The Thick Of It, BBC4

by | May 19, 2005 | All, Reviews

What to say if you liked it

A gloriously contemporary update of Yes Minister in which the genial skulduggery of civil servants is substituted for the amoral megalomania of untethered demagogues.

What to say if you didn’t like it

A convoluted pile of vomit that seeks to dazzle the viewer with its specious intellect of circumlocution and transparent grotesques.

What was good about it?

• Peter Capaldi as the PM’s enforcer Malcolm Tucker, apparently loosely based on Alastair Campbell and Peter Mandelson, who observes the various government departments like a predatory eagle and occasionally swoops down to pluck one of the ministers to the obscurity of the backbenches as a sacrifice for the greater public credibility of the Prime Minister.

• Tucker coercing Cliff, the Social Affairs minister, to resign. “We’ve no desire to get rid of you,” Tucker confides, before adding that the media perception of him “hanging by a thread” has left the government looking weak. “You don’t want us to look weak, do you,” Tucker demands in a more sinister tone. “That’s why you’ve got to go.” Tucker then reveals he has already written Cliff’s letter of resignation, designating “personal reasons” for him leaving the post. But as Cliff resists Tucker’s insistence that he leave, Tucker screams at him: “I have written some very nice things about you in the Prime Minister’s reply to your letter of resignation. I had a lump in my throat.”

• The coarse language used in the corridors of power that initially seems gratuitous and vulgar, but apparently is the argot of habit among civil servants and ministers.

• Chris Langham as the hapless Hugh Abbot, Cliff’s replacement at Social Affairs, who is at first under the illusion that his new post holds a degree of power. A delusion soon corrected by the interfering malice of Tucker.

• No laughter track.

• The myopic lack of scruples in government exhibited best when news of Hugh’s new Snoopbusters policy to crack down on benefit fraud is announced on a radio news bulletin. As the bulletin moves on to a report on the “precipitous rise in fatalities” in a train crash in Bangalore, Hugh is still savouring the glowing reference to his policy and mindlessly utters “marvellous”.

• Meek ministerial aide Ollie getting car sick while reading.

• When Tucker vetoes Hugh’s new policy as he is on the way to announce it to the world’s press at a school two hours outside of London, he Glen and Ollie have to devise a reason as to why they’ve dragged them all away from the capital. Ollie sarcastically offers “the return of capital punishment”, Hugh with “cleaning up dirty zoos” until the best idea they can come up with is that it was a trick to show how the press are too easily beguiled by “tinsel” policies and are ignorant of the hard work civil servants do every day.

• Tucker appearing unannounced in Hugh’s office like the Grim Reaper, apparently based on a practice of Peter Mandelson.

• Tucker’s vow when Evening Standard reporter Angela threatens to write an exposé on the incompetence of the Social Affairs ministry: “I would tell the newspaper editors to gouge her name out of their address books so she can’t even get a job on hospital radio.”

What was bad about it?

• The plot was quite complex and with all the “disgruntled sources” piling on top of one another the narrative thread became difficult to follow.

• When writing a review of it, it is often necessary to explain not just the punchline, but every single act that led up to the punchline.

Top 6 highlights of The Thick Of It: episode two

1 – Hugh abandoning a full focus group for convenience’s sake and only caring about the opinions of group member Mary, who is perceived to be able to speak for the everyday person on the street. Later it transpires she’s an actress in The Bill (maybe Midsomer Murders, too) brought in by the organising agency to make up the numbers.

2 – The apoplectic Malcolm Tucker believing Mary is a mole for Steve Hewitt, a journalist who is slaughtering Hugh his newspaper (claiming Hugh is “the political equivalent of the house wine in a suburban Indian restaurant”). And, fearing she is about to inform Hewitt of Hugh’s latest hair-brained scheme, he arranges for Hugh’s ineptitude to be leaked to a favourable journalist to spoil Hewitt’s exclusive. But Mary wasn’t Hewitt’s mole, so a damaging story was leaked to the press for no good reason.

3 – Malcolm’s insistence that Hugh view a “Zeitgeist” tape that contains summaries of popular culture such as EastEnders and The Bill, created so that ministers can pretend they are in touch with the electorate.

3 – Hugh proving that he’s out of touch when he was asked “Who is the only gay in the village?” Hugh replied: “Eddie Grundy. No, he’s got chidlren. Mind you, a lot of them do these days.”

4 – Hugh, Ollie and Glen repairing to one of the 15 meeting rooms in the ministry, only to realise the only difference from the office they’ve just come from is the absence of “s**t” PR officer Terri.

5 – When Hugh’s lazy trick of taking Mary’s opinions as the view of the British public is uncovered, he asks his aides: “Where am I on the f**k-o-meter?” Ollie and Glen both reply “12”. “Out of what?” Hugh enquires. Glen: “50.” Ollie: “Mine was out of 10.”

6 – Ollie’s rant about the futile attempt to define an middle-England everyman. “I’m Jeff Average. I work in IT. At the weekend, I pop a few pills and do some DJing because I’m a single mum and I’m a member of the National Trust. I enjoy any sport on TV, anything with Colin Firth. I enjoy domestic violence and sundried karaoke.”

Highlights of The Thick Of It: episode three

• Flashy young minister Dan Miller’s philosophy: “If you’re going to make an omelette, you’re going to have to have some frank and honest discussions with the eggs.”

• Minister Hugh bragging about being invited to supper with the PM, while simultaneously trying to pretend it’s no big deal.

• Ollie speaks street after a squash defeat against Dan. “I’m going to take you down, motherf..!” “Where are you from?” asks Dan. “Lincolnshire.”

• Malcolm charging along Whitehall to get Hugh out of trouble after it emerged the minister for social affairs is promoting a bill to reduce the number of unoccupied homes, while leaving his west London flat empty all the time. “They’re calling the scandal Flatgate.” “That’s a crap name for a scandal.” “They should call it Notting Hill Gate Gate.”

• Hugh despairs after being caught out. “They should just clone ministers so we’re born at 55 with no past, no flats and no genitals.”

* Press officer Terri is resigned to losing Hugh as the minister. “We’ll just get another doomed, middle-aged man in on Monday morning. Stride about a bit, spunk off and I’ll have to mop up the mess.”

The Thick Of It, BBC4, Thursday 20 October 2005

What to say if you liked it

A realistic comedic manifestation of life behind the political iron curtain that separates MPs from voters.

What to say if you didn’t like it

An derisive chortle from the backs of private members clubs where sneering media folk impotently poke fun at the government with no hope of ever changing anything less they desiccate their sole well of liquid inspiration.

What was good about it?

• Hugh Abbot’s vacillating emotions after first Ollie wound him up that the officious Terri had resigned (jubilation), and then his PA Robyn claimed she was visiting her ill father (synthetic sympathy).

• Hugh asking for a new publicity photo without a moustache as the current one made him look like “a disgraced geography teacher”.

• The deliciously amoral Malcolm who introduced Ollie to his office purely through his liaison with the Shadow Defence Secretary’s worker – “the f**ker who’s stuck one up the opposition”.

• Hugh and Glen’s disgust that their mundane visit to a factory won’t be covered by any national TV stations, because it is “a regional” event. A description Hugh countered by claiming that “regional” events were not necessarily irrelevant, citing JFK’s assassination as one such important regional event.

• Hugh being scolded as he entered the factory by an irate woman who screamed: “Do you know what it’s like to clean up your mother’s piss.” After failing to fob her off with the asinine politicians’ platitude of “all our hearts go out to her”, he just simpered vacantly.

• Malcolm’s major-domo Jamie who is even more bloodcurdling than his master. At various points during the episode, Jamie could be seen violently haranguing various members of staff with all the sensitivity of Gordon Ramsay.

• Hugh humiliating Robyn after she enacts his plan to end the dull visit to the factory after just 20 minutes to tend to an important matter.

• Malcolm vainly trying to persuade the ITN journalist to temper the severity of his report on Hugh’s embarrassment by the irate woman by decrying him for selective editing to make Hugh look more “of a tit” than he actually was. And when Ollie can’t blacken her name after he sent Frankie to root through her bins, Malcolm simply lies and claims she is standing for election for the BNP.

• When the Defence Department’s huge overspend threatens to be the number one story on the evening news, Malcolm orders his teeming underlings to bombard the media with senseless and numerous facts and figures to disrupt the focus of the story.

• But when this fails, Malcolm relents and orders that Hugh’s embarrassment at the factory must be the sacrificial lamb and tells Ollie to convince the journalist to make Hugh the top story and drop the Defence overspend down the agenda.

• Apoplectic Jamie telephoning Ollie at ITN and telling him “to get off the f**king phone”.

• Hugh’s delight that Glen rudely berating the irate woman dampens the impact of his mute response to her rage.

• The cheering in Malcolm’s office when Hugh is the top story.

What was bad about it?

• The transmission problems which caused the first couple of minutes to be lost.

• The jerky camerawork, a technique which has always been employed to communicate a sense of authenticity when it merely gives the impression of a enduring and tremulous earthquake.

• Ollie endorsing one of the vilest trends of the 21st century – the “manbag”. If male, unless you’re an artist, DJ or sportsman, there is no need to lug around anything heavier than your wallet. We’re certain this is a surreptitious manoeuvre by all those spiteful women’s magazines who wish to coerce men into inflicting the same level of fashion-induced self-harm women are regularly compelled to perform such as waxing, aerobics, diets, sensitivity, hugs with people you haven’t seen for five years, phone calls longer than 30 seconds, sex “until both parties have been satisfied”, cooking anything more complicated than fish and chips or deer, clothes costing more than £20, skiing lessons, massages, the illusion that ironing clothes is more effective than leaving them in big piles, bubble bath, crying to “cleanse the soul”, tattoos at the base of the spine, confusing soap opera characters and actors, expressing an emotional spectrum wider than grunting and sneering, and having Robbie Williams’ Angels as the First Dance at your wedding.

Luke Knowles

Luke Knowles

19/05/2005

Editor of the website and host of the podcast. A general TV obsessive. I've been running the site since 2008 and you can usually find me in front of the TV. My Favourite show of all time is Breaking Bad with Cracker coming a close second. I feel so passionately that television can change the world and I'm doing my little bit by running this site. You're Welcome!

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