TV Review – The Thick Of It, Newsnight, University Challenge, The Daily Politics

The C Word

It is that dense and rich show The Thick Of It (BBC2), a rare TV offering that is impossible to take in fully on first viewing, hurling us straight into… well it’s there in the title. Reflecting modern politics as usual, the roles are reversed at the bottom end of the top end of government for the new series. Nicola Murray and the rest are off in Opposition (we see them next week) whilst the former Shadow Minister Peter Mannion and his associates are now installed in the fictionally broad Department of Social Affairs and Citizenship. Albeit a Department governed by Coalition.

Yes, the Liberal Democrats have joined The Thick Of It’s sweary shindig. Alongside Roger Allam’s strangely cuddly Mannion and his SpAds Emma and Phil, are their Coalition ‘partners’. Fergus is Mannion’s Junior Minister and Adam is Fergus’s SpAd, last seen as editor of the Daily Mail in an earlier episode. From editor of a right wing screed to LibDem special advisor, no wonder he’s angry.

For the beginning of the new series, Armando Iannucci and his rotating team of writers go back to the very beginning. The plot is exactly the same as the first episode: a new policy is wheeled out to be eventually shot down after a lot of U-Turns and reverse-ferreting. The catalyst of exactly how the policy is nullified may have moved from ball busting Malcolm Tucker (Alastair Campbell) to jargon espousing Stewart Pearson (Steve Hilton) but the machinations are the same.

The Lib Dems (as always never referred to by party name, which is why they acquire the nickname The Inbetweeners) have cooked up a ‘Digital Playground’ policy wherein schoolkids are encouraged to write apps. Stewart wants Mannion to front this, despite his not knowing how to right click a mouse. Stewart reasons that Mannion is the lead singer of this department. “He’s Florence,” he explains to the deeply sceptical Fergus and Adam, “and you’re the Machine.”

Mannion is already struggling to negotiate a 30th Wedding Anniversary and his deep loathing of long-term civil servant Terri, who fancies him. “She just made eyes at me. I wish I could make redundancy at her”. Luckily for him, Terri agrees and puts it out that she wants to spend more time with her Jodi Picoult novels (“just put in a bad word for me”). The Lib Dems are especially enthusiastic, seeing as they call her Nurse Ratched. Bit meta that, for those who remember Joanna Scanlan in Spaced.

Mannion gloomily predicts disaster as he makes his way to the school where he will make the announcement. “The only way this policy launch could be any worse is if I understood the bloody thing”. The very first episode’s announcement also took place at a school, but then politicians love announcing things in schools. Kids are less likely to ask awkward questions.

At the school, a kid starts asking awkward questions. “Are you saying I wouldn’t get paid?” Perspiring, Mannion explains that they will get a ‘digital dividend’ instead, to pay their tuition fees. Another kid says she doesn’t believe in tuition fees. Mannion is now drowning in an Atlantic of sweat, not helped by his casual racism. “Fuck me,” says Emma. “I feel like I’ve just been pushed out of a plane.”

Stewart is not pleased at a policy launch that already has the nickname ‘Mannion’s Workhouse Web’. When Fergus attempts to clarify his senior colleague to the press by contradicting him, Mannion is not happy. “I could not have looked more like a twat if I was dressed like a mermaid and had scallops on my tits.” Whilst you try to get that image out of your head, along comes Stewart and his attempt to defuse the situation, which involves shouting. Unlike his predecessor, Stewart doesn’t like shouting. “I reserve this level of anger for when I’m flying RyanAir.”

Stewart is an equal opportunities bollocker, accusing Mannion of being P. Diddy for drinking champagne in the afternoon and telling Fergus to back up his colleague in future. But Mannion is not interested, storming out with one of the best lines the show has ever come up with. “I’m bored of this. I’m going for a Twix.” For a short while when the show was aired, ‘Twix’ was trending on Twitter.

Eventually, the policy is killed by the PM that isn’t Peter Mannion. Stewart is especially dazed, although more by the way the message was delivered. “He’s never used a conduit to deliver bad news before.” Mannion and Fergus try to make up for the good of that dreaded C word, but Terri doesn’t get her wish of redundancy – her, and Mannion’s, wishes blocked by the Inbetweeners in an act of revenge on him. “We know she’s a fart in a frock, why can’t we waft her out the door?” pleads Mannion, to no avail.

Next week it’s the return of Malcolm and co., except Glenn won’t be there – he was in this episode having joined the Lib Dems, ignored by all including his own people. It’s a shame it’s been three years since the last series but it probably takes that amount of (real) Government blunders and bad-news-burying to get a series, so much fuel does it take for just one episode.

The Thick Of It re-appeared just after a cabinet reshuffle that demoted Mannion’s closest analogue: Ken Clarke. You’d think that there was no place for the Mannions in the current government but as a recent episode of Newsnight (BBC2) revealed, there is one that everybody has overlooked, simply because he’s so visible.

This episode of Newsnight was otherwise a downer, which usually suits Jeremy Paxman. He thrives on gloom, and tortures whichever Minister dares to submit to an interview accordingly. Not for nothing was he called the “Death Mask of Shergar” in The Thick Of It spin-off book, The Missing DoSAC Files. A few hours after the triumphant Olympics and Paralympic parade through London, Paxman was sighing as he moaned, “what, if anything, has changed as a result of the Olympics?”

Oddly, he lightens up a wee bit during a discussion with two Olympic medalists and a disabled performer. Even the dour presence of Will Self doesn’t thicken the mood, despite being “a fellow gold medal curmudgeon” (Paxman was entirely absent from the BBC during the summer). He does vent at the ‘patronizing’ Lord Coe, but you can see the perhaps naive arguments of the Olympians are partly mellowing him.

The rest of the show is at least trying to project some kind of optimism. Vince Cable’s new Industrial Strategy has both Labour and the Conservatives broadly agreeing, with Paxo chuckling that he can’t find a divisive point between them. By the time we get to a final piece on Boris Johnson and his barnstorming speech to close the parade, Paxo is now openly laughing – an unsettling concept in itself – and it’s not at BoJo’s innate ridiculousness, but the idea that Beano Boris has set himself up as a possible future PM.

In The Thick Of It, Peter Mannion is out of touch, laughable and strangely popular. As is Boris Johnson, although it’s inconceivable to the makers of The Thick Of It that Mannion would ever get as far as Downing Street. Saying that, they have made Nicola Murray the Leader of the Opposition. Satire is struggling to catch up with reality.

Paxman also seems happy on University Challenge (BBC2), a once reliable place to see him giving students a kicking. Admittedly, this week’s episode was a barnstormer – Lincoln College, Oxford against Manchester University, the latter the current champions and drawing from a student body sixty times the size of the former. The form book was tossed out when half way through the score was 90 to Lincoln and -10 to Manchester, with the Lincoln team looking like the sort of malnourished savants who would remember how many times you touched your face in any given two hour period.

Manchester started getting a few questions right, but with five minutes to go it looked like an impossible job. When the show was over Manchester had won, getting the very last question right on the G of the Gong to win 180-175. Even Paxman was shocked and elated by such a great game, the way the rest of us were on Super Saturday. “It was a great performance, congratulations.” If the Olympics has done nothing else, it has at least lightened up the Monarch of Misery.

Whilst writing this article, the Hillsborough panel reported and finally the truth was owned up to. Having The Sun, Kelvin MacKenzie and, yes, even Boris Johnson apologise on the same day was quite some thing. But most impressive was, I can’t believe I’m saying this, David Cameron. He faced the Commons with the same passionate honesty as he did when he reported on the Bloody Sunday inquiry. He gives good apology.

The Daily Politics (BBC2), fronted by the ever ridiculous Andrew Neil, cut away from this to give a particularly spurious critique of PMQs. Just as with MacKenzie’s far too frequent appearances on the BBC, one wonders why they continue employing former Murdoch lickspittles.

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About klausjoynson
I'm a writer, editor, musician, DJ and cartoonist. Contact me at: klausjoynson(at)gmail.com or follow me on Twitter: @KlausJoynson

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