Features | The Road to In the Loop: British Satire-Sitcom-Cinema

By Henry K. Miller

War was the first cause of modern British satire. In June 1959 Tom Lehrer, midway through a series of bookings in London, headed north to Cambridge to attend the first night of that year’s undergraduate revue, put on by the Footlights Club at the Arts Theatre. This was no ordinary student show. Titled The Last Laugh, it was set in a nuclear bunker during the countdown to war, and each sketch ended with a death. In place of humorous cross-dressing, an actual woman was permitted to take part. The intended audience was baffled; the performance ran for over four hours, and Lehrer, congratulating its sophomore star Peter Cook afterwards, told him, “If you collected the best numbers together and put them into one show, you could take the thing to Broadway.” Cook, who had written much of the material, gathered momentum. Next year at the Edinburgh Festival he teamed up with three other Oxbridge comics: Alan Bennett, Jonathan Miller, and Dudley Moore. When Beyond the Fringe debuted in London in May 1961, Kenneth Tynan called it “the funniest revue that London has seen since the Allies dropped the bomb on Hiroshima.” It ran for a year.

“Civil defence” against nuclear attack, and perhaps most shockingly the “Aftermyth of War’ were among the targets. At one performance Prime Minister Harold Macmillan turned up to see himself impersonated—an unheard-of thing during the ‘50s—and was mocked to his face. Then, three years after Lehrer’s commendation, Beyond the Fringe went stateside, with just as much success. While its authors were away what was called the “Satire Boom” found what turned out to be its permanent home. The same liberal BBC that ushered in kitchen-sink drama—its most famous practitioner, Ken Loach, having been in a comedy partnership with Dudley Moore while at Oxford—also greenlit a weekly satirical current affairs show, That Was the Week That Was, launched soon after Cook arrived on Broadway, and fronted by his Cambridge acolyte David Frost. Cook was begged to contribute, but out of perversity, or anger that Frost had stolen his act, never got on board.

Nonetheless, TW3 set the tone for a half-century of mainstream satire. The Oxbridge writer-performer—particularly the Footlights alumnus—has been part of the landscape ever since: The Daily Show’s John Oliver is the latest in a long line. The Beyond the Fringe originals were notoriously scathing about Frost and lukewarm about what their success had made possible—for Alan Bennett, what was subsequently labelled “satire” was “simply this kind of private humour going public”; but to its champions, that was the point. The university-educated comedians were talking out of class. Satire had been by an elite, for an elite; now it was still the product of an elite, but potentially for the millions. In 1963 one of the satire boom’s giddier advocates, Raymond Durgnat, called the phenomenon “a preliminary skirmish in an attempt to revamp the language of politics.” In practice what Cook and co. started—on television and radio, and in the magazine Private Eye, which combines satire with investigative journalism—has become a staple of British middle-class life.

For all their old-media success, however, the British satirists, by comparison with their kitchen-sink contemporaries, have been almost absent from the big screen. Their typical broadcast format has long been the sketch show and the scripted panel quiz. Devised and directed by Armando Iannucci, a scion of this tradition whose early work is routinely compared with Beyond the Fringe in terms of its impact and influence, In the Loop, an oil-black comedy about the run-up to war, is practically the second entry in a corpus of two.

The original satire-boomers’ misbegotten cinematic debut, The Rise and Rise of Michael and Rimmer, helps explain why. The germ of the plot—that opinion polls are shaping reality rather than reflecting it—was David Frost’s, who midway through 1966, by now a television mini-mogul, wanted to move into pictures. The first-draft script, in which Rimmer, ad-man-cum-pollster-cum-politician, becomes President of Great Britain after instituting government-by-touch-screen-plebiscite, was written by John Cleese and Graham Chapman, two Footlights men Frost had hired—with Michael Palin and Terry Jones among others—to write for his TW3-ish series The Frost Report. Peter Cook was hired in his first solo-starring role, and with director Kevin Billington (yet another ‘50s Cantabrigian) helped write what was eventually, after over two years of scrabbling for funds, shot.

Deliberately withheld from distribution during the election campaign whose contours it was meant to predict, the film finally appeared at the end of 1970. “Some things we did will now look like being wise after the event whereas in fact they were predictions,” Billington mused; but in truth the film simply lacks laughs, and its characterization of Rimmer as a man who “rose without trace” unwittingly illuminates Oxbridge satirists’ sense of entitlement. Many a fine film has been thrown together from sketch material, but Rimmer, for all its on- and off-screen talent—Harold Pinter deigned to appear in a recurring role as a television host—is not among them. It died a quick death in Britain and, despite being funded by Warner Bros, never crossed the Atlantic. After the near-miss of Bedazzled (1967) the film was meant to establish Cook as an international star on the level of his hero Peter Sellers. What he achieved following its failure was not negligible, but it remains the consensus even among admirers that Cook’s career never recovered—and that the film proved him to be one of the world’s worst actors. It’s fairer to say that the mechanics of cinema in 1970 were not conducive to Cook’s improvisational genius. He himself regretted the lack of spontaneity and his biographer describes him being “led meekly from shot to shot.” “The lunches were devastatingly funny,” Billington recalled.

Straight out of Oxford, Iannucci went into the satire business in the late ‘80s. Like Cook 30 years prior, he had been set on a career in the civil service—in Cook’s case the Foreign Office, in Iannucci’s the Treasury—but was narrowly diverted. (In Iannucci’s case, postgraduate work on Paradise Lost formed a brief interlude.) One of his early jobs at the BBC was on Week Ending, the radio comedy show that had been carrying the satirical torch since 1970; but it was with the landmark series On the Hour in 1991 that Iannucci—along with star and co-writers Chris Morris and Steve Coogan among others—made his name as producer. A spoof of radio news, it also put what was by now the dull echo of the satire boom in its sights. At the climax of the first series Coogan goes behind the scenes at a thinly disguised version of Week Ending, where a veteran scribe played by Patrick Marber is spitballing a sketch, meant to illustrate the day’s hot topic, in which a lamely impersonated John Major would be portrayed as the Sheriff of Nottingham, and Gorbachev as Robin Hood. His colleague proposes the reverse; either way the point is to do the silly voices and preach to the converted.

The sketch, written by Stewart Lee and Richard Herring, didn’t get rid of rote satirical comedy—it’s going strong as ever, and Iannucci, unlike the creatively parsimonious, Cook-esque Morris, hasn’t entirely abandoned it himself—but the series, and its small-screen spin-off, The Day Today, were hailed as instant classics, a verdict no one has been able to challenge. The Day Today in particular has a Python-like status among quote-happy comedy aficionados, and, television news not having become less hysterical in the intervening decade-and-a-half, its edge still cuts. In the series’ most celebrated episode, anchorman Morris, helming a point-counterpoint discussion between talking heads, escalates a diplomatic disagreement between British Hong Kong and Australia into armed conflict, simply to show off the BBC’s ability to cover it. The Day Today had said everything it needed to say in six episodes, and Iannucci, Coogan, and Marber went on to make Knowing Me, Knowing You with Alan Partridge, a spoof chat show—in the same way that Raging Bull (1980) is a boxing movie—in which Coogan’s signature character, introduced as a sports reporter in On the Hour and The Day Today, established himself as the greatest little-Englander since Basil Fawlty, master of the mixed metaphor and tangled analogy.

The character reached his apogee with the follow-up series, 1997’s I’m Alan Partridge, a sitcom charting Partridge’s hapless attempts to get recommissioned, and his life as a pre-dawn local radio DJ, based in a travel tavern on the outskirts of Linton, a village in Cambridgeshire. Almost perversely parochial and specific, I can’t be sure whether the show—with its running joke about the pedestrianization of Norwich city centre—even works outside East Anglia, let alone the UK, but it was instrumental in the shift towards the single-camera set-up, and formed the obvious inspiration for Ricky Gervais’ The Office four years later. Though not explicitly “documentary-style,” it appeared that way at the time. The inferior (though still funny) second run, directed, unlike the earlier series, by Iannucci himself, came out in the autumn of 2002, when the more credulous newspapers in Britain, having been fed an “intelligence dossier” by Tony Blair’s Number 10, were warning of Iraq’s ability to put together a chemical or biological missile strike within the hour.

The so-called “45-minute claim” was exposed to the righteous mirth of the British satirists; there may well have been a sketch in which Hans Blix was done as Robin Hood and Donald Rumsfeld as the Sheriff. Peter Cook’s prognosis that Britain “would sink into the sea under the weight of its own giggling” was borne out one more time. But when in May 2003, soon after the war’s “successful conclusion,” the BBC broadcast the claim, based on a leak from government scientist David Kelly, that the dossier had been “sexed up” by Blair’s media enforcer Alastair Campbell—a more prominent political figure than practically any elected representative at the time—all hell broke loose. Kelly was exposed by the Ministry of Defence with Blair’s knowledge; after his subsequent suicide a judicial inquiry was set up. The BBC’s journalistic conduct had not been entirely exemplary, but when the report appeared at the end of January 2004, Blair and Campbell’s manifest dishonesty was exonerated, while the Corporation, formally independent of the state, was gelded, losing its senior staff over a relatively minor imperfection in an early-morning news item. It was a couple of months after this that Iannucci devised The Thick of It, “launched on the back of my extreme contempt and anger for the manslaughterer Tony Blair.”

A low-budget sitcom set in the corridors of power, the first six half-hour episodes crept out in 2005, welcomed as a foul-mouthed update of Yes Minister, a fondly remembered but somewhat gummy ‘80s sitcom of Footlights-and-TW3 pedigree, with that show’s Machiavellian civil servants replaced by the archetypes of the Blair era—bollocks-spouting “blue-skies thinkers,” youthful researchers and advisers whose experience extends as far as “Poxbridge” and Westminster, and above all, by Malcolm Tucker, brilliantly played by Peter Capaldi, maestro of the dark arts of spin, champion swearer, and a blatant Campbell proxy. No Sherwood Forest allegorizing here. One could view the show as a reverse-angle on The Day Today, with its cast of embattled political hacks turning farcical somersaults in order to get the right message out—and above all to make sure they remain inside the tent, pissing out. In the hour-long 2007 special Rise of the Nutters, Tucker’s office is thrown into crisis when one of the stuffed-shirt politicos under his watch embarrasses himself in an interview with Jeremy Paxman—the legendary news anchor who was the model for Chris Morris’ Day Today persona years before. In the Loop’s “inciting incident,” in which floundering cabinet minister Simon Foster (Tom Hollander, last seen as John Adams’s George III) tells reporters that “to walk the road of peace, sometimes we need to be ready to climb the mountain of conflict,” recalls the commencement of hostilities with Australia in the earlier show.

Unlike the well-mannered Yes Minister, The Thick of It, its torn-from-the-headlines stories similarly based on insider gossip, carries the revivifying aroma of bile; but moreover, Iannucci as director entirely abandoned the studio-based sitcom set-up that prevailed until the late ‘90s. You wouldn’t know it from watching, but even parts of I’m Alan Partridge, amongst the first British sitcoms to tamper with the format, was taped for the benefit of a live studio audience, though frequently they watched on monitors, many of the sets being four-walled affairs. Inevitably, The Thick of It and In the Loop have been called post-Office; but really The Office was a post-Partridge effort. Though the plotting is drum-tight, Iannucci and his co-writers generate their shooting scripts in partial collaboration with the cast—a mixture of comics and professional actors—during the rehearsal process, and there is a considerable amount of extemporization on set. Iannucci had begun to experiment with freewheeling, improvised-before-the-handheld-digital-camera comedy during the protracted production of the Armando Iannucci Shows, his first major directorial venture, broadcast in 2001. Like sitcoms of old, The Thick of It employs multiple cameras, but to make possible the editing down of long sequences and off-script excursions, rather than simply to avoid retakes and save time; CGI is used to rub out the inevitable camera-operator cameos.

Which brings us to In the Loop. The movie-of-the-sitcom is an historically reviled genre, British cinema’s dirty little secret. After the withdrawal of American finance from the UK at the end of the ‘60s—Rimmer was one of the last films to get made under the old dispensation that had enabled the mini-boom of the Swinging London years—production slumped. One scheme to lure back the audience, which had been migrating to television steadily since the mid-‘50s, was the production of films spun off the sitcoms of the day, an added advantage being their cheapness, pre-assembled casts, and so forth. Few of these were exported, but the fact remains that the truly execrable On the Buses—wherein the show’s cast of transport workers campaign against the introduction of female drivers…with hilarious consequences—was one of the most successful of all films shown in British cinemas in 1971. About 30 of its kind, including two Buses sequels, were made during the decade—a not insignificant proportion of all British production. (By contrast, the Python films were made outside of the industry, principally funded by the team’s rock star admirers.)

The sitcom cycle ended abruptly around 1980; Fawlty Towers, one of the few sitcoms of the era to issue from the Footlights school, was also one of the few big-name series not to have made the transition, though the idea was broached. British cinema of the ‘70s has never attracted a great deal of attention or affection, but even within the current attempted rediscovery, as in this year’s BFI compilation Seventies British Cinema, which explores the lost worlds of sexploitation and cheapo horror, the likes of Are You Being Served? (1977) go unexamined. Hackademics fall over each other to find more and more over-the-top ways of praising the Carry On series; none have gone the extra mile for the Sid James vehicle Bless This House (1972), spawn of the long-running generation-gap-themed series. With good reason.

Iannucci risked disaster, then, in converting The Thick of It into a feature. As he has admitted, In the Loop even employs the hoary expedient of “opening out” the show by taking its characters, most of them given new names and slightly different job titles, out of familiar territory, à la the self-descriptive Holiday on the Buses (1973) —in this case on a “fact-finder” to Washington, DC and, eventually, to the UN. Its plot, in which Tucker is engaged by the unseen, unnamed PM to make the case for war in the Middle East and outmanoeuvre its opponents, American and British, is clearly enough The Thick of It’s “origin story,” a retelling of the chain of events that inspired Iannucci to devise the series. There is no exaggeration in its presentation of the cowardly Foster earnestly debating whether “the really brave thing is actually doing what you don’t believe” and not resign—this seems to be how Labour ministers found themselves in bed with the neocons. In February 2003 Campbell really did issue a dossier of “intelligence” about Iraq, endorsed by Blair and Colin Powell, comprising material he’d copied and pasted—caveats deleted—from the internet. Tucker’s climactic threat to hound Foster into “assisted suicide” is an unmistakable reference to the Kelly affair. At the same time, unlike Rimmer, the film’s observation of behaviour among the political elite—among themselves and towards those in the kitchen-sink world outside the loop, as in Steve Coogan’s cameo as an aggrieved provincial—is acute enough to outlive the moment.

By contrast with its ‘70s sitcom-movie forebears, there has been little attempt to make In The Loop more “cinematic” in the conventional dollies-and-crane-shots sense; but in a post-West Wing world, where mumblecore counts as cinema, the boundary is not exactly nailed down. Though the two-camera mode has been retained, slightly becalmed, during its more teeming sequences the film achieves the multi-plane, Altmanesque quality reached for in the special episodes Nutters and Spinners and Losers—watch out for the excellent Zach Woods, hovering in the background. The scenes around the real West Wing, meanwhile, where Mimi Kennedy and David Rasche preside over rival factions in the State Department, underline the style’s deglamourizing purpose by its contrast with the rich, flowing small-screen cinematography of Aaron Sorkin’s series. Moreover, the technique allows in what was withheld from Peter Cook’s films—the breath of life. Artless on paper, the real-time collaboration between performers and crew, their ability to catch looks and banter on the wing, to sustain a rhythm, is a complete marvel. It may have taken 50 years and another war, but Iannucci’s film is not only the first successful—indeed, watchable—British sitcom movie, but also, by a circuitous route, the cinematic flowering of the satire boom. And Chris Morris’ suicide-bomber comedy Four Lions is almost upon us…