It started in 2000 on BBC Radio 4, with the fourth and last radio series broadcast in 2004. A six-part television series ran on BBC Two towards the end of 2003; the second six-episode television series ran on BBC2 on Thursdays at 10 p.m. from 21 July - 25 August 2005. A one-off radio episode was broadcast on 3 November 2006.
The title is taken from a quote by the historian Lord Acton that "power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely".
Prentiss is a man without morals, whose only objectives are money and power. He is portrayed as being the brains, while McCabe, though an excellent speech-writer, lacks his motivation and insight. McCabe's ambitions include retiring and drinking claret, and he spends his life in a state of cynicism, lack of energy and boredom. McCabe (who describes himself as "a first class mind") does sometimes have good ideas, but they usually become Prentiss's ideas by the time they are presented to the client, and he lacks the energy to make more than mild objections. McCabe is also more likely to baulk at a scheme for moral reasons than Prentiss.
Stephen Fry said of Charles Prentiss, "He's a brute of a man, out to win, with no morals; he's completely shameless. There's not much to say that's nice about him, except that there is some pleasure in watching a natural born killer at work and knowing whatever happens he will win".
Prentiss and McCabe often find themselves working on behalf of two rival clients, one of whom is often the shadier side of the Labour Government, often called their "Downing Street Retainer". This is usually something of an inconvenience as Prentiss is met by Archie Hilditch (Tony Gardner, Alex Lowe), a faceless member of the Government, in a deserted location (such as Frank Dobson's campaign headquarters), and told he needs to ruin the popularity of the organisation that he has spent half the programme building up. For example, in one episode they're employed by the government to increase the popularity of the European Union, while also being employed by the Eurosceptic newspaper The Sun to increase sales. It is probably a good thing in the end, as the firm relies on these payments since neither Prentiss nor McCabe seems to want to do any real work.
The third member of the company is Sandy (Siobhan Hayes), who is there as the office trainee, getting work experience for her NVQ level 2. She usually does all the work that the partners in the firm cannot be bothered to do, such as filling out thousands of public opinion polls in different handwritings, though she will only agree to do something if it can be twisted into one of the 'nine levels of competence' of her NVQ. Another member of the office is the useless Clive (Tom George) or as Martin calls him, 'young, er, thing', who often turns publicity stunts into bloodbaths. He first appears in series three, after Sandy leaves the company to become a nurse (although due to her fiddling with the accounts, she still gets paid).
Another regular character is Maurice, the waiter at McCabe's club. Each time he serves McCabe's claret, he corrects the English pronunciation of Maurice (Morris) to the French (Maur-ees), and each time Prentiss puts him down with a verse like "One man by circumstance is in splendour set; whilst another irons pants in a laundrette. Go and iron my pants, Morris".
In series 1, one of the running jokes is the company trying to avoid working on "The Sir Harold Dixon Account." Although he is never heard, it is known that he is a Conservative politician. As the series goes on, Sandy becomes more frustrated, and in the last episode she changes jobs and starts working for Sir Harold. However, after allegations of sleaze, Sir Harold is made bankrupt and Sandy returns to Prentiss McCabe.
In series 2, another character was created, Gayle Shand, played by Tamsin Greig. Gayle was a former employee of Prentiss McCabe and Charles's former girlfriend, with whom she had a heavily sexual relationship (they often made love whilst listening to classical music). However, the relationship fell apart after Gayle told Charles that she was already married to an insect specialist from Philadelphia. She now runs a rival firm to Prentiss McCabe, which is a much larger company, and is often trying to win Archie's contract, or is the agent of a rival client to Prentiss McCabe's current one. For example, whilst Charles and Martin work for the PM via Archie, Gayle is the spin doctor for the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Prentiss McCabe always come up with a plan to keep Archie on their side, despite Gayle's attempts to stop them, even trying to make Charles a partner in her firm.
Also introduced was her assistant, Janice, who suspected that Gayle's personal rivalry with Charles did not lead to the best decisions.
In the last episode of series 2, Gayle was leaving for America, and made one last bet with Charles. She bet her company against Charles's testicles that he could not make the Home Secretary say, "Prison doesn't work". Despite Charles's best attempts, Gayle won because she bribed the Home Secretary, as she was having an affair with someone in the Home Office. Luckily, she called off the bet providing Charles could make love to her to the tune of the 1812 overture. Charles managed to get his own back, however, by planting some Class A Drugs in her suitcase as she left for America. Charles may nevertheless still have some feelings for her, and sometimes reminisces about their relationship.
A one-off special episode was broadcast on the 3 November 2006, with Tony Gardner playing Archie. In the special, Martin goes to jail for seven years for fraud (having been implicated in the Cash for Peerages scandal). Archie, who has left New Labour, then blackmails Charles into giving him a job in order to prevent any more embarrassing information getting out about the company.
However, Charles soon learns that in fact Archie has framed both Martin and himself, with the assistance of Martin's girlfriend, and they are planning to take over Prentiss McCabe. After Charles finds proof, Archie goes to jail and Martin gets released, but as he has been moved to an open prison, he does not feel like leaving too soon.
The radio series is sometimes repeated on BBC 7 as part of their, "Comedy Club". These repeats are some of the most listened shows on BBC Radio, attracting over 70,000 listeners a week.
While the radio series has one trainee, the TV version has several young professionals working at the agency. Most notable are Jamie Front (James Lance) and Alison Jackman (Zoe Telford). While Jamie is a brilliant liar and naturally devious, Alison is very intelligent but too honest and somewhat literal-minded. Charles Prentiss said of her, "Most of the young people here at Prentiss McCabe don't know their arse from their elbow, but with Alison, at least you know she'll join the Royal Arse Society and get a book about elbows from the library". Also in the firm are Cat Durnford (Sally Bretton), the young party girl, and Nick Mayer (Nick Burns), Charles's personal assistant.
Instead of political schemes, the agency concentrates on working with celebrities: something that is rare in the radio version. In the radio episode where McCabe works with a Big Brother contestant, this is shown as an exceptional event, but would be normal behaviour in the TV series. Contrariwise, in the TV episode "The House of Lords", Charles is mildly surprised to be contacted by a government spin doctor.
Notable cameo and guest-starring roles in the television series have included:
Special Episode - (3 November 2006)
- The Independent, 8 November 2003.Transferring a radio series to television can be risky [...] Absolute Power, however, succeeds where previous comedies have failed, and looks set to do for PR what Drop The Dead Donkey did for the newsroom. A good cast helps.
- Stuart Price in the Independent on Sunday, 9 November 2003.fitfully amusing comedy
- Pete Clark in the London Evening Standard, 11 November 2003.The script presses the right buttons relentlessly. The names that are invoked contribute artfully to the atmosphere of heightened unreality. The idea of Mark Thatcher is tossed about in this corner, while the notion of Dennis Waterman is examined in another [...] I suppose it is a credit to all involved in the programme that I didn't like it at all. Although the characters are clearly exaggerations and grotesques, I felt they were probably close enough to the truth to be convincing. Form and content were perfectly matched. Like Trevor's World of Sport, of which this is clearly a superior relation, it is impossible to like any of the characters. [...] It delivers a stringently corrective dose of satire. It is quite appallingly knowing, and deliberately so.
- Terry Ramsay in the London Evening Standard, 11 August 2005.effortlessly witty comedy
- Terry Ramsay in the London Evening Standard, 21 July 2005deliciously witty and sharp series, up there with Extras as one of the best comedies of the moment (or, indeed, any moment).