Contempt for politics is the new orthodoxy: Armando Ianucci's "The Thick of It"
Nothing Armando Iannucci has written has been as funny as his acceptance of the Order of the British Empire. Iannucci had seemed so radical when he showed our politicians as sleazy, unprincipled cowards, so concerned with protecting their valueless careers they allowed a foul-mouthed spin-doctor to control them. His language in The Thick of It was violent; his caricatures merciless. Now this fearless debunker, this Swift of our age, has embraced the establishment he derided. And for what? For the most laughable bauble the Conservative-led coalition could dangle in front of him: the Order of a British Empire that no longer exists. As so often, the joke is not that men sell out but how little it costs to buy them.
Loud rang the mockery, but today's criticism of Iannucci misses the point as wildly as yesterday's praise. Whatever his comic talents, Iannucci displayed no originality in The Thick of It. Contempt for British politics is modern television's orthodoxy, as Steven Fielding of Nottingham University will discuss in his forthcoming study of how dramatists showed politics from Oscar Wilde on. (I am indebted to Professor Fielding for allowing me to quote from his unpublished manuscript.) Man is a storytelling mammal, Fielding argues. If you want to understand why the British despise politics, you must look at the stories the British hear. They are invariably scornful. Fielding surveyed political TV drama made in the New Labour years. Spin and the abuse of power dominated nearly every one. Far from being daring, Iannucci was merely mooing with the herd.
Suspicion of politicians is hardly a modern phenomenon. Democracy is a system of organised suspicion, after all. But in today's political drama there is no Trollope to balance Dickens. Politicians are always spineless, untrustworthy and mendacious. Such is the broadcasters' creed. I am just about old enough to remember when British television had more than one act in the repertoire. Like the makers of Borgen or The West Wing in our time, the writers of The Challengers, The Nearly Man, Bill Brand and other dramas from the 1970s showed politicians trying in however flawed a manner to put their ideas into practice. This is not always the soft or flattering option. If you want to understand why a government policy infuriates you, "following the money" is often the stupidest course to follow. An examination of a politician's sincerely held ideology is more likely to provide you with an explanation than corruption. Only one recent British drama — the BBC's Party Animals — came close, however, to presenting a realistic picture of why men and women go into politics. The Corporation cancelled it as quickly as it could.
The scornful strain in British television appears left-wing. Certainly, many television dramatists speak as if they are men of the Left. Peter Flannery, the author of Our Friends in the North, said he believed "we live in an ongoing culture of corruption. Friends in the North is the story of people who tried to do something about it, and failed." Michael Wearing, his producer, said he wanted the series to convey "disillusionment with politics and everything politicians say they can offer". Leigh Jackson, who wrote The Project, an account of the Blair/Brown conflict, declared that he was consumed by "the growing realisation that after 18 years we might have voted in another ‘Tory' government, only this one was more efficient and twice as ruthless". Paul Abbott, the writer of State of Play, suggested the oil industry had a tight grip on New Labour policymaking, and added that he wanted to "capitalise on the audience's natural paranoia". Alistair Beaton said his TV dramas, such as The Trial of Tony Blair, aimed to show New Labour as "an authoritarian and right-wing administration".