The Thick Of It (Season 1) Review
This comes with the worst cover that I’ve ever seen. Or, as Malcolm Tucker might describe it, "This fucking looks like the kind of fucking fuck-up that, if I squeezed your fucking eyes up your fucking cock, even a blind and fucking clueless cunt like you could have come up with something fucking superior to that shite!" At first, it looks like the cover to a wedding video, in which the bride and groom, happy as they are, fade into the foreground by the favoured-by-amateurs trick of a soft focus. But then you look closer and see that The Thick Of It features Malcolm Tucker in full-on, veins-to-bursting fury with a terrified Junior Policy Advisor Olly Reeder standing slightly behind with a look that suggests, "Please...please not me!" But then you have to ask yourself who would be quite so mad as to invite Malcolm Tucker to a wedding, unless it was someone with a hankering for a quick divorce, a ferocious bollocking of the in-laws and the threat of having the wedding rings and vicar stuffed up the arse of the groom, followed by Malcolm’s fist. But it might just be, to the casual observer, the best wedding of the year much like how The Thick Of It, in spite of this awful cover, came of the late-night BBC4 schedules to become the best British comedy of the last few years.
In spite of the stiff competition from Deadwood, The Thick Of It offers the most frequent uses of the most obscene language on television. Anyone expecting another Yes, Minister might well have found their ears bleeding at the language in The Thick Of It, which offers such obscenities as to cause a sailor to blanche. But it also offers a black-as-tar satire on the state of the current government that, if they had never broadcast anything else, would have more than justified BBC4’s existence. Starring Chris Langham as Minister Hugh Abbot, a junior minister in the government, Abbot is catapulted onto the front bench when the Prime Minister fires the Secretary of State for Social Affairs, bringing in our hero as the new bum in the seat. Unfortunately, having arrived in a ministerial office quicker than he'd expected, Abbot isn't sure what it is he’s actually meant to be doing there. He believes, as with being in government, that he’s there to make a difference and sets about his new job with no small amount of vigour, thinking that he has the Prime Minister’s backing to go forward with confidence. But Number 10’s Policy Co-ordinator Malcolm Tucker (Peter Capaldi) considers Abbot’s promotion a mistake that the government could well do without and in spite of telling Abbot that he has carte blanche, also tells him that he must put every single ministerial thought through the policy unit. The thought of ministerial office quickly sours and as Abbot struggles to keep pace with up-and-coming backbenchers, fights for five or ten minutes at night to see his family, bends backwards to please Malcolm and reads terrible things about him in the papers, he wonders if it was all worth it? But a diminishing voice with Hugh tells him that of course it is, all he has to do is to hang on in there no matter what it takes
There are many television shows that portray the jobs they show as being undesirable. Casualty, back in its earliest days, implied that doctors, nurses and paramedics were not only criminally underpaid but often returned home with minds so shattered that their personal lives crumbled. It’s a given that anything starring Ken Stott will be unremittingly bleak, particularly The Vice, which made working with Ken on the Vice Squad a thoroughly unpleasant experience, particularly as one will have to spend long days in the company of paedophiles and prostitutes before, as Marc Warren did, going home and anally raping your wife. And who, having seen Curb Your Enthusiasm, would ever want to be Larry David. But The Thick Of It goes more than most in fatally piercing the opinion that working as a minister in the government is a job that anyone, bar those institutionalised into government, could possibly want. Even in this last week, Des Browne has had to answer to the House Of Commons about his agreeing to allow the Tehran Fifteen the option of selling their stories to the papers. But as more than one commentator suggested, had he not done so, those same papers would have claimed that the Minister had gagged these, as the tabloids would have dubbed them, heroes of the Gulf. It is, as Hugh Abbot discovers on a daily basis, a case of damned if you do and damned if you don't.
The Thick Of It is a perfect example of this, following the sense of disillusion that creeps into the professional life of Hugh Abbot as he attains a ministerial seat. He arrives in the office of the Department of Social Affairs full of beans, even to dismissing his Press Secretary Terri Coverley as not being awfully good and complaining about his usual driver. He leaves the office having summoned the country's press to announce a new policy, the Benefit Fraud Inspection Unit, or Snooper Force. But as they cheer their own announcement on Radio 4's The World At One, Malcolm Tucker calls and every card that Hugh had put in place that morning comes tumbling down with Malcolm telling him to kill the story. "Well that was a fucking disaster!" is Hugh's summary of the eventual press conference, one that, as Terri tells him, was so dull that not one paper decided to cover it. However, the PM, stepping off a plane in Stockholm, actually liked the idea and Malcolm decides to pay Hugh a visit. Hugh is told that at the press conference earlier that day, he actually did announce the Snooper Force and needs to remind the press that they simply didn't quite hear it. Malcolm asks if Hugh can manage it?
Over the next two episodes, Hugh Abbot finds that ministerial life is very far from what he had imagined it to be. He can, as he discovers, just about ask for a cup of tea for a visiting politician and can call for a pool car but anything that he says in public must be cleared by Malcolm and that not a minute of the day can pass during which Number 10’s enforcer may call or decide to pay him a visit. One night, he arrives home at three o'clock in the morning, figuring that as he has to be back in the ministerial car by six, that there’s no point in even removing his trousers. Lonely, depressed and insulted not only by the press, which he had kind of expected, but by Malcolm, the PM and the PM’s wife, he doesn't much enjoy ministerial life. These first three episodes spell this out, suggesting that while Hugh might well the entirely useless at times, anyone waiting in line behind him isn't a good deal better and that, good or bad, his remaining in office depends utterly on his relationship with Malcolm.
If anything, episodes four to six are much better, not least for the arrival of Jamie (Paul Higgins), another Scottish Policy Co-ordinator who is, if anything, even more ferocious than Malcolm. The scene in Episode Four in which a verbal attack on Olly’s hopelessness ends with a stream of verbal obscenities is one of the highlights of one of the very best episodes in the set. Fortunately, Malcolm raises his game accordingly, telling a defence contractor, "You tell your corporate affairs people otherwise I'm going to fucking main every single fucking one of them, OK? Good to see you!" Or, to the news media, "I'll be up their arses like a fucking Biafran ferret!" Better is to come with the shifting of the show to focus less on Hugh Abbot and more on Julius Nicholson (Alex Mcqueen), a man brought in by the PM to think the unthinkable, a kind of John Birt of The Thick Of It. Or, as Malcolm would have it, "Blue sky thinker! Ex-business guru! Dog rapist?" If the opening three episodes showed how ineffectual a minister is in the current government against the Policy Co-ordinator, the second half of the show, by pitting Malcolm and Jamie against Julius, reveals the chaos of spin, changing responsibilities and remits in the offices but one away from the PM. And, of course, the clueless nature of government.
The simple comparison to make is with Yes, Minister but where both concern a minister (and, later, the Prime Minister), the difference is in the government of the time. The Thick Of It, more than anything else, makes clear the gulf that exists between the institutionalised politicians and the public they are in place to serve. Hugh Abbot ends an entirely joyless bash at the Department of Social Affairs by simply walking away from those ordinary members of the public who've chosen to attend while he chooses to smile pathetically at a woman who confronts him about having to care for her sick mother. Glenn simply tells her to, "Shut up for one fucking minute!" As Hugh later says, "I looked bad...but you said bad." On a tour of a factory, he tells his Press Secretary to get him out of there after twenty minutes by inventing an urgent appointment for him. Of course, she doesn't and with his driver going missing, Hugh ends up having to stay for lunch while, at Westminster, ITN threaten to lead with his hopeless dealings with the public. "God, I hate this place", he tells Glenn Cullen. The suggestion being that it’s not the actual place that he hates, more those who work there. Closer to the PM they may be but Jamie, Julius and Malcolm are, if anything, even worse. Malcolm, in attempting to divert ITN, alleges that the same woman is standing in a local council seat for the BNP in spite of having no evidence. His view is better some nobody be crucified in the press than one of his admittedly hopeless ministers. Every moment in The Thick Of It reveals just how flimsy government is. Every news report, inquiry and ministerial action brings with it a flurry of press management, spin and deciding which minister will be fucked to divert attention from the PM. More often than not, it’s Hugh.
It’s not any more cynical a show than Yes, Minister, which disguised its satire in more genteel terms but it is one that is more fitting to the current government with this PM being a Tony Blair-styled figure who does his cabinet reshuffles on the back of a Coldplay CD and Malcolm Tucker being an Alastair Campbell from further north and without history of writing soft pornography and the love of Burnley Football Club. However, as time has moved on and Alastair Campbell, in the wake of the Hutton inquiry, retired himself from his office in Number 10, so The Thick Of It kept pace with the time and found space in the Christmas Special for the official opposition. Widening its reach, this year is sure to bring a further set of episodes, a suggestion of the frenzy surrounding a party in opposition and yet more Malcolm, Jamie and Julius. Already, it sounds like the television highlight of the year.
Episode One (29m06s): Malcolm Tucker pays a visit to the Minister for Social Affairs, Cliff Lawton. Tucker explains that Lawton has the Prime Minister's full backing...but the press expects him to go. If he doesn't, the PM might look weak. And Lawton wouldn't want the PM to look weak, would he? The next day, Lawton's successor, Hugh Abbot, arrives in the Department of Social Affairs. He settles in quickly, lapping up the idea of a Benefit Fraud Inspection Unit, even saying, "It's a chance for me to get on Richard And Judy and plant that fucking flag on their sofa!" But when Malcolm Tucker explains that the Prime Minister's, "That's the sort of thing we should be doing" is not actually an approval, he tells Hugh to kill the story. But a press conference has been called and Hugh has to come up with something quickly. Dirty zoos? Pet asbos? Everybody having to carry a plastic bag by law? And what happens when the story threatens to turn into an exposé of spin?
Episode Two (28m57s): Hugh arrives at the office complaining about how tired he's feeling. All he does is eat, read, shower and work. And occasionally, as a special treat to himself, he has a dump. Things get worse when journalist Simon Hewitt writes a piece about Abbot saying the minister is, "...disconnected to the point of autism." Malcolm tells Hewitt, "Fuck off back to your match reports, you twat!" but sits Hugh down in front of the television to watch the Zeitgeist Tape, a VHS of highlights from the week's television, music charts and movies. With Abbot heading towards the focus groups with an Arts For Hearts And Minds, he looks to appear a little more in touch. But the focus group is one woman, Hewitt is planning a piece on Abbot's focus groups and Malcolm is furious. "You're fucking on your own!" are Malcolm's last words of the night, leaving Olly, Glenn and Hugh to deal with Miss Middle England without the support of central office.
Episode Three (29m03s): "Secretary of State for Social Affairs, Hugh Abbot, today announced, 'I'm the fucking daddy!'" So says Hugh Abbot as he celebrates reaching the last day of the reporting stage of his own Housing Bill. But there's a sour taste in this otherwise very sweet success and that's Junior Minister Dan Miller, who's taking an inordinate amount of praise over his work on the bill. Still, Hugh feels invincible...until word gets out that he has two houses, one in his constituency and another in Notting Hill. Unfortunately, this is exactly the sort of thing that his own Housing Bill was meant to stamp out. With the press scenting ministerial blood, can Hugh survive this latest crisis? Or should he just fill his flat with, "...prostitutes and rent boys and crack cocaine pimp tattoo freaks!"
Episode Four (29m12s): With Olly seconded to Number 10 in light of his relationship with opposition policy advisor Emma - Malcolm's new assistant Jamie introduces Olly as, "The guy who fucked the opposition for us!" - Glenn and Hugh leave for a tour of a local factory. But they've not had time to even introduce themselves when a woman steps out of the crowd to ask Hugh, "Do you know what it's like to clean up your own mother's piss?" Unfortunately, how they manage the situation makes the ITN news desk, who consider billing the story as, paraphrasing somewhat, Minister Looks A Tit. For a moment, Malcolm tries to convince them to drop the story but with the MoD IT breaking at the BBC, Jamie asks Olly to come over to the side of Number 10. "Olly, we need you to fuck Hugh for us."
Episode Five (29m12s): Malcolm is feeling under pressure. Things aren't going badly in government - a poor performance by a minister on Newsnight but nothing special - but the arrival of Julius Nicholson (Alex Mcqueen), the head of the Forward Strategy Group, has troubled Malcolm. Much as Malcolm ridicules Julius every chance he gets - "Treat him like someone with Alzheimer's disease!" - every meeting that he has with Julius erodes his power a little, not least one that sees Julius suggesting that he'll move into the pantry between Malcolm's office and the PM's private study. Malcolm aims to expend more than a little effort in snipping Nicholson's wings and he needs Hugh's help. Unfortunately, Hugh is distracted when he finds out the PM's wife doesn't care much for him. "She doesn't like the cut of your jib, son!" is what Malcolm has to say. But such rejection is more than Hugh can cope with.
Episode Six (29m08s): "Terri...can you tell these people I'm the reason why they're here?" The Department of Social Affairs and Citizenship has moved to a new building alongside three other departments - "Malcolm must love this. Four ministers in one building - a one-stop bollock shop!" - but security refuse to let Hugh inside the building. How quickly everyone forgets when he's only been on holiday for a week. As Hugh struggles with a bill to close down schools for children with learning disabilities, Robyn tries to get the email system running again but Hugh jumps on Hotmail to summarise his dislike of educational specialist Roy Smedley. Unfortunately, the email of, "Christ !! What a cunt !!!!" ends up in the inbox of an entirely different Glenn Cullen. An eight-year-old girl called Glenn Cullen.
The Thick Of It is rather a cheaply-produced show, taking the Dogme 95 Manifesto onto BBC4 with handheld cameras, minimal lighting, dreary Whitehall locations and natural sound. It didn't ever look particularly good on either satellite or terrestrial television, with there being a some artefacting in the image but The Thick Of It does look noticeably better on DVD with the extra space on the format being used to sharpen up the picture and to reduce the amount of noise in the image. However, anyone who suffered through Cops or This Life will be well-warned that The Thick Of It moves like a giraffe on rollerskates.
The audio track is DD2.0 with optional English subtitles and it's not bad but it betrays, even more so than the picture, the limitations of the productions. There's quite a bit of background noise that is noticeable throughout and the dialogue does drop out on occasion as cast members enter and leave locations but these are both intentional and one quickly becomes used to it. Even the odd bit of distortion doesn't really stand out after a while, not when one is trying to keep pace with the obscenities uttered by Malcolm Tucker. It's not a show that sounds any better than it did on television but 2 Entertain and the BBC have done a decent job with it.
Commentaries: There is a commentary on each of the six episodes included and they're good ones, mixing the writers, various members of the cast and, with one exception, creator/director Armando Ianucci. Each track mentions the writing process, how much is scripted and what's been improvised by the cast and, as contributors come and go, how close The Thick Of It is to life in Whitehall. It helps that Ianucci is present in most of the recordings as they're sometimes shambling affairs that need a bit of order brought to them, which Ianucci does but they're often frequently funny in spite of the contributors chatting over one another.
Bonus Scenes: Every episode has a set of deleted scenes alongside it and these are often as good as what made it into the final episode. In particular, there's a threat from Jamie that's as funny as anything he hurled at Olly, not only ripping Frankie's head off and shitting down his neck but then sticking his head back on and shitting on it as well. Some of situations and lines here, alternative takes of what made it into the broadcast episodes, are simply wonderful and reveal, in quite a small way, how much improvisation went into each episode, with a complaint from Hugh in the final episode being slightly expanded upon in an alternative cut here. In terms of running time, these last anywhere between a couple of minutes to ten depending on the episode, with those on the second disc being an improvement over those from the first three episodes.
Stills Galleries: There are two included on the first disc (there is also a pair of Photo Galleries on the second disc), the first of which is a Behind The Scenes (10m25s) set of stills, which features various shots of the actors in make-up, preparing for the shoot and the writers and producers off the set. This set also includes a commentary from Armando Ianucci, Adam Tandy and various writers and members of the cast. The other set of stills is a much shorter Production Stills (1m10s), which features images of members of the cast on the set.
From Script To Screen (20m28s): Taking the second episode as an example, Armando Ianucci narrates the production of a show for the screen, describing the process by which the writers produce the script and how, through rehearsal, slight adjustments are made to it by the cast. Ianucci takes one scene - that in which Hugh discovers that his one-woman focus group is an actress - and shows how it develops through rehearsal, showing it how it was originally scripted, then a split-screen improvised version of the same, which is considerably longer, before he shows the final broadcast version, which bears closest similarity to the scripted version but with some of the colour of the improvised lines added. This does go some way to playing down the improvised nature of The Thick Of It with there being more from the scripted version of the scene in the final edit than was improvised by the cast. Three versions of the script included on the disc in PDF format back up this hunch.
Photo Galleries: There are two here, one of Production Skills (55s) and one of photos taken by Peter Capaldi (5m08s), which comes with a commentary by the photographer and Armando Ianucci.
The only negative point about this set is the lack of the Christmas Special but that's understandable given how, with Chris Langham leaving the show for the extent of his recent legal troubles, that hour-long special began to focus as much on the opposition as on the government. Indeed, the highlight of that episode was watching Roger Allam ready himself for a television interview in a more relaxed David Cameron era of opposition. To wear a tie and untuck his shirt or not? Instead of an ending to this season, that special is more the beginning of a new series and one hopes that a repeat of will serve to introduce a new set of episodes.
All other things considered, this is a very good set from the BBC through 2 Entertain. Showing all the value that they've given to their children's DVDs, which I've also been reviewing, the transfer is good, the extras are plentiful and unlike many other studios, there are commentaries and subtitles. It's a good release of a great television show and fairly whets he appetite for what's sure to be a further set of episodes this year.