The Work of TV’s Greatest Swearer Now on Hulu in ‘The Thick of It’
First hired as a ‘swearing consultant’ for the BBC cult favorite The Thick of It, Ian Martin has graduated to full-fledged staff writer for Armando Iannucci’s political satire—and his work can be seen in all its colorful glory on Hulu. Martin talks to Soraya Roberts.
“What the fuck is this? Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Cunt?”
It’s not the sort of line generally heard on television, but then The Thick of It doesn’t have an average writing staff, and Ian Martin is perhaps its most exceptional member. The 59-year-old Brit co-wrote the fourth season of Veep creator Armando Iannucci’s political satire about the inner workings of the British government, which premiered on the BBC on Sept. 8, but Martin is perhaps better known across the pond as the first swearing consultant ever hired by the network—or any network, for that matter.
Now Americans can enjoy Martin’s particular talent for expletives, thanks to Hulu, which is co-producing Season 4 of the cult U.K. hit and airing it on Sundays, the day after the BBC world premiere. The U.S. streaming site airs the series with curses intact as opposed to BBC America, which has not yet released its premiere date for the new season but “abides by basic cable television common practice in the U.S. in using bleeps to cover profanity in its programs,” according to a spokesperson.
“It’s not that I want to bring swearing to the masses,” Iannucci recently told the Associated Press of the Hulu deal, “but just the rhythm of certain speech I think requires you to hear the full vocal effect.”
Hearing the full vocal effect is nowhere as important as it is with Malcolm Tucker, The Thick of It’s expletive-spewing Scottish spin doctor, who is generally understood to be the star of the show. The wiry silver-tipped director of communications, played by Peter Capaldi, spits out obscenities inspired by John le Carré as the No. 10 force around which the staff of the secretary of state for social affairs whirls—even when he is no longer in charge, as is the case this season.
“It was important for Malcolm to demonstrate his superiority by being the one who swore hardest and fastest,” Martin told The New Yorker in March. “He’s the king of the jungle.”
That jungle turns out to be Tony Blair’s government. Iannucci, who was unable to talk to The Daily Beast because of his Emmy duties, wrote The Thick of It in the mid-2000s as an “authentic” rendering of Blair’s regime, what he recently referred to in Slate as a “very macho, very sweary environment.” Blair’s director of communications, Alastair Campbell, was “mentioned initially” as the inspiration for Malcolm, but because Capaldi hadn’t met him, he told the Radio Times he modeled Malcolm on the film producer Harvey Weinstein.
Martin was hired as The Thick of It’s swearing consultant no doubt to avoid the pitfalls of, as Iannucci told Slate, “saying the same swear words again and again and again.” The writer, who now also works on Veep, was at the time spending his days as a contributor for Architects’ Journal and running a satirical website called Martian FM, which he and his brother Paul founded to “amuse” themselves.
“The Internet was a different place then. Very little online satire. Very little anything actually. Just porn and academic papers and tumbleweed,” Martin told The Daily Beast via email. “You felt as though you had a lot of freedom. We were able to swear a lot and insult people in the certain knowledge that nobody was actually reading it.”
But Iannucci was. In particular, he was reading a feature called “Hansard Late,” which Martin describes as “an obscene version of Hansard, the official record of Parliamentary proceedings.” The weekly installment included a “sweary Scottish Speaker of the House,” a description that recalls Malcolm’s sweary Scottish spin doctor.
Martin initially started working with Iannucci in 2003, first on a Channel 4 series called Gash, then on a satirical BBC4 special, 2004: The Stupid Version. It wasn’t until early 2005 that Iannucci sent him the three-episode first season of The Thick of It and asked him to, “sprinkle your sweary dust.” Intimidated but game, the writer emailed Iannucci back two amendments: he changed Malcolm’s line “He’s fucking useless” to “He’s as fucking useless as a marzipan dildo” and also dressed up another part of the script to include the description “hurricane of piss.”
Iannucci’s response? “Yeah, great, do stuff like that all over it.”
Though Martin claims he had “a strike rate of about 1 in 15,” Iannucci immediately hired him as Thick of It swearing consultant, alongside the show’s regular writing staff, “holy trinity” Simon Blackwell, Jesse Armstrong, and Tony Roche.
“The BBC did seem very keen at the time on mythologizing this idea of a TV program having a swearing consultant, as I think they thought it helped with publicity,” said Martin, but he didn’t particularly mind the “outsider status,” either, admitting, “It was nice to be the flailing chancer getting a massive break.”
Martin became a full-fledged staff writer in Season 3, dropping the swearing consultant title, which he now considered “self-aggrandizing,” particularly as the rest of the staff also swore like sailors.
“All scripts in the end are a mishmash of rewrites,” said Martin, “and I don’t think any one of the writers could be said in Season 4 to be ‘Malcolm’s voice.’ It’s very much a team effort.”
That team rarely includes Capaldi, who told The Guardian in 2009 that he does not often diverge from Malcolm Tucker’s script. “I tend to follow it quite closely because there’s a rhythm and a sense of baroque asceticism to it and I don’t want to walk all over their work,” he said. “I have discovered that I do put in a few extra fucks, but it’s a little aide mémoire. If I can’t remember the next line I say ‘fuck’ and in that split second the next line comes.”
Considering Martin landed his gig on The Thick of It after writing successfully for Malcolm, I asked whether he was anything like the character. “If by ‘are you and he alike’ you mean ‘am I a volatile fucking ball of rage who has zero patience with cock sucking piss hounds and will do everything in my fucking power to destroy you?’ No,” he replies. With similar playfulness, he responds to whether swearing comes naturally to him, “No it fucking doesn’t, you SHITBAGEL.”
Among what have become known as Tuckerisms, “fuckety bye”—which Martin didn’t write, though he did contribute the earlier, “tickety fuckety boo”—has developed into a sort of catchphrase among Malcolm fans. But Martin says he favors the character outside his Tuckerisms, in the moments he behaves “counterintuitive or out of character.” In the seventh episode of last season—all previous seasons are also available on Hulu—for example, Malcolm is fired. After going off on one of his trademark rants, he returns to his office to find his secretary crying, surrounded by suits. In a rare moment of improvisation, Capaldi yells, “What are you doing to her? Leave her fucking alone!”
“I get a lump in my throat every time,” Martin says of the scene, “this glint of fierce tenderness in a world of hateful darkness.”