A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
I’m gonnae leave the stage with my head held f***ing high. What you’re gonnae see is a master class in f***ing dignity, son. The audience will be on their feet. There he goes, they’ll say. No friends—no real friends. No children, no glory, no memoirs. Well, f*** them. – The Thick of It, series 4, episode 7
Everyone loves a bad boy. That’s the assumption behind a certain strand of romantic fiction. And, no matter how much I like the genre, this is one area in which romantic fiction and I simply do not agree. Not in the sense that I don’t enjoy reading those stories, because I often do. I’m talking about falling in love with the hero. Love is a subjective and often contrary thing, and I am nothing if not contrarian. It doesn’t matter to me how wicked your man is or how chiselled his jaw if you’re writing in a genre that guarantees happy endings. I already know he’s going to end up with the heroine. So if he’s genuinely wicked—Rupert Campbell-Black, lies-cheats-and-beats-his-horses bad—then I get mildly irritated because redemption, when it comes, is plain unrealistic and frankly undeserved. If he’s just romcom-run-of-the-mill bad, i.e. sexually incontinent and a bit of a chauvinist, you might as well hang a sign round his neck that reads VAGUELY NICE UNDERNEATH IT ALL and kill the tension right off. And if he’s in that increasingly popular in-between, the territory of threatened violence, sexual harassment and Proper Issues, then I don’t know, because I’ve already skelped the book at the wall.
So what is it about Malcolm Tucker, the acerbic spin-doctor antihero of Armando Iannucci’s The Thick of It? I’ve given it a lot of thought, and I can only suspect that I’ve fallen shamefully and unexpectedly in love with him for the very reason that he isn’t made to be loved. (Like I say: contrarian.) There’s no happy ever after coming, no quick and easy absolution with a kiss and a sigh. There’s no comforting genre convention to blunt the edges of his character. He doesn’t get to show his softer side in his personal life because, as far as any of us can see, he doesn’t have one. He was presumably born, and there are drawings on his office wall that must come from children related to him in some way, but—beyond a few scattered hints, made and then withdrawn—that’s more or less it. He is a man who inhabits an unpleasant job and makes it his own, acting ruthlessly when his own peculiar code demands it and attempting to evade the consequences of those actions for as long as he possibly can. Hardly a lovable rogue.
Then, of course, there’s the matter of his political praxis. Malcolm Tucker, more than any one living figure, encapsulates a certain kind of New Labour ethos: slick, aggressive, hawkish. The kind of thing people like me (Bennite, pacifist and PC) tend to see as The Problem. He’s a Party man of a particular and recognisable sort, doctrinaire about institutions and flexible about ideology. I have no sympathy with his approach; I have no time for his real-life equivalents. There is no reason, on the face of it, why Tucker should be anything to me but a straightforward villain.
Except for this. The Thick of It is lucid, unsettling and dark, and it’s uncannily accurate, but it is also fiction. And the beauty of fiction is that it’s a safe space to explore the perspectives of people who would, in real life, be too far away to see up close and too damaging to incur any empathy. In the Department of Social Affairs and Citizenship, a bleak place populated by careerists and incompetents and thugs, Malcolm Tucker stands out as perhaps the one major character with some kind of externally located ethical framework. (The Ken-Clarkeish Tory Peter Mannion, who distinguishes himself in Series 3 and 4 by very nearly having principles, is arguably another). That’s the hook. What seals the fascination is the finely calibrated interplay of tensions in Tucker’s character, beautifully constructed by Iannucci and his writing team and played, with what I can only call furious understatement, by Peter Capaldi. We are never allowed to be quite sure of Tucker’s motivations nor of his feelings; to understand him to any degree we have to accompany him every step of the way and that, in my case, proved fatal. I watched all four series in the space of a week. By the time Nemesis caught up with Malcolm Tucker, I was a lost cause.
I still can’t quite explain it. But, you know, I think that’s the nature of the thing.
The Thick of It is available on DVD from 2entertain. Don’t miss the fabulous feature-length spinoff In The Loop, either.