The Observer’s Guide to The Thick Of It – Series 1, Episode 1

Welcome to the first in what will hopefully be weekly posts going through every episode of one of my favourite shows The Thick Of It. This project was partly inspired by a number of blogs, mostly in America, doing similar things but without really understanding the background politics and cultural ephemera that makes The Thick Of It the show it is. And partly because the thing is so dense it’s fun to tickle out all the references and allusions.

Scrounger Squad

The Thick Of It first limped onto our screens in 2005, eight years into Tony Blair’s Presidency, sorry Prime Ministership. It first appeared on BBC4, at a time when the channel was highly ‘experimental’, i.e., a place where they dumped things they weren’t sure would work. To be fair, The Thick Of It looked highly unprepossessing; grey middle-aged men standing around and talking. Hardly anyone watched it but those that did noticed.

Armando Iannucci had created it after presenting an episode of Britain’s Favourite Sitcoms about Yes, Minister[1] – another show which made up in sharp dialogue and palace intrigue what it lacked in visual flair – and wanting to do a modern version. He duly went to the BBC and got commissioned to make whatever he could out of the very limited money available. By then Iannucci was a highly experienced producer of such things as The Day Today and the Alan Partridge shows as well as his own The Armando Iannucci Shows and Friday/Saturday Night Armistice, so he was able to make three episodes.

Although The Thick Of It was shot very cheaply on handheld cameras, this first episode owes a lot to its fictional inspiration. Whilst the central conflict has moved from Minister and Civil Servant to Minister and Spin Doctor, their relationship is very familiar. For Jim Hacker MP and Sir Humphrey Appleby, say hello to Hugh Abbot MP and Malcolm Tucker, and for Yes, Minister’s Department of Administrative Affairs, welcome to the equally broad and meaningless Department of Social Affairs.

From the very start, the writers[2] knew who would be the star of the show: Peter Capaldi’s genuinely scary Malcolm Tucker immediately takes centre stage, ‘dealing with’ another troublesome Minister. This first scene, in which the unelected Tucker essentially fires the current Minister for Social Affairs, Cliff Lawton (Timothy Bentinck, often typecast as Germanic heavies, although he was in The Armando Iannucci Shows), before we’re even aware of who the Minister is, sets up Tucker as someone not to be messed with.

His first words are him talking on his ever-present mobile phone, “he’s as useless as a marzipan dildo.” The implication being that it’s the Minister who’s just entered the room he’s talking about. Despite this it’s slightly off from what we later know; for a start, Malcolm calls the Minister “Minister”, which he never will later, preferring sarcastic nicknames.

Tucker tries to let the Minister down gently at first but it doesn’t last and he announces to the hapless Lawton that not only has Tucker already made the announcement of his resignation but also made a draft of Lawton’s resignation for him to sign. “Gives you a chance to say you’re jumping before you were pushed, although we’ll be briefing that you were pushed. Sorry.” That ‘sorry’ is also uncharacteristic. This is mostly setting out its stall and making it clear, especially with the dramatic close up of Capaldi’s evil death eyes, that our version of Jim Hacker, when he arrives, has a lot of trouble in store. Cliff Lawton is history.

The character of Malcolm Tucker is often said to have been inspired by Alastair Campbell[3]. At the time The Thick Of It was made, there were plenty of rumours and articles depicting Campbell’s role as moving from simply talking to the press to managing the government’s media strategy, which often involved direct involvement with members of that Government.

Although many stories are told of Campbell’s time in government, it’s quite clear that Tucker is not an exact amalgam and was inspired by many figures, and more importantly the stories around them. Iannucci and team were certainly aiming at a Campbell-like figure, but they were also portraying the archetypal government bully boy, of which there were – and are – plenty[4]. For the thing that immediately got the most attention when it first aired, from the few people who watched it, was the unfettered swearing.

The new Minister Hugh Abbot duly arrives through the same door Lawton did five minutes earlier, in a deliberate bit of framing. As played by Chris Langham (a writer/actor with a long career of working on things like The Muppets and Not the Nine O’Clock News and getting fired from them), Hugh is initially presented as an ambitious Minister, keen to get a policy off the ground. Unlike our brief glimpse of Lawton, who only seemed to have civil servant Terri Coverley (comedy actress Joanna Scanlon) to ‘help’ him (she gets told to ‘fuck off’ by both Lawton and Tucker in the first scene), Abbot has two fawning special advisors, again reflecting how the world of Yes, Minister is a relic. There were advisors in Yes, Minister[5] but they never got in the way of the central dynamic.

In modern politics, special advisors (SpAds) are unavoidable, so Hugh has Ollie and Glenn. Glenn Cullen (reliable character actor James Smith, who was also in The Armando Iannucci Shows) is a long-time friend of Hugh, clearly revelling in the chance to have some power after his long-term investment (“I took the flak, you supplied the flak jacket,” as Hugh melodramatically describes the relationship). Ollie Reeder[6] (stand-up comedian Chris Addison, who had never acted before) is an ambitious junior intern who has shown enough promise to be assigned to this minister, and desperate to prove himself without necessarily showing loyalty to who he’s currently working for. In hindsight, he could be Ed Miliband.

Hugh is feeling smug because he’s had a “very good chat with my friend the Prime Minister of Great Britain” (as with Yes, Minister, the name of the PM is never revealed) giving authorisation to do what will become a staple of The Thick Of If, the policy proposal that will go through many names and will inevitably be shot down somehow (although here there is a twist). This is one of Ollie’s ideas, the Anti-Benefit Fraud Executive, shortened to ‘Scrounger Squad’ in very David Blunkett-era shorthand. “It’s a chance for me to get on Richard and Judy[7] and plant that flag right on their fucking sofa,” boasts an over-confident Abbot.

Terri may be the object of a lot of abuse, but she’s been there a lot longer than the Minister and knows the danger signs when she sees them. “I can see how you’ve all got very stiff hard ons for this one,” but she wants to make sure the Treasury are behind this ‘Snooper Squad’. Hugh and his gang of hard ons are firmly against this; they clearly hate her because she reminds them that disaster could be around the corner.

The policy is to be announced, as was then the custom for policy announcements, at a press conference in a Wiltshire School and pre-announced to the news & papers. Hugh and Glenn ride down and listen to Nick Clarke[8] reading the pre-announcement of the ‘Snooper Force’ on Radio 4 with great delight, with Hugh mocking his Opposition Shadow, here identified as someone called Mark Davis-Nathanson. Meanwhile Ollie has been sent to see a journalist, Angela Heaney (Lucinda Raikes) of the Standard[9], an ex-girlfriend of his who allegedly dumped him by text (“It was a fucking email”).

But, in a justly famous exchange, Hugh gets a call from Malcolm about “the new Avengers or whatever you call it”.

“Scambusters?” suggests Hugh, still trying to think of a name. Malcolm wants to know what the PM actually said. “He actually said this is actually the kind of thing we should be doing,” replies Hugh, the colour slowly draining from his face. Malcolm points out that ‘should’ does not mean what Hugh thinks it means, and orders him to kill the policy. This image of Hugh’s horrified realisation became an iconic image of the show – it was used on a lot of adverts and even trailed series two as a warning of what the show was about.

So Hugh and Glenn are now on their way to a press conference to announce a policy that has just been killed. “There’s going to be television cameras and everything.” Elsewhere, Ollie doesn’t know this and is cheerfully briefing his ex. She’s not too comfortable about meeting him and neither’s he – Ollie being bullied by his superiors to use his ex- and current girlfriends is a theme that will be seen many times.

Fortunately for her, Ollie has prepared for this verbal briefing by writing down exactly what he wants her to write, “it’s done in capitals and everything.” He’s picked up at Perivale station by Glenn and Hugh and learns the horrible news, so now he has to call Angela and deny his own story, fully aware that this act is a story in its own right, not helped by his bouts of car sickness. “The last thing I wanted to be was stuck in a layby by a Wacky Warehouse[10]”. They all agree, including Terri, to blame a ‘disgruntled civil servant’. Ollie reveals to Angela that this civil servant is coincidentally named Terri.

But Hugh now has another problem. “What the hell am I going to say is the reason for my summoning half the media to a school in Wiltshire?” They spitball ideas in the back of the car, Hugh in the middle looking terrified. “What about zoos?” he says. “That’s shit isn’t it?” They argue about using the terms ‘real families’ or ‘real people’, the former rejected for being too John Major[11], the latter for being too communist. In modern politics, getting the words right is far more important than what they relate to.

Ollie suggests using the problem against itself, saying they organised the press conference in order to point out that everything is fine and they don’t need to make new policies. A desperate Hugh clutches at this idea like a drowning man and we see him psyche himself up for the fateful moment and, in the best visual gag of this first episode (there’s not a lot of competition), we instantly cut to him barging out of the assembly room as fast as possible. “That was a fucking disaster.”

On returning to the Ministry, they’re cheered by the fact that the media has completely ignored them. “You got away with it,” confirms Terri, although she doesn’t seem delighted about it. The joy is confined to Hugh and Glenn, as Ollie gets the door shut in his face. The enthusiasm for the Scrounger Squad has now been replaced by an equal revulsion for it. So it’s no help when Malcolm creeps into shot, surprising Abbot.

Malcolm has bad news. Malcolm always has bad news. Now it’s Glenn’s turn to get the door shut on him. The PM likes the Snooper Force. “The announcement you didn’t make today? You did.” Hugh is aghast, questioning the reality of the world he’s operating in. Malcolm, also on the defensive, channels one of Sir Humphrey’s famously obtuse speeches:

“Look, I tell them that you said it, they believe you said it. They don’t really believe you said it. They know that you never said. But it’s in their best interests to say that you said it. Because if they don’t say that you said it, they’re not going to get what you say tomorrow or the next day, when I decide to tell them what it is you’re saying.”

Hugh looks as blank as Jim Hacker but he assembles the team, or what there is left as everyone else has gone home. So just Glenn, Ollie and Terri are left to get the word out, as Hugh puts it, “in case they missed it. Okay?”

Naturally their reaction is to squabble, with Glenn getting the first use in the series of the word ‘cunt’. Hugh begs Malcolm help them. “They need a bit of coordination.” Soon, Malcolm is leading the telephone pack efficiently as this is his element, although he’s confused by a missed call from Nicky Campbell[12]. Poor Ollie has to deal with Angela Heaney face to face, the latter not at all happy about her perceived role in the ‘day of spin’. Someone even bought her flip flops.

Malcolm again rides to the rescue, not surprising as this is partly his fault for not checking if the PM liked the idea before deciding to kill it. He unleashes hell in the third person at her for daring to write about the department’s inept announcement. “I would call every editor I know, which is all of them, and I’d tell them to gouge her name out of their address books so she’d never even get a job on hospital radio. That’s what I’d tell her.”

Hugh rounds off the day by doing a live interview with The World Tonight[13], full of ineptitude. The constantly rotating name for the Benefit Fraud Unit gets the worst yet, ‘Sponge Avengers.’ “That statement that the policy was the invention of a disgruntled Civil Servant was actually the invention of a disgruntled Civil Servant. No, there’s only one disgruntled Civil Servant because one of them’s an invention by the other one.”

They walk out of the Department, long into the night, with Glenn mournfully telling Hugh that they’ve got to give Angela Heaney a private life piece for her newspaper to make it up to her for ‘Flip Flop Friday’. “Oh great,” laments Hugh, “making snide remarks about how I don’t know who Gail Porter[14] is.” Hugh ends the episode wanting a new driver, because the current one ‘smirks’ and looks down on him. No wonder, with the sort of things he’s witnessed in this episode.

It’s remarkable that this first episode packs so much in to just half an hour and that it was made for so little money. The characters – especially Malcolm – are already well established, even if there’s none of the sarcastic nicknames and inventive swearing that the show would later become renowned for. The first episode of The Thick Of It wears its Yes, Minister origins pretty starkly, but it wouldn’t be too long before the show found a voice of its own. First, the word had to get out.

[back] 1. Yes, Minister, created by Jonathan Lynn and Tony Jay, was a multi-camera sitcom shot before a studio audience than ran from 1980 to 1984. It had a sequel, Yes, Prime Minister which ran from 1986 to 1988. Although it occasionally skewered politicians, it’s lack of true bite was best summed up by it being Margaret Thatcher’s favourite show.

[back] 2. Here credited to Iannucci and Peep Show writer Jesse Armstrong, with additional material by the other Peep Show writer Sam Bain and the mysterious Ian Martin.

[back] 3. Alastair Campbell had the role of ‘Director of Communications and Strategy’ for Tony Blair between 1997 and 2003. By the time The Thick of It was conceived and broadcast, he had been away from frontline Government for two years but he remained an advisor until Labour were kicked out of Government in 2010.

[back] 4. At the time, Damian McBride, Charlie Whelan and Derek Draper were names that were regularly bandied about as being the Labour party’s ‘enforcers’ on media strategy.

[back] 5. Frank Weisel in the first series, who was constantly sidelined by Sir Humphrey. The writers seemed to agree with Sir Humphrey and sidelined him altogether. Later, when Hacker became PM, Dorothy Wainwright was his special advisor and was far more successful in evading Sir Humphrey, who could only patronise her with his refrain of ‘dear lady’. The comparative lack of special advisors in Yes, Minister may have been deliberate, as one of the secret advisors on the series was Marcia Falkender, Harold Wilson’s fire-breathing ‘secretary’.

[back] 6. All the names in the first new shows were named after people in Jesse Armstrong’s Five-A-Side football team, which means the name Oliver Reeder has nothing to do with the actor.

[back] 7. A daytime TV show much known for its female-friendly fluffiness. It wouldn’t have that many politicians on it, least of all there to announce policies, so Hugh is being somewhat deluded here.

[back] 8. Clarke was a prominent Radio 4 presenter, probably best known for hosting the political round table show Any Questions. He died a year after this was broadcast.

[back] 9. The Evening Standard is London’s evening newspaper, then owned by the right-leaning Associated Newspapers, who also own The Daily Mail. Now owned by Alexander Lebedev and a free sheet.

[back] 10. ‘Family friendly’ restaurant chain, i.e. full of screaming kids.

[back] 11. “Too John Major” refers to Major’s Back to Basics policy, for encouraging simple values such as family life. Made risible by a new sex scandal seemingly every week involving members of the government.

[back] 12. Campbell (no relation) is a radio presenter who went from BBC Radio 1 fluff to a serious phone-in presenter on BBC Radio 5 live, where he was at the time and still is.

[back] 13. BBC Radio 4’s 10pm news and current affairs show. The ‘Robin’ referred to by Hugh is long-time presenter Robin Lustig, who still presents to this day, although he will be retiring at the end of 2012.

[back] 14. Porter is a TV presenter although at the time she was more known for a series of a provocative poses in ‘lads mags’. She famously lost her hair just after this programme was made.

TV Review – The Hour, Getting On, The Dark Charisma of Adolf Hitler, Shock and Awe: The Story of Electricity, The Secret of Crickley Hall, Hebburn, Rugby Union

Tango With An Eskimo

The Hour (BBC2) smoothly returned amongst a fug of fag smoke having hopefully sloughed off the laughable spy plot from the last series. Now the old Head of News is safely banged up in jail for treason, his replacement has arrived in the form of Peter Capaldi. He plays a soft-spoken version of Malcolm Tucker in hornrims, using passive-aggressiveness (“There is a certain something. Lacking. An edge. A bite.”) instead of Malcolm’s ‘violent sexual imagery’.

He’s also much given to OCD gestures such as making sure his carved Elephants are in correct alignment, to the annoyance of producer Romola Garai. “He fiddles with things,” she tells whisky-guzzling second-in-command Anna Chancellor. “What is he? What have they sent us?” Chancellor knows, seeing as there’s heavy hints of a past affair.

Garai has to put up with pompous presenter Dominic West as well. He’s constantly late and trying her patience. He tries everyone’s patience, especially his wife, who makes cakes out of cock-eyed revenge. He’s been hanging louchely in the sort of swanky clubs that don’t exist any more (“will you be eating alone sir?”) where you can watch top totty singing songs called ‘You Must Never Do A Tango With An Eskimo’.

No doubt West would claim that this was all essential for research, as he enjoys champagne and prawn cocktails with government ministers and influential coppers. One of the latter gives West a top tip about the current poor standard of bluebottles. “Policing is being woefully under-resourced.” Such things are news, and even West’s not brandy-addled enough to ignore such a pointer.

Meanwhile, reporter Ben Whishaw has been travelling the world. You can tell this because he’s grown a beard as poor as Matt Smith’s in Doctor Who. We all know neither of these people would stand a chance of raising a farthing for Movember, so why pretend by sticking cat fluff to their pretty faces? Whishaw is quick to react to West’s police story and steals it out from under him. West doesn’t seem to mind, “welcome back,” although he might have a problem with a showgirl he slept with turning up with a battered face.

Otherwise it’s a slow start to the series, setting pieces in place and hinting at things far too much when it could be a little more direct. The theme this time round seem to be closer to home: East End gangsters and fascists, rather than Suez and Soviets. Although the biggest threat to our fifties favourites seems to be a fledgling ITV, and their own hard-hitting news programme. Whatever happened to them?

From Peter Capaldi to Getting On (BBC4), which he used to direct. Now directed by Sue Tully it has been quietly walking the wards these last few weeks, constantly reminding you that it’s not The Thick Of It. Whilst it shares Joanna Scanlon (who also co-writes) and the same documentary feel as its swearier sibling it’s nowhere near as funny, despite the droll presence of nurse Jo Brand (who also co-writes). She’s given up the fags and “life couldn’t be any more shit.”

Compassion-averse Dr. Vicki Pepperdine (who also co-writes) is still concentrating on her mysteriously revolting study project, when not taking advice from hospital cleaner Hansley on her divorce. He proved so invaluable that she rewards him with an internship at her lawyer sister’s. Which he can’t afford, because internships are for people who aren’t poor immigrants. Pepperdine would have realised this if she cared about anything.

Pepperdine has always been the most welcome presence on the show because she’s the only one who’s actually funny in her blind aloofness. Otherwise it’s been getting a bit soapy, what with Brand’s desire to pass her exams to be a doctor – an ambition slowly downgraded throughout the series – and Scanlon discovering she’s pregnant.

Surrounding them all are the sadly pathetic geriatric patients, who will undermine any comedy. Even the always unsettling Ricky Grover as a private health bureaucrat in braces can’t raise the mood. The most recent episode was funnier than usual because it revolved around the accidental sending of an anonymous vulva to a Christmas Card competition. Meanwhile, a patient with hypochondriasis is absolutely thrilled that she’s got a tumour. “It means I was right!”

“There was something peculiar about Hitler,” quoted The Dark Charisma of Adolf Hitler (BBC2) of one of his First World War army comrades. The guy being quoted didn’t know his colleague would go onto be worldbeatingly peculiar, but then it’s peculiar to see a new documentary about the man, when you only have to look at any history channel and see all you could ever want to know about him.

More of interest was Shock and Awe: The Story of Electricity (BBC4). Jim Al-Khalili told us about Thomas Edison’s self-defeating efforts to prove his patented direct current was much better than the rival alternating current. In the spirit of recent US elections, he did it with a series of attack ads. He had an associate tour the country electrifying hundreds of animals of increasing size with AC to prove it was dangerous until they got to the infamous elephant, supposedly ‘condemned to death’.

When Edison and colleagues finally got to prove how dangerous AC was on an actual human, the state justices saw that it was perfect for executing criminals similarly condemned to death. But what made Edison a true Mitt Romney was the exotic figure of Nikola Tesla and his titular Coil, who proved that alternating current was safe by running it through his body and channeling lightning bolts. Tesla was a very odd man. He fell in love with a pigeon and had an obsession with the number three, constantly counting up to it. Has no-one thought he was simply waltzing through life?

I’ve been in two séances in my life; one in a spooky old theatre, one in a spooky old nightclub. Both times I spoiled the mood for my more earnest contacters-of-the-dead by laughing throughout. Perhaps I’m not the target audience for The Secret of Crickley Hall (BBC1), a modern ghost story which lands firmly on the ‘ghosts are real’ side of the non-debate.

In the first episode, Suranne Jones lost her son. To spin a ghost yarn out of something so unbearably real to a lot of people might be thought tasteless, but the makers aren’t afraid to go there. Fortunately, she has two other kids and she unwisely takes them to the eponymous Hall when her husband gets a job “up north”. Seeing as she has dreams about a spooky Hall you might have thought she had been forewarned. “What’s that smell?” she sniffs, looking around the place. It’s the smell of… fear!

Time to get the checklist out. Creepy cellar with a door that can’t be closed? Check. Whispered voices? Check. Ominous ticking clocks that stop when you look at them? Check. Creaking floorboards? Check. Pub landlord telling creepy tales? Check. Spooked animals? Check. Ghostly children? Check. An avuncularly sinister David Warner? Check. “He’s sad,” says the youngest child.

Maybe we can find out why he’s sad, as we flashback to his teenage years in the war, where he meets sweet, innocent tutor Olivia Cooke. She has arrived at the same Crickley Hall, but it’s a children’s refuge run by an impossibly baleful Sarah Smart, constantly giving the Jack Nicholson look and stretching out lines like “Every… footstep… carries… in this place.”

She’s also got an equally nuts brother played by Douglas Henshall, whose idea of managing such a facility is to reinterpret the bible unto breaking point and deliver beatings wherever possible. Cooke discovers this latter fact and is shocked to her core. Imagine, corporal punishment in the 40s! The very idea. As the modern-day local vicar points out, “it’s just a house that never… worked.” Phantasmal piffle.

“Do you think chips know they’re chips?” pondered Vicki in Hebburn (BBC2), whilst contemplating her fried potato delight. As played by Lisa McGrillis – channeling Cheryl Cole and the Fat Slags – she has been the standout cast member of this otherwise rather dull Geordie comedy. When you have Jim Moir (AKA Vic Reeves) and Gina McKee (otherwise starring as a fire-breathing journalist in Secret State) as the mam and dad arguing over peppermint tea, you know things are a bit boring.

Also boring is Rugby Union, because it’s so unintelligible. It’s a game constantly interrupted by the referee whistling for no apparent reason, whilst a co-commentator explains what just happened whilst sounding like he’s improvising a jazz poem. “That’s twice England have been split with Tom Young’s right hand side losing his binding.” International Rugby Union: England v Australia Highlights (BBC1) was on last weekend, and the annoyance that the dastardly Aussies won was tempered by the fact that I hadn’t a clue how or why. “It wasn’t just that they went off their feet, they went from the side and the back of the ruck.”

TV Review – US Elections 2012, Michael Palin’s Brazil, Secret State

Notes From the Bubble

“Welcome to Washington.” It’s all about bubbles. On US political comedian Bill Maher’s show Real Time (too esoteric to be shown over here), he has a regular segment called Dispatches from the Bubble where he regularly castigates some out-to-lunch Conservative caught not knowing anything outside his own little pocket universe.

The BBC seem to be living in something similar. David Dimbleby hosted their US Elections 2012 (BBC1) coverage with his usual patrician smoothness, although he seemed certain he’d be in for a very long night. “The indications are that it’s neck and neck,” David said. This was something right wing pundits had been saying a lot, in the hope that nobody noticed that polls and statisticians had Obama 2-3 points up, and was certain to win

“It’s that tight,” says Dimbleby’s sidekick Katty Kay. All old blokes on BBC political coverage have to have a younger female sidekick, preferably called ‘Katty’. As with a visit to the British Museum, they were surrounded by Americans. Sadly, the moustache of doom John Bolton excused himself from reprising his role of resident cockeyed lunatic from four years ago. He was no doubt telling another network to fire their reporters.

Whilst mentioning the Florida debacle of 12 years ago (“Fingers crossed we don’t get any of that tonight,” said Dimbleby unconvincingly), the fact that Romney was campaigning on voting day was waved away. “This can be interpreted in many ways.” Or it could be interpreted in one way: desperate. John Zogby, a pollster who knew his numbers and which way they were leaning, warned darkly that whilst someone will win, the loser may not concede. “Lawyers mean trouble.” Dimbleby cheered up.

With only 50 states announcing results (unlike the 650 here), it meant there was a lot of time to fill. A Republican named Kurt kept referring to President Romney. He was in a whole different bubble of his own. A pundit called Stan Greenberg confidently said, “Every leader of a Western democracy has lost since the Crash, except Merkel and your leader.” Dimbleby didn’t bother to point out that our leader hasn’t ran for re-election yet.

The two American pundits – Democrat and Republican – yelped like two foxes rutting and never said anything worth hearing. There were correspondents all across the US. Clive Myrie was in a bar in Ohio. Jon Sopel was in a much nicer bar in Virginia, talking to much nicer patrons. “It’s going to be a long night I think,” said the requisite whiny voiced American woman. The Miami correspondent, Laura Trevelyan, was outside a bar for a change. “This is what all eyes are on tonight.”

No they weren’t, for as Zogby and Nate Silver and all the other statisticians had proven, if Romney couldn’t win Ohio, he didn’t have a chance. And Obama was already up in Ohio. Zogby was “seeing no surprises.” Dimbleby, his journalistic instincts baffled by what was supposed to be a close race, told him he’s not supposed to see no surprises. Zogby blinked. “I would suggest that there will be an Obama electoral college victory,” he said carefully.

It wouldn’t be coverage of an election on the BBC without the odd cock-up. Emily Maitlis’s giant iPad went on the fritz and told her that Obama was ahead 50 points in a state where rednecks mate with goldfish. Zogby’s mic fell off whilst getting particularly excited about a statistic (a minion crawled across the floor, unobtrusively getting in shot).

Dimbleby can’t get through to a bilious US Ambassador, despite his large face filling the widescreen. After several attempts, Dimbleby finally manages to show a Romney attack ad, which talks darkly of building jeeps in China. They’ll be making iPhones there next. John Simpson calls in from Beijing, looking oddly like Deborah Meaden.

Then, just after 2am, Pennsylvania went to Obama by a big margin. Romney had ambitions of winning the state, but the size of it going the other way meant events were inevitably heading towards Obama. Now it was just a matter of waiting until Ohio confirmed it. A Republican analysed the result: “They were the Hillary Clinton voters. They were the last voters in and the first voters out.” Dimbleby looked baffled.

He might have more help if he moved outside the bubble of the studio. Elections past would have featured the odd rah-rah clip from US television to put a better perspective on things, but here it was just the studio and the reporters in the bars. A Democratic strategist pointed out, “We’re not looking at Florida, we don’t think it’ll matter.” Dimbleby was slowly getting it.

Nile Gardiner, a British foreign policy advisor for Romney, was, even at this stage, still “cautiously optimistic” for Romney. He said Romney will, “shine on the world stage,” to the odd snigger from the panel. “The future of conservatism in America is extremely strong.” It’s just the present that’s weak. Most of the panel were openly laughing now, as Dimbleby kindly reminds the delusional fool that reality was not on his side.

Gone 4am and British people are propping open their eyelids. California’s large goop of votes goes to Obama without anyone much paying attention. North Carolina is finally called for Romney. If it had been called four hours ago, it might have meant something. Finally at 4:15, supporters at Obama HQ hear some news and start cheering and waving flags. Hesitantly, the BBC analysed this. “There are… American Television networks… calling… Ohio… and the election… for Obama. Though we’re not yet.” Put us out of our misery!

Dimbleby was baffled that it might be all over. In British elections, he’s used to staying up all night and through the morning. This election was called 15 minutes later than Obama’s landslide four years ago. At 4:24, the BBC finally agrees with everyone else and calls Ohio for Obama. Dimbleby’s robotic presenting software kicks in and he moves smoothly centre stage. “A victory they suspected about a month ago they might not get.” How about five hours ago David?

With the ructions going on at the BBC at the moment, it probably wasn’t a good idea to do such an insular programme about such a world-affecting event. Clearly, they didn’t have the money to do anything beyond one studio in Washington and a few field, sorry bar, reporters. But couldn’t they have made a deal with an American network to provide some American coverage of what is a very American event?

Instead, they prefer to spend the money on fluffy nonsense. Once upon a time Michael Palin was in a dark film called Brazil, where he was the bad guy. Now he’s the star of Michael Palin’s Brazil (BBC1) and he’s very much the nice guy. When Palin started on his travelogues 25 years ago, they were very much in the spirit of adventure affectionately satirised in Palin’s Ripping Yarns. His later travelogues feature him just turning up somewhere and being terribly nice to them. Non-adventure time.

He’s become an old sketch from Monty Python’s Flying Circus: Alan Whicker, the man who walks around desperately looking for someone to interview. This week he finally made it to Rio, and asked harmless questions of the city’s mayor about how they’re going to handle both the World Cup (2014) and the Olympics (2016). It came across like a promotional video for North Malden. Which was also a Monty Python sketch.

Secret State (Channel 4) was all about British politics. Unlike The Thick Of It, it wasn’t supposed to be a comedy although it was frequently hilarious in an unintentional way. Gabriel Byrne played the Deputy Prime Minister with a terrible English accent and even worse hair. Imagine Kenneth Clarke at his flowing worst and add root boost and a severe blow dry. He discovered that the Blair-esque Prime Minister has died in a plane crash and has to immediately deal with the hawks in his party who want the top job.

Hilariously, these hawks are played by Charles Dance and Sylvestra le Touzel, the former more associated with coming to power on the back of a shitting horse in Game of Thrones, the latter more associated with bringing Stewart’s career to an end in the last episode of, er, The Thick of It. Apart from these associations, it can’t helped be noticed that all these people are far too old for today’s politics. But Byrne suddenly develops a backbone and tilts for the big job himself, despite being twice Ed Miliband’s age. Dance is particularly dismissive. “The Sultan’s fucking eunuch? Come on!”

That line might have been acceptable coming out of Malcolm Tucker, but everything else is deadly serious. It’s centred on an explosion at a school after all. But any political drama needs humour, otherwise it’s hard to take seriously.

TV Review – Horror Europa with Mark Gatiss, The History of the Modern World, Obama: What Happened to Hope?, Top of the Pops 1977, 50 Years of Bond Cars: A Top Gear Special, Red Dwarf X, Harry and Paul

Best Not To Worry

For some reason, Mark Gatiss likes horror movies. So do quite a few other dribbling freaks. I happen to know a few of them, and it was always with a sense of weary disappointment that I would tell these nutters that no, I haven’t got any horror films amongst my finely curated collection of DVDs. Why don’t you borrow O Brother, Where Art Thou? They would usually sneer at such things.

Did you see that? These weirdos would turn up their noses at one of the Coen brothers’ finest works because it doesn’t have blood and gore in it. Horror films are generally not objectively good films; they are cheap pieces of shit done by people who know they don’t have to try too hard. There’s always a Mark Gatiss to pay good money for it.

Horror Europa with Mark Gatiss (BBC4) displayed plenty of European examples of this sort of crap. Gatiss may have tried to eloquently defend the history of them but he was constantly undermined by the scenes he showed. They took the words out of his mouth. The earliest black and white films from Germany were hilariously histrionic, with Conrad Veidt’s acting technique mostly being about his magnificently bulging veins.

Post-war, France’s Eyes Without A Face showed a woman’s face being surgically removed with the sterility of a proper operation. Oddly, the enthusiasm for watching actual operations didn’t see a spike. The Italians went nuts in the sixties, masters of style even if the substance was mostly faceless men with leather gloves poking faceless women with various daggers. They brought in Boris Karloff and Christopher Lee in the same way they later brought in Clint Eastwood to do their westerns.

On later films Gatiss is still more effusive, even if he has to offer the occasional caveat. On Dario Argento’s unintelligibly gory Suspiria, he says “it’s best not to worry if the plot’s coherent.” Never mind the whole thing’s badly made bollocks, here’s a woman freaking out whilst covered in blood!

The occasional gem of information is unearthed, such as “the master of Spanish exploitation cinema” (what a desirable title) once made a film called The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue. Even this made me not at all desirous to see the film or any of the others illustrated here, with the possible exception of Les Diaboliques, which isn’t a horror film anyway. Alfred Hitchcock, who stole a lot from that film, knew the difference between exploitative horror and gripping tension.

Throughout the show, Gatiss strides about the many continental locations for these films in a David Tennant blue suit. One hopes he and the crew went Easyjet, for the sake of licence payers. Someone else who’s been using not just Europe but the world as a backdrop is Andrew Marr for A History of the Modern World (BBC1).

In the latest episode, which covered the Industrial Revolution, you’d think he’d have to go no further than Stockton and Darlington. But no, there he was in Japan, Germany and Russia. Illustrated by terrible extras pointing at steam trains and mouthing conversations at each other which no-one pretends to listen to, Marr briefly touched on the terrible crimes the British were able to commit with the enabler of Industrialisation. But he prefers to concentrate on the deeds committed by two foreigners.

One was King Leopold of Belgium, who killed 10 million people in the Congo. Another was Arthur Zimmerman, First World War Germany’s version of Karl Rove, a would-be master manipulator. He sent arms to the Irish Nationalists, stirred up trouble amongst Muslim jihadists and sent a message to Mexico encouraging them to invade the USA. When the Americans found out, Zimmerman cheerfully admitted his subterfuge and the USA joined the war.

For an encore, he sent Lenin back to Russia to muck up the revolution. “It was like a syringe of poison being squirted across a continent,” says Marr. In a week when it was revealed that all but 22 of the nearly 200 countries in the world have been invaded by the British, I’m sure we could take a few British equivalents of Leopold and Arthur. Maybe not next week now that Downton’s finished. It might be too much of a culture shock.

A continent Andrew Marr looks more at home being squirted across is North America, and for the sakes of licence payers let’s wish Obama: What Happened to Hope? (BBC2) was filmed on the same Easyjet air miles as History of the Modern World. Aside from looking exactly like President Obama from the back, Marr is on safer ground with politics rather than history, although he spends an hour essentially saying hope died with the economy, stupid.

In a darker water of the BBC, the announcer announces “the one and only” Top of the Pops 1977 (BBC4), although you suspect a grimace was on her face as she said it. The episodes hosted by Jimmy Savile have been recently dropped for some reason, but the rest are hardly less tawdry. Dave Lee Travis presented with two (very) young lovelies on each arm. “Things are looking up here I tell yer!”

Nobody leers quite like Travis. Even Savile looked restrained in comparison. “There’s a wealth of beautiful ladies on the show,” says the once and future Hairy Cornflake. No Dave, they’re girls. Underage girls. The only ladies on Top of the Pops are Legs and Co. He later crosses all sorts of other queasy boundaries when he asks three black girls from the audience if they’re the Supremes.

Aside from its sleazy shortcomings, Top of the Pops 1977 is fascinating in retrospect. Music was still getting used to that whole naughty Sex Pistols thing, so there are plenty of fake punk bands like The Jam and the Boomtown Rats being used as gateways to this new-fangled stuff. Actual punk stuff never made it on. The Pistols were banned and others, like the Clash, the Damned or Siouxsie and the Banshees never sold enough to justify the invitation. The Clash pretended they’d turned them down until they were in the position to actually turn them down.

In one of the many programmes currently presented by Richard Hammond, 50 Years of Bond Cars: A Top Gear Special (BBC2), the host built a version of the Lotus Elise that Roger Moore dropped a fish out of on the way out of the sea. As is the way with these things, Hammond promised to build it half way through and threatened to sail it at the end. This was all somewhat pointless as he’d delivered a speech from the submerged car in one of the many trailers currently starring Richard Hammond.

Five episodes in and Red Dwarf X (Dave) has proven far better than it has any right to be. In the latest episode, Lister is down. “You’re missing the human race again aren’t you?” asks Kryten. Meanwhile, the ship’s computer is accusing Rimmer of dereliction of duty, mostly because he’s been dead for three million years. If found guilty, he’ll be demoted and have no-one to give orders to. Whilst he still can, he orders Kryten to help him. “Oh you know how I hate having to help you!” wails Kryten. The solution to this problem involves bribing the medi-com with the ship’s supply of toilet paper.

Red Dwarf has been going for over 20 years and been through many changes of direction, most of which didn’t work. The joy of this 10th series is its simplicity. Dave obviously didn’t have the resources of the BBC, so writer Doug Naylor has mothered some invention out of necessity, remembering that the show was supposed to be a comedy about four blokes in space and it’s obviously recharged his space batteries.

The new series of Harry and Paul (BBC2) featured Victoria Wood in an increasingly rare ‘just being funny’ role. She and Enfield played minor royals visiting a corner chop and treating the whole thing like a state visit, patronising the surly shopkeeper. “You’re so quick and instinctive,” Wood admired as a bottle of Dettol went through the scanner. “It’s as if you were born to be a shop girl.”

In an Panorama parody, where questions consisted of things like, “if the bankers, the bonuses, the bankers, the bonuses, the bankers. It’s disgusting,” Enfield did one of his increasingly rare impressions, famous for not looking or sounding anything like the person being done but utterly recognisable nevertheless. One of the panelists was only seen for one second and only said “anal sex” but you knew instantly it was a spot-on Jimmy Carr.

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