That everyone should watch The Year The Town Hall Shrank (Thursdays BBC4) is too worn a cliché, so let’s hone it: Whitehall policy-makers should be forced to see it, Clockwork Orange style. When public services are taken away, people’s lives are ruined. At least look them in the eye.
The documentary was the first of three shot in Stoke last year, examining the impact of the local council being forced to slash £36m from its budget as part of nationwide austerity. It asked if we can really all be in this together, when there are sections of society that have no fat left to trim.
We met the librarian, locking up a library that will never open again, then shuffling tearfully off into retirement. We met the staff of a care home, their lives on hold while they waited for the axe, and the children of the home’s residents, worried their fragile old parents wouldn’t withstand being uprooted. But The Year the Town Hall Shrank wasn’t just a parade of miserable consequences, vital as this was. It was a demonstration of politics on the ground, with politicians and affected citizens within arm’s length of each other. Their battles were gripping.
Mohammed Pervez, the leader of the council, had to publicly defend the draconian measures handed to him from above, get the new budget approved and meet furious voters. As a Labour man, was it killing him inside? It seemed not. Pervez was an inscrutable central character, an impassive player of the game. He stuck to the script.
Part of what Pervez, politically speaking, had no option but to say was that the doomed facilities weren’t up to much anyway. His announcement on BBC Stoke that two of the city’s care homes were “of poor quality” was met with disgust by the manager of one of them. Pervez, she said, had never visited.
Even less impressed was Melissa, the leader of a campaign to keep Sure Start children’s centres open. She spoke eloquently of the need to break cycles of dependence on benefits, blitzing local media with a massive petition and solid soundbites.
The programme, and Melissa herself, didn’t shy away from the fact that solidarity with the people trying to save the care homes was a luxury she didn’t have. Wasn’t she also putting Pervez and his council in an impossible position? “That’s where I want them to be.” All Melissa could do was punch up.
Melissa won. The care home staff and residents lost, but not before they’d delivered the programme’s best scene, in which their delegation visited Pervez’s office. Had they not seen the swish new privately run care homes in the area, he asked?
“I’ve seen the newest!” said a man in the corner. “It’s very nice. It’s got a flat-screen telly in the room. It’s got a refrigerator in the room. It’s got internet access.” Pervez relaxed a little, but the bloke hadn’t finished. “My mother’s 87, she’s got dementia. She can’t find the toilet. Absolutely useless.” Trying to move on, Pervez claimed he’d followed proper consultancy procedures to establish that Heathside care home was unfit. Unfortunately, one of the campaigners had brought along her sister, a solicitor, who took a deep breath and threatened to take the council to judicial review. That shut him up.
But this tremulous triumph was short-lived: closing Heathside was one of the measures included in a budget that, in the film’s tense and desperate climax, was voted through after a heated debate in the council chamber, during which an appalled woman in her 60s was physically ejected by security for refusing to be quiet.
The programme’s (successful) attempt to be thrilling meant it was also emotive, with no question that its sympathies lay with Stoke’s poor and vulnerable, and no debate about whether slashing the public sector is an unfortunate necessity. Alternatives weren’t discussed. But then, the film couldn’t provide balance by also showing us, say, the super-rich inconvenienced by having to pay slightly more tax. Because that hasn’t happened.
On Saturday, The Thick of It (BBC2) stopped, at least in the sense that this was the last regular episode. There may be one-off specials and, in any case, when it finished we could see nothing was really ending: just before the last cut to black, the director Tony Roche was backing his camera out of the DoSaC offices, leaving the spin doctors to shout on eternally about their little PR crises.
For all its specific echoes of reality – the final series had a coalition with an irrelevant, chest-puffing minority party and, on the other side, an opposition dismally lacking aggression and visibility – the main satirical point made by Armando Iannucci’s comedy has always been a more general truth: his politicians and apparatchiks conduct their careers with no thought for the electorate. Policies are created as a means to acquire power or, more often, to obscure previous failures and avoid losing power.
Someone at or near the top is enacting their ideology, but The Thick of It never shows us that. It never shows us civilians either, unless they’ve created an unfavourable headline. It’s all about the grasping mediocrities in the middle, greasing the wheels.
This poisonous bubble is the sit for the com and, in the tradition of great sitcoms, The Thick of It’s last episode had a dizzying shift of tone, as the constraints on the characters fell away. Glenn Cullen (James Smith), the ageing, impotent civil servant who’s been on the fringes of all four series, suddenly got up and unleashed a volley of the show’s trademark nuclear insults, but without the normal hint that it’s all sport (“Emma, I’m sorry but you’re just a standard-issue, insipid posh bitch”). Cruelly, inevitably, nobody cared.
The king of the decapitating one-liner, Malcolm Tucker (Peter Capaldi), suffered a suitable exit, arrested for perjury and replaced by his competent but weak surrogate nephew Ollie Reader (Chris Addison). A lovely scene between them swayed back and forth between Tucker’s innate superiority and the fact that his career was finished and Reader was the new man.
Iannucci and his writers signed off with Tucker opening his mouth to address reporters outside the police station, before realising he now had nothing to say. Game over.