually described as a cross between Yes Minister and something good like The West Wing or The Office. It's actually far better than that. Smart, mean and remorselessly funny, thanks to its deliberately obtuse hand-held camera angles and sharp, partly improvised script, it feels too real to be classed as a satire or a regular sitcom. There are subtle digs at real-life political events like the expenses scandal, but The Thick Of It occurs in a parallel universe, albeit one also populated by feckless, spineless, self-serving idiots, AKA MPs.
For its return, The Thick Of It is being given a proper run of eight consecutive episodes and a primetime slot on BBC2. This is due in part to the success of the spin-off movie In The Loop but mainly because alongside Peep Show, The IT Crowd and Outnumbered it's one of the greatest British comedy shows of this decade.
Director Armando Iannucci (the man also responsible for I'm Alan Partridge and The Day Today) has been lauded for his creation, as have the team of writers who include Tony Roche (World Of Pub), Jesse Armstrong (Peep Show) and its very own swearing consultant, Ian Martin. But the undoubted star of the series is Peter Capaldi's Malcolm Tucker, a man certain to join the ranks of Basil Fawlty, Rigsby and Edmund Blackadder in TV's arrogant bastard hall of fame. It's not just the brilliance of these creations that links these comedy giants, the pathos of all four men comes from their resigned certainty that they alone know what they are doing amid a sea of fools.
"Yes, but I think he's a clown," says Capaldi. "The thing that amuses me about him is he thinks he's incredibly powerful and clever – and he is very clever and he does suss things out quickly – but he's sort of an evil clown."
Chatting to the 51-year-old Scot within the hallowed and maze-like compartments of BBC Television Centre – a beige wonderland of open-plan desks not dissimilar to the bland officescapes of The Thick Of It's Department of Social Affairs And Citizenship (DoSAC) is a little disconcerting. Despite the fact that he's a much calmer, more charming person than his character ("I've only lost my temper three times in my whole life"), you still expect him to snap into a Tucker rant at any second. "Well, he does look a bit like me," jokes Capaldi. People stop him in the street now, and instead of requesting autographs demand a bollocking or ask him to tell them to fuck off ("… and sometimes I mean it"). Playing the Pm's enforcer has changed his life. Now, instead of accepting run-of-the-mill TV drama parts as doctors, priests and psychiatrists – "Someone dull and reliable who would turn up and be pleasant," he claims modestly – he gets offered lunatics, psychos and people with venom, like Sid's dad in Skins and King Charles in The Devil's Whore. "Nobody would have cast me as a King before."
That's slightly disingenuous; he did, after all, play a transvestite in Prime Suspect and has been in numerous brilliant films including Local Hero and Dangerous Liaisons, and he has an entirely separate CV as a director (he won a best short film Oscar in 1995 as writer and director, and recently directed NHS satire Getting On). But four years ago he'd just come from a soul-destroying screen test for one of those dull, reliable parts when he first met Armando Iannucci to audition for The Thick Of It.
"I remember thinking I can't be bothered to see Armando," he says. "I was so fed up with acting. The morning audition had been with a group of people I'd already worked with and it was for one scene. I thought, 'Why at my age am I having to jump through all these hoops?' So by the time I got to Armando, I couldn't care what he wanted to do. I was pissed off. But what that did was equip me to be more powerful.
Malcolm, of course, doesn't care what you think of him because he is more powerful than anybody in the room."
Tony Blair's director of communications-cum-Darth Vader of Whitehall, Alastair Campbell, is often mentioned as the inspiration for Tucker but Capaldi claims that's not totally the case.
"He was mentioned initially," he says, "but there was no ream of research or anything. I just tried to play a character who was antagonistic and powerful. It evolved; if you look at the first couple of episodes there's more of a Mandelson quality to him."
Does he think Tucker would consider staying on in government if the Tories won the election?
"No. Malcolm's got a higher purpose to pursue."
And what's that?
"To maintain a Labour government in power and if that's in danger he'll fight to the end. He'd do everything in his power to destroy them, to eliminate them."
Unsurprisingly, Capaldi doesn't see his creation as a bully but as an efficient hard worker.
"I think he's very good at what he does. There are some people he really hates, but most people he just hates. That's quite democratic. I've come to really like him; he's a force of nature and you just unleash him."
How much of the swearing is in the script and how much is improvised?
"It's mostly all in the script. I tend to follow it quite closely because there's a rhythm and a sense of baroque asceticism to it and I don't want to walk all over their work. I have discovered that I do put in a few extra fucks, but it's a little aide mémoire. If I can't remember the next line I say 'fuck' and in that split second the next line comes."
Fans of high-level profanity will be delighted to learn that the first episode is rammed with plenty of put-downs and insults to rank alongside Tucker's finest moments (has there ever been a finer invitation to enter a room than "come the fuck in or fuck the fuck off"?). There is also the return of keen Al Jolson fan Jamie to look forward to, a calamitous trip to The Guardian's offices, another dip into the world of their Conservative counterparts, and much fantastic bickering between departmental gimps Ollie (Chris Addison) and Glenn (James Smith), two gents Malcolm Tucker refers to as Hinge & Bracket in episode one and by way of telling them to get lost invites to "hang up your lady cocks".
The series begins with a cabinet reshuffle by the new prime minister and a desperate attempt to find "a mammal with a head" willing to fill what Tucker calls "the DoSAC hole". The unlucky MP to get the job is backbencher Nicola Murray, because Tucker complains "the only other candidate is my left bollock with a smiley face drawn on it".
Blithely ignoring her lowly status, Murray (brilliantly played by Nighty Night's Rebecca Front) is squirmingly embarrassing, but also ambitiously determined to forward her meaningless agenda of "social mobility" and provides the Thick Of It with a fresh dimension and a new challenge for Tucker.
"It's great because Nicola is a woman," says Capaldi. "It might not seem obvious but Malcolm is a people person – he actually figures out how to deal with people – so he realises after a while that battering her over the head with his swearing hammer doesn't always work. He has to find other ways to get her to do what he wants."
Like blackmail? "Essentially. The thing is, Malcolm doesn't think MPs are idiots, he just thinks they're twats."
So, mark your calendars. New episodes starting next Saturday on BBC 2.