Friday, 28 September 2012

How To Write The Thick of It

Razor-sharp. Incisive. Horribly accurate. Fact imitating fiction. Now you can write your very own episode of The Thick of It.

1) You'll need pop culture references: endless pop culture references: "It's like that third Tron movie that no-one's waiting for", "the Scottish Simon Cowell", "Like a fucking Will Self lecture", "we are the Gallagher brothers of politics", "okay, let's Macintyre this - stand up", "then it's just me, the Kindle and Jodi Picoult"', "Fuck off, Bagpuss", "When I've finished with him he'll look like Mel Gibson's fucking Jesus", "Nicola's gone all Jeremy Kyle", "You're the fucking shittest James Bond ever - you're David fucking Niven", "That was a bit annoying. And hilarious. Like Russell Brand. You want to hate him, but he’s just funny", "not the sofa - what are you, Lorraine Kelly?"' "You couldn't keep the cast of Glee out", "it's like when Queen lost Freddie - no-one could replace him, certainly not Paul Rodgers", "Oi, James fucking May, it was you who sprayed the private information about the school, wasn't it? Like Jenson Button shaking up a magnum of piss". Naming things people like is a gift for the writer of dialogue: it saves time.

2) Swearing is automatically funny. This is useful because you can adapt it to any situation: if someone is presenting poppies at the cenotaph and makes a mess of it, you can create lines like "bollocking poppy wank" and "she is officially a cenotwat". Not to forget "Shitehead Revisited", "Fuck off Mr Chips" and "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Cunt". The trick is to add the swear word at the right moment. This makes it ideal for quoting on Twitter or at work the next day.

3) Another useful technique is to take an established name, and add a twist to make it fit one one of the characters: "how's Martina Luther King?", "where's Hale and Pacemaker?", "Lord Bonnie Longford" "Lucille Ballbag" "Benny fucking Hendrix", "Where's Dame Ellen McArseache?", "Indiana Murray and the bum-dildo of vengeance".

4) Despite the richly talented cast, you don't need to give them too much to work with. Don't bother with the characterisation, nuance and inventive comic detail you find in their other work such as Knowing Me Knowing You, The Day Today or Getting On. What's that got to do with satire? That's just art. All you need in the way of characterisation is the odd reference to how the characters are unhappily married or don't get to have sex very often and have to resort to porn. The character of Phil Smith is a masterful example here.

5) There are two ways of writing dialogue: one is to have a character make references to the other's sexual failures, the other is for them to suggest they are gay.

Here's the first:

Phil: (producing a bottle of champagne)
It was in my desk drawer - I was saving it for something special.
What, like losing your virginity?
I've done that in style, actually - if my penis could talk...
Yeah, it'd say "I'm lonely, where is everyone, let me out of this coffin..."
(series 4, ep 1)

Here's a couple of examples of the other:

While Peter is absent I am his surrogate: the King's hand
Yeah - finish him off with that hand as well, do you? Prick.
(series 4, ep 3)

Malcolm: (interrupting an argument between Ollie and Phil)
I love it, I love it, it's the pre-match sparring for the big supergayweight title fight, eh? (mimes boxing) Ok Oliver, wipe away the precum, you've got some work to get on with.
(series 3, ep 4)

6) if the ad-lib hasn't come off, keep ad-libbing: non-sequiturs are funny, particularly if you keep adding to them and commenting on the fact that they are non-sequiturs. Here's some examples:

What I need to know is, are you solid?
Yes, I'm completely... I'm as solid the proverbial, as a - as a rock, As a a - as a sailor' on shoreleave."
(series 3, episode 8)

You're like the man who fucked the monkey that gave us AIDS, that's who you are!
(Incredulous) I'm like the man who did what - who fucked the monkey (laughs) that gave us AIDs?
That's right: you keep saying "it wasn't me, it wasn't me" and there's monkey shit on your balls, not mine.
(series 3 episode 4)

Great, thank you, Steve fucking "oooh Nicola" Fleming
Yeah... He is a fucking... [pause] ninny isn't he?
(series 3, episode 7)

Glen, you're a marvel, you know - you're like a modern-day're like Jeeves...only not as good."
(Series 4, ep 3)

See how the actors' unhappy way of delivering the dialogue, as if the characters were struggling to articulate themselves well, can be used to excuse what might otherwise seem rather feeble material.

7) Comedy can be created by clinging to the phrase a person has just used:

Fleming: Glen, are you on top of your game?
Glen: I'm, er [splutters] I am above my game, I'm in a geo-stationary orbit way above it looking down going "Hello game, it's Glen!"
(series 3 episode 8)

You've done some pretty awful things to me in my time but this takes the bloody biscuit - and you've pissed on that biscuit and I've got to eat it. Well, here's the news Malcolm, I will not eat the pissy biscuit!
Sam! No pissy biscuits.
(Series 3 ep 8)

The leader of the Opposition is in that room, Malcolm, practicing walking, I mean, baby horses can walk - from the womb. She's one nil down to a pony.
A pony isn't a baby horse. It's a foal: a fucking foal is a baby horse.
Right, our guest tonight on "I don't give a fuck about baby horses is me.
[later in the episode]
shall we get a pony to challenge her?
It's not a fucking pony, it's a fucking foal.
(series 4 ep2)

Everyone knows that's what dialogue sounds like in comedy.

Can you do that? Let's try right now, shall we?:

Teri looks in the biscuit tin) Why do you always have to eat all the penguins?
Why are you always asking me about the Penguin count? You're a Penguin Nazi
You're calling me a Nazi Penguin?
No, I'm calling you a Penguin Nazi
What's the difference?

People will be tweeting " 'penguin Nazi'! lol #thethickofit"' in no time. It could be the new "quiet bat people" (series 4 ep 2).

8) for your plot, you'll need some new initiative, campaign or scheme: let's say: lollipop ladies...

9) There's a photo-op or a lecture to try and launch this initiative, but something goes wrong. Nicola/Mannion makes a speech about the lollipop scheme, but there's a faux pas: a member of the public asks a question that puts them on the spot: they flounder, ad-lib "awkward" non-sequitars, and try and ingratiate themselves with the questioner. Ollie/Emma pulls a face. Malcolm/Stewart watches it live on TV or hears it over the phone and goes ballistic, repeating whatever non-sequitur Nicola/Mannion has just used: "Postman Pat! Did he [or she] just compare the Party to Postman Pat? WHAT THE FUCK...!" Glen/Phil/Teri looks on nervously as he knocks things off the desk and makes frantic phone calls.
10) Mannion/Nicola arrives back and swears furiously: "Thanks a fucking bunch! I was supposed to be the fucking Lollipop Leader now I'm Postman Prick?" Malcolm/Stewart responds with insults.

(11) Shots of punning or pop-referencing newspaper headlines, photo mock-ups, political cartoons (Nicola hanging from a lollipop like a gallows, Mannion with a lollipop up his backside, Mannion/Nicola as Julius Caesar stabbed in the back with a lollipop, Mannion/Nicola as Postman Pat with someone else significant depicted as his cat Jess) are bemoaned by Stewart/Malcolm and sniggered at by Ollie/Glen/Teri/Emma/Phil.

12) As Mannion/Nicola sets off homewards, Stewart/Malcolm continues to make angry phone calls and Ollie/Glen/Teri/Emma/Phil make ruefully amused comments, the lollipop scheme is abandoned for some fairly ironic reason. All is back as it was. Nothing has changed. Nothing ever will. Credits roll over insults.

13) Any good work of fiction has a political aspect to it. All literature is propaganda, as Orwell said, and the same is true of TV. The Thick of It, however, is only concerned with the politics of the ministry and the party: leave that all that "exploring it through three-dimensional human beings, complex relationships, though-provoking storylines, unbearably moving moments, complex acting, harrowing moments that take the viewer out of their safety zone, putting characters you care about in worrying situations, dramatising important political and social questions through a gripping plot dynamic, finding the admirable traits in loathsome people and vice versa, rich dialogue rather than just a stream of insults, asking what the fuck is wrong with the country" stuff to The Wire, Breaking Bad, Boys From The Blackstuff, Cracker and The Sopranos. That's for people with far too broad a definition of politics.

14) No backstory, no characterisation, no emotion, no non-political humour (unless you count the insults and the pop culture references) no subversion of the format, no suggestion that spin-doctoring and ministerial or party politics are banal. This is not designed as a show that supports an "it's about more than just politicians" reading. It's for people who like talking about politicans, and satire. Hence the straight-to-the-point directing and editing, the abrupt opening and ending, the lack of music or logos, the plain credits. Satire is all it is: what it stands or falls as.

15) that said, don't go overboard on the satire: no anger, keep it non-partisan, keep it safe. This must please satire fans and deliver what is expected: it must not ruffle feathers, cause controversy, upset people.

16) your main messages are:
a) politicians are idiots
b) everything in politics rebounds on you
c) it doesn't make any difference which party
d) swearing is funny
e) all scheme, proposals and initiatives go wrong
f) nothing changes, nothing can be done

17) Trust me, this will work: it's tried and tested, it makes people feel safe, all the more so because it makes them feel the Government is being challenged while they laugh at nob gags and references to Gordon Ramsey.

18) One other thing, the first series, like the current one, starred Peter Capaldi, okay? Look at the DVD cover: Peter Capaldi. I don't see anyone else there, do you? There is no Chris Langham, do you hear me? I don't care if it has gone horribly downhill since he left. Look at the DVD cover, comrade. There was no Langham in the Party.