“It’s just a social call.” Never have those words seemed more terrifying than coming out of Malcolm Tucker’s mouth in the first scene of The Thick Of It.
Like many a red-blooded American patriot, I’ve been enjoying Armando Iannucci’s Veep these past few weeks. Now, that series does a fine job skewering the dysfunctional echo chamber of Washington DC, but there hasn’t yet been a moment where the audience feels the palpable fear that poor Minister for Social Affairs Cliff Lawton feels at the start of The Thick Of It.
Like Veep, The Thick Of It is very much a show about people trying to stay one step ahead of everyone else and failing miserably. Set in a middling (fictional) department of British government, we follow the harried cabinet minister in charge, as well as his team of spin doctors as they try desperately to impress his boss (the unseen Prime Minister, represented by Malcolm), stay out of trouble in the press and possibly do some civic good for Britain’s citizens. Episode one begins by demonstrating the knife-edge the characters are all dancing on. Outgoing Minister Lawton gets turfed from his position not because the PM wants him gone, but because there’s an article in Daily Mail suggesting he wants him gone, and he doesn’t want to appear weak.
Let me drop in a brief explanation of British politics, which I’ll occasionally be doing throughout my reviews this summer. Everything’s a little more fluid over there: The Prime Minister selects his cabinet from the elected members of Parliament. They don’t have to get confirmed, they serve no fixed term, and they can be reshuffled at a moment’s notice, often to distract from some recent governmental flub or screw-up. Our protagonist, Hugh Abbott, won’t lose his job as an elected official if he’s fired, but he will lose his clout and be relegated to the backbenches in the House of Commons, from where many members of Parliament never return.
That’s what happens to Mr. Lawton, and his dismissal scene is a work of art, a textbook representation of Malcolm Tucker’s skill as the Prime Minister’s chief enforcer. He starts out assuring Lawton that the PM doesn’t want him out, but the bad PR is becoming too much to bear. “We’re starting to look weak. Everyone’s saying, ‘When’s he going to go; when’s he going to go?’ And you don’t want us to look weak, do you?” Lawton puts up a fight, weakly at first, then desperately, thrashing harder as Malcolm sinks his teeth in. (There’s one honestly chilling shot of Peter Capaldi with his teeth bared that you can’t quickly forget.) By the end, he’s turned it around on Lawton, berating him for complaining when he wrote such a nice goodbye message from the PM. “No one who matters thinks anything less of you about this. SO FAR!”
It’s a perfect introduction to the terrifying universe of the show. Even though it offers a look into government praised for its realism, The Thick Of It is a farce—that’s the point. As realistic as the producers make it look, shooting improvised dialogue with handheld cameras in dowdy offices (the initial budget for the show was small), it’s always going to be farcical and ridiculous, because that’s what the business of governing is like.
Hugh Abbott (Chris Langham) is the perfect protagonist for the knife-edge world of the Department of Social Affairs, which is, as mentioned, a made-up department that gives the show enough scope to cover many aspects of British politics. Hugh is a nervous, out-of-touch career politician, who’s just trying to avoid getting thrown out of power. He’s very suggestible to the ideas of his two senior aides, longtime right-hand-man Glenn Cullen (James Smith) and twitchy young gun Ollie Reeder (Chris Addison), partially because he’s so disconnected from the public and partially because he’s so tired by his hours, he’s happy to sign on to basically anything.
The first two episodes of a short three-episode season (“series two,” comprising another three episodes, followed a few months later) follow Hugh’s attempt to debut a policy that will cost the government next to nothing, attract the praise of the press and excite the electorate. In the first episode, it’s a “snooper force” to stamp out benefit fraud; in the second, it’s extra arts education for troubled youth.
But what we’re really following is the miserable behind-the-scenes birthing process for these policies. In "Episode One," heartened by a conversation with the PM, Hugh prepares to announce the “snooper force” at a press conference and is immediately made to walk it back by Malcolm, who is battling a “hurricane of piss” from the treasury department, who weren’t notified. Hugh and his advisers, including the tutting Terri (Joanna Scanlan), a non-partisan civil servant who functions as a more traditional press secretary, try to cook up something new on the fly, but end up having to announce that they’re announcing nothing. Then, because the PM sticks with the first thing he heard, they have to pretend like their non-announcement was an announcement, with Malcolm’s sheer terrifying force the only thing pushing it through (along with the fact that the press barely cares to begin with).
In the second episode, Hugh is taken with a focus groupee who likes his arts initiative until he realizes she’s an actress whom the focus group company hired to beef up its numbers. Malcolm scrambles to get ahead of a focus group story in The Times, believing the actress to be the leak, before realizing that she never talked to the press, and the team just leaked a story making Hugh look a fool for no reason.
The interesting thing about both episodes is that Malcolm is proved to be no superhuman. Capaldi is such a force of nature in the role, but this isn’t a Mr. Fix-It character: Malcolm is often just as responsible for a screw-up as blithering Hugh or arrogant Ollie. He’s just better at covering his tracks and terrifying everyone involved into going along with his side of the story. There are no superhumans at work here, no matter how excited viewers might get every time Malcolm walks into a scene.
There’s so much more to explore, and I’m very much looking forward to these coming weeks. I hope you can follow along with me if you haven’t seen it before—the show isn’t on Netflix but can be purchased on iTunes or on UK DVD.
- While politics aren’t discussed too explicitly, Hugh, et al., are clearly part of the Labor Party and the PM is a thinly-veiled Tony Blair, whose next-level reliance on spin and media strategizing helped bring the party back to power in the '90s (and made it the topic of quite a lot of satire).
- Malcolm Tucker isn’t really based on anyone, but he draws the most comparisons with Alistair Campbell, Blair’s director of communications until 2003—Campbell isn’t a Scot, but he shares a well-known love of profanity.
- “What we need is something that the public want, that’s incredibly popular and is free.” Hugh suggests zoos: “My kids went to a zoo the other day, and they said it was fucking disgusting, the state of it. That’s shit, isn’t it?”
- Malcolm and Hugh's exchange near the end of the first episode basically sums up the show's premise: “The announcement that you didn’t make today, you did.” “I’m not quite sure what level of reality I should be operating on.”
- Hugh is criticized in The Times for being out of his depth. “At the moment he’s calling me… the political equivalent of the house wine at a suburban Indian restaurant.”
- Ollie tries to do an impression of a normal bloke. “I enjoy domestic violence and sundried fucking karaoke.”