15 Surprising Facts About ‘The Thick of It’

Armando Iannucci’s award-winning political satire is officially one of the most foul-mouthed series to ever grace a TV screen—thanks in part to a swearing consultant and a little bit of math.

Clockwise from right: Peter Capaldi, Rebecca Front, Joanna Scanlan, Chris Addison, and James Smith star in 'The Thick of It.'
Clockwise from right: Peter Capaldi, Rebecca Front, Joanna Scanlan, Chris Addison, and James Smith star in 'The Thick of It.' / BBC

Think of any major political faux pas from the past 20 years and chances are that at some point it has been compared to Armando Iannucci’s iconic BBC comedy The Thick Of It.

The series—which spawned both the Oscar-nominated movie In The Loop (2009) and HBO’s award-winning series Veep—remains a benchmark in government satire more than a decade after the Department of Social Affairs and Citizenship closed its doors for good. Here’s a look at 15 things you might not know about one of television’s finest, and sweariest, sitcoms.  

1. The Thick of It was inspired by another great British political satire.

In 2004, Armando Iannucci was asked by BBC2 to state the case for one of his favorite TV shows, Yes Minister, in a Best British Sitcom poll. After rewatching the satirical antics of MP Jim Hacker (Paul Eddington) and his secretary Sir Humphrey Appleby (Sir Nigel Hawthorne), Iannucci realized that—20 years on—it was time someone skewered the British political system once more.

Following encouragement from Antony Jay, Yes Minister’s co-creator, Iannucci began working on what would become The Thick of It. But as he explained to The Independent, it was far from a carbon copy. “This was more about ministers being completely drained of any personal power, and everything being controlled from Number 10,” he said of The Thick of It.

2. Its visual style was inspired by Lars von Trier’s work.

The Thick of It’s cinéma vérité style ensured it looked different than any other sitcom around in 2005—so much so that its director of photography, Jamie Cairney, faced some backlash from his peers for apparently “belittling the art of camerawork.” But the show’s creator should have taken just as much of the blame. Indeed, both Iannucci and Cairney settled on the unique look after watching Festen, the Lars von Trier film which adheres to the Dane’s avant-garde movement known as Dogme 95. “In the first few days, Armando would keep saying, ‘You’re being too good, it needs to feel more messy,’” Cairney told The Independent.

3. The show employed TV’s first “swearing consultant.”

The Thick of It is notorious for the amount of inventive swearing it employs, which is due in large part to writer Ian Martin, who came aboard as the show’s “swearing consultant.” Martin, who had previously worked with Iannucci on Gash and 2004: The Stupid Version, was asked to sprinkle his “sweary dust” on the first three episodes of The Thick of It. Iannucci was so impressed with Martin’s creative use of obscenities that he decided to make it a permanent role.

Thanks to distinctive lines like “He’s as useless as a marzipan dildo,” which is one of the first sentences audiences tuning in to the series premiere heard (and uttered by Peter Capaldi as Malcolm Tucker), Martin was appointed TV’s first ever swearing consultant. The groundbreaker, who later became a bona fide writer, told The Daily Beast that this title had been mythologized by the BBC for publicity, but that “it was nice to be the flailing chancer getting a massive break.”

4. There was some math behind all that swearing.

You won’t be surprised to learn The Thick of It is officially one of the most foul-mouthed shows ever to grace our TV screens. But the tally of expletives could have been even higher had BBC bosses not interfered. According to Iannucci, each episode was only allowed three uses of the c-word by the powers that be. And that was only on the proviso that the slightly less offensive f-word wasn’t uttered more than 10 times per minute.

Speaking on The Lock In podcast in 2021, Iannucci insisted that he isn’t a swearer in real life; he was simply reflecting the language prevalent throughout the Labour government of the 2000s. 

5. Peter Capaldi initially hated improvising.

Peter Capaldi arrives at "The Devil's Hour" Global Premiere - Arrivals
Mike Marsland/GettyImages

According to co-writer Simon Blackwell, The Thick of It is 80 percent script, 20 percent improvisation, a ratio which caused Peter Capaldi’s heart to sink during the casting stages. In an interview with The Independent, the former Doctor Who star admitted that he used to despise the spontaneous acting method because of past experiences: “I hated improvisation because in my early days as an actor, improvisation meant somebody had just come down from Oxford and they were doing a play above a pub in Kentish Town and the biggest ego would win,” Capaldi explained.

However, as he began to immerse himself in the role of Tucker, he became more comfortable with making things up on the spot.

6. The real Malcolm Tucker is flattered by his portrayal.

Tucker is famously modeled on Alastair Campbell, former prime minister Tony Blair’s right-hand-man during his three general election victories. Luckily, the political strategist hasn’t taken too much offense at being portrayed as a hot-headed, foul-mouthed spin doctor. In 2009, he told Hot Press, “I’m very fond of Malcolm Tucker! I didn’t like In the Loop, but that wasn’t because of the character—I just didn’t think it worked as a film. But I think Malcolm Tucker is a genius.”

Campbell appears to be less fond of the show’s creator, though, having castigated Iannucci for accepting an OBE in 2012 when he’d built his career on mocking the establishment. 

7. The British government may have stolen one of the show’s fictional policies.

In 2012, Britain’s then-Education Secretary Michael Gove announced a new school initiative aimed to develop kids’ programming skills by encouraging them to design their own apps. Suspiciously, this news came just 24 hours after The Thick of It’s scriptwriters had come up with the exact same idea, albeit with the satirical bent that any profits made would reduce future college tuition fees.

As a result, the show’s behind-the-scenes team became paranoid that the government had gained access to a script. “We thought ‘the fuckers nicked our material,’” writer Sean Gray told The Independent. “There’s been a leak and they’ve decided to use material from our show.”

8. Real political staffers were always divulging details to the show’s writers.

The Thick of It’s writers talked to numerous ex-ministers and researchers to ensure that its depiction of daily British political life was as authentic as possible. But did they also get a little real-time help from some serving staffers high up the government chain?

In a chat with The Independent, Sean Gray revealed that Iannucci once received an email from someone working in deputy prime minister Nick Clegg’s office promising to spill the beans. Co-writer Roger Drew also claimed that a press officer in David Cameron’s team expressed interest in a similar service following a Veep screening at Westminster. Neither party, however, would confirm or deny whether they took the staffers up on their offers. 

9. It introduced omnishambles into the English lexicon.

You know a show has made a cultural impact when the Oxford English Dictionary gets involved. In 2012, its publishers announced that omnishambles—a term first expressed by Capaldi’s ever-vexed director of communications in the third season opener—was its Word of the Year.

Coined by writer Tony Roche, omnishambles is defined by the OED as “Chiefly in political contexts: a situation that has been comprehensively mismanaged, or is characterized by a series of blunders and miscalculations.” And in another case of life imitating art, it was later uttered in real-life Parliament by former Labour leader Ed Miliband. 

10. Fans regularly asked Capaldi to swear at them.

Forget selfies, video messages, or even the now rather quaint tradition of an autograph. The only thing that The Thick of It fans ask Capaldi for when they see him out and about is a big “fuck off.”

Yes, long before Succession’s similarly foul-mouthed Logan Roy, Tucker made swearing something of an art form, liberally peppering the f-word in pretty much every rage-fueled sentence delivered. And although Capaldi is thankfully more mild-mannered than his fictional counterpart, he’s still more than happy to meet any expletive-led request. “And sometimes I mean it,” the Scot quipped to The Guardian

That The Thick of It might share a few commonalities with Succession should not come as a major surprise. Succession creator Jesse Armstrong was also a writer on The Thick of It.

11. Tucker squared off against Alan Partridge.

The Thick of It had been off the air for four years by the time the Brexit referendum, and all the madness that went with it, was staged in June 2016. But viewers didn’t have to wonder what Malcolm Tucker would have made of it all. While guest editing The Big Issue that year, Iannucci brought back the foul-mouthed communications director for a heated debate in print. And who better than to vouch for the other side than Norfolk’s finest DJ Alan Partridge (Steve Coogan, playing a character he created with Iannucci). Tucker, who was very much in the Remain camp, called the situation “idiotic" and said that ”Leavers are imbeciles.”

12. There was an American remake, which Iannucci disowned.

In 2007, The Thick of It was unnecessarily subjected to a U.S. remake starring John Michael Higgins, Henry Winkler, and Oliver Platt. And something appeared to have gotten lost in translation. Iannucci, who served as its executive producer, was particularly scathing, telling Radio Times, “It was terrible ... conventionally shot and there was no improvisation or swearing."

The funnyman appeared to point the finger at interfering ABC executives, adding, “There were just scores of people working on it, all called vice president this and that, and a lot of them were buffoons." Much to Iannucci’s relief, the pilot episode, which didn’t lead to a series, has never aired.

13. Tucker made a brief screen comeback.

Capaldi has been vocal about his aversion to a The Thick of It reunion, arguing that the current political situation makes the art of parodying virtually impossible. But the Scot will occasionally throw a nod to the show’s central character.

In 2016, Capaldi was asked by Australian TV show The Sunday Project what advice Tucker would give to Kelly O’Dwyer, a politician who’d just flunked an interview. “I think he would have said she was as useless as a marzipan dildo,” Capaldi responded, quoting from The Thick of It’s first episode, before adding, “We’re looking at a total omnishambles there.”

14. Iannucci has ruled out a return.

Sad news for anyone clinging onto hope The Thick of It will get a belated fifth season: Iannucci has explicitly ruled out the sitcom ever returning, and has blamed the state of the British government. Writing in 2016 for the New Statesman, the same year of the Brexit referendum, the comedian explained, “I now find the political landscape so alien and awful that it’s hard to match the waves of cynicism it transmits on its own.”

Iannucci also said that Donald Trump’s rise made it increasingly hard to surpass the ridiculousness of real-life American politics for his other award-winning satire, Veep. However, the HBO hit did run for another three years.

15. Iannucci believes Tucker would now be running a charity.

We might never see Tucker in The Thick of It ever again. But that doesn’t mean we have no idea what he’d now be up to. Questioned about the likely whereabouts of the foul-mouthed spin master by GQ, Iannucci said, “[Capaldi] had always thought that Malcolm had been an alcoholic ... So he had a kind of past that he’d kind of managed to get through. I know he would be in these chunky-knit jumpers; he’d be doing a podcast, I’m sure.”

Iannucci then theorized that Tucker followed in the footsteps of one-time real political advisor Damian McBride by running a charity for people experiencing homelessness—while still “pissing everyone off.”