I worked for lots of women in my time in Whitehall.
The thing that all of them – Harriet Harman, Margaret Hodge, Barbara Follett, Ruth Kelly – had in common with the men I worked for, was their absolute, unshakeable faith that they had what it took to run the country. They may or may not have been right. Politicians have as many personal imperfections as everyone else on the planet. What’s funny about politics is this mismatch of total self-belief with the reality of what they achieve. As Armando Iannucci said last week “although it’s a big job it’s actually little people“.
But politics is hard. Getting anywhere near to the top demands huge self-confidence. There are no shrinking violets in the Cabinet or Shadow Cabinet. Which is why the sight of Nicola Murray agonising about walking in a straight line while holding a poppy wreath on last night’s Thick of It made my teeth curl.
I appreciate that a former civil servant complaining about a political satire is like a hotelier arguing that Fawlty Towers didn’t capture the reality of working in the hospitality industry. Being true to life isn’t really the point. I also get that the best comedy comes from putting people into situations they are totally unfitted for – Basil Fawlty again. (And that sequence did give rise to a classic Thick of It-ism “She’s officially a Cenotwat” for which I forgive them a bit)
But none of the women I ever worked for would have had a problem with walking and poppy-wielding at the same time. Nor would they need to be told by their male comms advisor (even if he was the incomparable Malcolm Tucker) that they needed to toughen up their act. Nicola Murray shone like a schoolgirl who’d just been noticed by the coolest guy at the disco. Harriet Harman would have eaten him for breakfast then spat out the bits.
I accept there’s a limit to how many rampant megalomaniacs you can have in one TV programme – especially as this series of TTOI is trying to reflect a coalition government as well as the opposition, so that’s three sets of dunderheads who need to be differentiated somehow. I just wish it wasn’t the woman who’s the simpering nitwit while the blokes get on with their plotting.
And, finally: I do appreciate how bloody annoying it must be for every woman in a TV programme or film to be expected to represent one half of humanity everytime she opens her mouth on screen. But the rarity of showing women in positions of power makes them symbolise something bigger than themselves, like it or not – even in (especially in?) a comedy.
I really hope the worm turns in the rest of this series. Not least because Rebecca Front has been one of my favourite comedy performers since we were at university together. I thought, aged 18, that she was the funniest person I’d ever met. I’ve followed her career with a proprietorial pride ever since, even though we lost touch years ago. I still think she’s a genius. I just think she deserves better.