The Thick of It: The Specials Review

The government and the opposition…

The promise of a spin-off movie frees the writer’s mind from the limitations of television broadcast companies. Thanks to HBO (and BBC4 in the UK), there are less of these limitations than there were previously but where there may be a mild hint of sexual goings-on on television, the sheets can be well and truly thrown off to reveal as much as the cast members are willing to. Cheap horror on television turns into grisly terrors. Why even the producers of The Simpsons got into the act, showing Bart Simpson’s bright yellow penis in The Simpsons Movie where Fox would have blanched at the thought of such a thing appearing on television.

But when that show is The Thick of It, where does writer/director Armando Ianucci go? Unless the script consisted of nothing but the words ‘fucker’ and ‘cunt’ and nothing but, the language in In the Loop couldn’t be any more offensive. This is, after all, a show in which Jamie, as feral a civil servant as it is possible to get whilst still walking on two legs, shaving, washing and actually cooking his food through, tells the hapless Ollie that, “You’re the fucking shittest James Bond ever! You’re David fucking Niven!” Later, he warns Ollie off saying anything about Al Jolson by saying, “You take the piss out of Jolson again and I will remove your iPod from its tiny nano-sheath and push it up your cock. And then I’ll plug some speakers up your arse and put it onto shuffle with my fucking fist! And every time I hear something that I don’t like, which will be every time that something comes on, I will skip to the next track by crushing your balls!”

Rise of the Nutters picks up where series one of The Thick of It left off. Christmas recess is over and Hugh Abbott, the under-pressure Minister for Social Affairs and Citizenship, is on leave in Australia. With his department enjoying rather a quiet new year, Glenn Cullen (James Smith) sets off for Wales to renovate a cottage, Malcolm (Peter Capaldi) hopes for peace and quiet before the return of Parliament and Ollie (Chris Addison) is tasked with babysitting junior minister Ben Swain (Justin Edwards). Taking advantage of this period, the Opposition begin to press home their policies. This isn’t helped by Ollie sleeping with the enemy, with his girlfriend Emma being part of Opposition MP Peter Mannion’s (Roger Allam) team of advisors. Malcolm’s plans quickly begin to unravel. Thanks to Ollie, Peter Mannion steals a policy that was intended for Ben Swain while Swain makes a catastrophic appearance on Newsnight. But all this is overshadowed by talk of the Prime Minister resigning. With the political faction known as the Nutters waiting in the wings, Malcolm wonders if he’ll still have a place in a new Nutter Parliament. Leaving nothing to chance, Malcolm sets about making sure he’s as indispensable to the new PM as he is to the current one. Even if that means making everyone else look very foolish.

Meanwhile, in Spinners and Losers, the surprise resignation leads to a long and very late night both at Number 10 and at the Department of Social Affairs and Citizenship. With all hell breaking loose, Malcolm has just seventeen hours to save his career, be it as a Nutters or smiling happily with another ministerial hopeful. Only that there’s a parting of the ways within Malcolm’s tightly run part of the civil service when Jamie, who hates the Nutters, goes his own way with Cliff Lawton. With Ben Swain bouncing back, Ollie clinging closely to the Nutter bandwagon and Julius Nicholson taking over a room within Number 10 to listen to the cricket, the race to become Prime Minister is thrown wide open. Why even Dan Miller (Tony Gardner) could make a surprise return. Malcolm’s career hangs in the balance as he and his party seek a way out of this chaos.

As with series one before it, The Thick of It reveals, with a run of unheralded moments, what it is to be a minister. And how dreadful a career it must be. Comfortable-looking he may be but Peter Mannion finds that the changing climate in Westminster is leaving him unsure of who exactly he is. With the arrival of a new leader of the Opposition – think David Cameron! – ties, Savile Row suits and tucked-in shirts are all out in favour of open-neck shirts and Paul Smith. The look of weariness that he wears is never more pronounced than when, having spent a week at the coal face in an immigration centre and about to announce his findings to the press, the surprise resignation of the Prime Minister leaves him talking to himself in an otherwise deserted office building. His cynicism over the direction his party is now taking forces him to question policy decisions, “Environment? Tax breaks for aromatherapists? SatNav for asylum seekers?” and bemoaning the fact that the wind turbine that he’s had to put up has not only cost him twelve grand but that, due to the lack of wind, needs plugging in. The suggestion of a blog is greeted with a, “Oh God…really? It’s like opening the door to a room where everybody tells you how shit you are!” And so it proves with Mannion reading from the feedback section of his blog. “”How are the maintenance payments going on your bastard? Adulterous Nazi?” That’s the problem with the public…they’re fucking horrible!” It may have been Hugh Abbott who said, “God, I hate this place” in response to a woman asking him if he cleaned up his own mother’s piss but it’s clearly a sentiment that Peter Mannion clearly shares.

“Did you ever travel, like, at 100 miles an hour through a tunnel full of pig-shit?” The highlight of these two episodes is Ben Swain’s appearance on Newsnight to face Paxman, the gist of which is described by Malcolm above. It could have gone more badly had Swain appeared in a suit made from pinned-together photographs of children being sexually abused but only just. A minor nervous tic turns into what might just be called blinking but, as Malcolm Tucker says, “That’s a mega blink! It’s not just a blink!” At his girlfriend’s, Ollie asks, “What…what’s he doing with his eye?” while Jamie, watching the blinking at first hand from the back of the Newsnight studio tells Malcolm that even the cameramen are laughing. The next day, Tucker tells Swain that, “I’ve never seen anyone look so fucking ugly with just one head! You were like a sweaty octopus trying to unhook a bra! You looked like John Leslie at work!”

That doesn’t stop Swain from being spoken about as a possible leadership candidate in Spinners and Losers. But then, over the course of the next night, almost everyone in the party is spoken of as a possible leader. Tom remains the front runner but as news breaks of his addiction to anti-depressants, Tucker jumps between candidates like a prostitute between beds without ever settling on one until the show’s final scenes. Without a comedy showcase like the Ben Swain appearance on Newsnight, Spinners and Losers depends more the chaos that ensues with the resignation of the party leader, be it Jamie’s dismissal of Cliff Lawton – “Everything has to be black and white…you know, I love you, fuck off! There are lots of shades of grey!” “Oh, I know that…I’m looking at fifteen of them right now!” – Glenn remaining loyal to Hugh, Ollie hanging on to the Nutters for all that he is worth or Malcolm stirring up trouble with rumour and counter-rumour (“There’s nothing that you know that I don’t know…I’m Doctor fucking Know!”), Spinners and Losers is fast-moving and very, very funny. With Malcolm dismissing Cliff Lawton’s offer of a chat with a, “I’d rather have type-2 diabetes”, Glenn’s anger at his being cut out of the loop or Malcolm wondering what happened to his curry in light of the security situation in Westminster, “Little fucking Asian guy turning up with a bag full of chapattis…they’ve probably shot him by now!”, there are plenty of great moments. And if you think that an unleashed Jamie sounds as though it might produce the very best of The Thick of It, you’d be right, be it his “Normally, you’re about as secure as a hymen in a south London comprehensive!”, his threatening Robyn with keyhole surgery, “…with this fucking key here!” or his reaction on hearing that Julius Nicholson is leaking to the press, “That baldy pussy! Well, I tell you, if he thinks he’s leaking now, wait to see him when I’m finished with him. He’ll look like Mel Gibson’s Jesus! Fuck! Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!”

Curb Your Enthusiasm might be the best comedy on television right now but The Thick of It runs it very close indeed. And with these two hour-long specials, it reaches something of a peak of comedy, of political satire and of language so offensive that it might actually kill someone of a delicate disposition. To have these on DVD at all is as welcome as pushing a Swingball peg into your back garden and finding oil but to get them on a week when In the Loop is released into cinemas is like the stars aligning.

As with series one of The Thick Of It, these two specials might look as though Iannuci was influenced as much by the Dogme 95 Manifesto as he was by Hansard. With handheld cameras, minimal lighting, dreary Whitehall locations and natural sound, The Thick of It isn’t the best-looking show on television but the extra space that is given to it on DVD being used to sharpen 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 roller skates. 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. Dialogue can sometimes 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.

With two discs being used to hold two hour-long episodes, there is plenty of space on the discs to hold bonus material and the set doesn’t really disappoint. The main feature on both specials is a Commentary featuring Armando Ianucci and most of the cast, albeit that they come and go throughout each episode. Ianucci is the only constant over both commentaries and welcomes Peter Capaldi, Chris Addison, Roger Allam, James Smith and Alex McQueen before bidding them farewell again. There are laughs to be had and Ianucci is good at talking about how The Thick of It has been received in Westminster but when you get rather a dull crowd on the commentary, you wish for a return to the better ones.

On the first disc, there is also a set of Deleted Scenes (12m01s), which feature much more of Malcolm and Jamie preparing Ben Swain for Newsnight (and clearly relishing just how badly it’s going to go) as well as more of the interview itself. The disc ends with a Production Gallery and the full Interview (5m30s) with Ben Swain and a spliced-in Jeremy Paxman. On the second disc is the press-the-red-button Opposition Extra (14m51s), which shows what happened to Peter Mannion after he walked out of Westminster to run a hot bath. That, of course, didn’t happen and his quiet night unravelled with a visit from Stewart and an interview on Radio 4 before we find out just what the night editor of the Mail had in mind when he talked of taking his revenge on Ollie in Spinners and Losers. Next is a set of Deleted Scenes (11m53s) that contains, even with stiff competition, possibly the most profane thing ever to be said on The Thick of It (as well as some material as funny as anything in the finished episode), while the disc and the set rounds off with a couple of Galleries and a short feature from Newsnight (2m35s) with Jeffrey Archer-baiting journalist Michael Crick on the set of The Thick of It.

Eamonn McCusker

Updated: Apr 20, 2009

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