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.

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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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