As the volcanic spin doctor from the BBC series The Thick of It, Malcolm Tucker has become a short-hand for the chaotic fire-fighting, ruthless enforcement and mendacious scheming of party politics.
Even so, Peter Capaldi has said that his character – who first appeared in 2005 in the dog days of New Labour – is small fry compared to the PM’s former consigliere, Dominic Cummings.
“I think in many ways what we are seeing is like The Thick of It because of the levels of vitriol and absurdity and ego that are going on,” Capaldi told The Andrew Marr Show on Sunday. “At the same time, it is beyond that, it is a kind of tragicomic situation without the comedy. I think it is beyond a joke.”
Tucker, a character formulated by the show’s creator Armando Iannucci during the Blair years and modelled on Alastair Campbell, used sweary ferocity to keep minions and ministers in line.
But the Cummings saga, Capaldi said, “goes beyond The Thick of It. It is kind of Dickensian and bleak. I find it depressing.
“I don’t even think Malcolm would exist in this world — I think he’s too good for this world.”
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Cummings’ revenge has exposed ineptitude and in-fighting at the top. And the personal animosity motivating it leaves a sour taste. But has the episode really plumbed new depths of moral depravity?
On the contrary, the Cummings saga feels like a Thick of It reboot: Tucker goes nuclear in front of a select committee to bring down a PM who crossed him. The Cummings text describing Boris Johnson as a “gaffe machine, clueless about policy and government” is a Iannucci-ism. Add expletives and it’s Tucker talking.
The brilliance of the show is its infinite applicability across time and across parties. Whether it’s a Cummings or a Campbell, the dark arts of politics will never go away. Depressing or not, t’was ever thus.
There’s another aspect to this. The Thick of It played a role in defining New Labour in the media and public mind as being morally bankrupt and beyond redemption. Its creators were generally centrist and centre-left types, who did nicely out of lampooning and discrediting a centrist Labour government. Labour then set off in a very different direction after 2010 with inevitable results. The Tories have been in power ever since with Boris now contemplating another decade in power. Who’s laughing now?