The Engines of Democracy: British political satire

So, after four fantastic series, the glorious “Thick of It” has ended yesterday, with a bang, a whimper, and a lot of swearing. I can only pity those who hadn’t seen it yet; it was as good as TV gets. Witty, funny, played and directed with utmost skill. The characters were Shakesperean, the intrigues were Borgian, the language was… well, let’s just say censoring this series would result in very short episodes.

It was a biting satire of the sort only the Brits do, and are rightly famous for: the satire on the inner workings of the government; something that, at first glance, is an extremely tedious and thankless work, but in the hands of a British scriptwriter is transformed into the most hilarious and eye-opening comedy.

I absolutely worship these shows. I used to devour them back in Poland and, as a result, I knew the ins-and-outs of the British government long before coming here. A must-see for anyone trying to have an opinion on how a democratic government works.

Yes Minister / Yes Prime Minister

A grand-daddy of the political sitcom, Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister ran for a whopping five series, from 1980 to 1988. It introduced the viewers to an unlikely hero: a public civil servant. It proved, without a doubt, that the people running the UK were not the ones known from the front pages: the ministers, the MPs – but the bureaucrats who remained hidden, the shadowy figures in the corridors of power. Rt Hon Jim Hacker, whether in his capacity of a minister or even the Prime Minister, was never in charge. It’s the Humphreys of the world that are both the gears and pulleys of the machine.

House of Cards Trilogy

While not a satire per se, the House of Cards thriller (with sequels To Play the King and The Final Cut, running from 1990 to 1995) continued the theme of showing how the government really works. Francis Urquhart, played brilliantly by Ian Richardson, is properly cold and cruel, but, above all, thoroughly believable. You couldn’t help but think that this was exactly how things were behind the closed doors of Number 10 and Westminster – and it was a terrifying thought.

The Final Cut offered some respite to the viewer, and a glimmer of hope that things will not be as bleak forever. The hope, as ever, was brief.

The Absolute Power

A more straight-cut comedy, with Stephen Fry as Charles Prentiss and John Bird as his fumbling partner McCabe, the Absolute Power reflected a change in how British politics was being run since the advent of the New Labour: not by decision-makers, but by decision-explainers. The spin doctors and the PR-masters. By the year 2000, when the series first appeared on the radio, corruption, sleaze and manipulation were obvious and pretty much universally accepted as part of the ruling process, in great part due to what had been already shown on TV. What now interested the discerning viewer was how it all was being hidden from the general public – and the Absolute Power offered a glimpse into the process.

The Thick of It

The masterpiece of the genre, the Thick of It combines all the best of its precursors: the overbearing power of the shadowy figures and “special advisors”; the terrifying, mind-wrecking reality of the innermost core of the government; the omnipresence of spin and PR. Peter Capaldi as Malcolm Tucker was Humphrey, Urquhart and Prentiss combined into one – and multiplied. Ruthless and effective, striking fear into the hearts of those who would get in his way, and – yes – dashingly handsome, Tucker made you both cringe and gasp in awe.

Because this is always the important factor in this kind of a show: no matter how loathsome the main character’s actions may seem, we always root for them. Tucker and Urquhart have the qualities of dark anti-heroes. They are the Dirty Harrys of the democracy; their methods, even their motifs are highly suspect. But the way they go about it oozes class and intelligence. And if there is any positive message, you get from watching British political satire, any light in the tunnel, it is that the men who run the country – the real rulers – are smart and classy. Even if they are thoroughly immoral.