The Observer’s Guide to The Thick Of It – Series 1, Episode 2

Focus Groupee

The second episode[1] is all about what it means to be a Minister and how making policy and delivering speeches are far from the only thing a politician should do. They also need to manage their time, know about The Bill[2] and take focus groups seriously.

Hugh arrives at the Ministry. “You’re late and you look like shit,” points out Glenn. The late nights of having to clean up various messes (see last episode) are taking their toll on the Minister, not helped by a long commute. We discover that Hugh has a wife called Kate and children, none of whom live anywhere near Westminster.

Semi-comatose, Hugh bemoans his life. “I work, I eat, I shower. That’s it. Occasionally I take a dump. As a sort of treat.” To ensure this moment of peace is attained, Hugh doesn’t even read New Statesman[3] whilst doing the aforesaid dump. Terri, whose previous job was Head of Press at Waitrose[4], once again shows how useful she can be by cancelling a radio interview that would have taken place at the same time as the minute’s silence for Remembrance Sunday. Note that nobody is wearing poppies; by season four they’re mandatory[5].

Terri also has bad news, which is an article in The Times[6] by a certain Simon Hewitt about Hugh, although she’s reluctant to actually show him it, protecting the feelings of someone who seems to have suffered enough. Hugh gets a call from a far less reluctant Malcolm and has him in his ear whilst reading what is unquestionably a bad review, albeit in the fashion of The Times. “At the moment he’s calling me the political equivalent of the house wine at a suburban Indian restaurant.” Ollie helpfully points out some of the worst parts.

But for once, Malcolm is being helpful, as only he can. “We’re gonna get this tosser, Hugh, don’t you worry.” Note, two episodes in and Malcolm has already stopped calling Hugh ‘Minister’. “He’ll be at the Sport[7], photoshopping the tits of Hollyoaks[8] extras by the end of the month.”

Hugh is delighted that Malcolm is backing him, but Terri counsels against getting back at “bloody Simon arsepipes titty twat,” as Terri sarcastically describes him. Ollie, missing the point, questions whether that’s the best swearing she can come up with.

Glenn also misses the point and states exactly what they’re going to do. “We throw so much shit back at them that they can’t pick up shit, they can’t throw shit, they can’t do shit.” Hugh, for one, is impressed, and not just by the swearing.

Terri, once again the voice of experience, sees where all this is going. “I hope you’re not going to toss off some announcement just to get back at some journalist?” Instantly cut to Hugh, Glenn and Ollie in a different room, sans Terri, in a visual gag reminiscent of Hugh’s instant departure from the non-announcement in the last episode. Glenn has block booked 14 meeting rooms to keep her off the scent.

In Yes, Minister, Sir Humphrey was super-competent and scheming to constantly get his way – his way usually being the maintainance of the status quo. We can see the DNA of Sir Humphrey in Terri, but her competence comes up against her exhaustion over constantly having to mop up after the hare-brained schemes of her employers. Like Sir Humphrey she would like to maintain the status quo but she hasn’t his deviousness.

Whilst hiding from Terri, they’re interrupted whilst spitballing ideas (“pollution… the environment… dogshit…”) by Malcolm, who could find them in a labyrinth. His spin on ‘Simon arsepipes titty twat’ is that he wrote the piece as a favour to Cliff Lawton, Hugh’s predecessor as fired in the last episode. Hugh is intrigued by this piece of gossip until Malcolm assures him he made it up.

As for Hugh, Malcolm has set up a ‘Me and My Media’ piece with tame journalist (since the last episode) Angela Heaney. “It’s a perfect opportunity to show how clued up you are. You know, the price of a pint of milk. You love HBO[9] imports, VH1[10], Pixar[11], you dig The Streets[12]…” Malcolm tails off as he realises Hugh has no idea what he’s talking about. “Who’s the only gay in the village[13]?” he barks at Hugh.

Pause. “…Eddie Grundy[14]?” Hugh corrects himself when he remembers Grundy is married, although he notes that a lot of gay people have children these days. “Ben at the Foreign Office[15].” Further enquiries as to what chavs[16] are produce similar results. Even Glenn and Ollie are shocked at Hugh’s ignorance. Here we see The Thick Of It first deviating from Yes, Minister with its embrace of cultural matters, reflecting the Tony Blair government’s occasional obsession with things like Cool Britannia[17]. Blair himself was once the singer in a rock band.

Malcolm’s obsession with managing all aspects of his party’s image means he can’t have any of his Ministers seem out of touch, something far too long associated with the Conservatives – later personified in Opposition Minister Peter Mannion, someone who is proud of his ignorance. A current Minister can’t be seen to be like Mannion, so Malcolm promises to send Hugh the Prime Minister’s weekly highlights package, or ‘Zeitgeist Tape’. Hugh is surprised as he thought the PM was “genuinely quite with it.”

Malcolm: “No, he uses phrases like ‘with it’ as well.” This too reflected real life as deeply religious Tony Blair was never quite the cool dude he was sometimes portrayed as. Malcolm gives Hugh 24 hours to sort out his policy on EastEnders[18], with Ollie helpfully supplying the dramatic closing music. “Even he knows,” points out Malcolm to Hugh.

Yet Hugh, Ollie and Glenn still try and cobble together a policy. Hugh can’t decide between Ollie’s ‘give bad kids more money’ or Glenn’s ‘give bad kids less money’ so goes to Terri for arbitration, but she refuses to choose. He gives her an apples and oranges analogy and Terri chooses apples, disappearing before Hugh realises he doesn’t know which idea apples represents. Then Ollie issues the dread phrase, “let’s throw this to a focus group.”

“Yeah, whatever,” slumps an exhausted Hugh. Focus groups are a necessary evil of government. The idea of proposing policies that might not be popular with the public and the press is anathema, but Governments also hate having to kow-tow to representative samples of the public, rightly or wrongly seeing them as ignorant reactionaries. And it’s hardly unknown for the public and press to have diametrically opposite interests.

One focus group later, Ollie rushes back with good news. Not the result of the focus group, but the result of one ‘focus group legend’, who likes Ollie’s policy idea, now called Art For Hearts and Minds – once again getting the name right is more important than the content. Mary the focus group legend (played by star of just about every sketch show of the last 25 years Morwenna Banks) is “totally core Middle England[19]”. Since Hugh is now so tired he wants a ‘precis’ of everything, including the Zeitgeist Tape Malcolm has sent over, he likes the idea of a one person focus group.

Despite Glenn looking very unconvinced – Mary doesn’t like his idea after all – she is called in, and even Ollie calling her a Focus Groupie doesn’t put her off. “Groupee with two Es,” assures Hugh. “You’re every woman,” he rhetorically states.

“It’s all in me,” replies Mary. Hugh looks blank, revealing Chaka Khan as one of the many gaps in his knowledge. Mary likes Hugh’s policy and even has a new name for it, joining in the policy naming merry-go-round: ‘Play for Tomorrow’. She is good.

They take the results of this grouplet to Malcolm, who reacts to Ollie’s spurious 93% approval rating with an “approving stiffy in the post”, despite his suspicions being raised by Hugh describing the focus group as ‘she’.

Hugh takes Malcolm aside to moan about Terri. “She’s shit,” interrupts Malcolm, getting to the nub of the matter. “She’s a box ticker, Hugh, and she can’t think outside of the box,” thereby confirming the government’s contempt for the generally competent civil service. In hindsight, Malcolm won’t feel quite so warm towards people who think outside the box in a few episodes. Has Hugh watched the Zeitgeist Tape? Hugh assures him that he has. “So you know your Little Mo from your Big Mo then[20]?” Hugh’s unconvincing impression of the EastEnders theme music suggests not. Malcolm gives him a bollocking for his cultural neglect.

Unlike Mary, the papers don’t like Ollie’s feelgood policy. “It’s all gone to shite, especially the Times.” Malcolm’s agitated as this is the area he should be in control of. Hugh wants to know how Malcolm knows, as the papers haven’t come out yet. “I’m plugged into the Matrix. I am the Matrix.” Once again, Hugh doesn’t know what he’s talking about, despite The Matrix being six years old by that point. However, Hugh does know who Pingu is, because he’s got a daughter called Alicia who’s obsessed by it. Malcolm the lawgiver speaks: the policy is dead.

Late at night, Malcolm receives a phone call from the now notorious Simon Hewitt (Matthew Marsh, one of those character actors who’s been in everything – as an example he later played Alexander Haig in the film The Iron Lady). He announces he’s writing a piece on focus groups and hints that he may have an inside story. Malcolm is clearly rattled as he responds with his biggest invective yet: “Fuck off back to your match reports, you twat.”

Next morning, Hugh enquires of his underlings exactly how fucked he is. Ollie and Glenn agree on the number 12, but Glenn’s was out of 50 and Ollie’s was out of 10. Malcolm arrives with a solution – the interview with Angela Heaney will be done this afternoon as a spoiler to piss on Simon Hewitt’s cornflakes, “sadly only metaphorical.” In a flash of the Malcolm we come to know, he finishes his instructions with “Bodie, Doyle[21], you go round the back.” Pause. “At times of stress I make jokes.” In a few episodes he won’t stop.

In preparation for the interview, Malcolm literally sits Hugh down to watch the tape. Whilst drifting off as the theme song to The Bill plays, Hugh suddenly takes notice with an expletive. “I know, but people watch it,” agrees Malcolm, otherwise looking at his phone. “This gets six million.” It’s not the quality of the programme that has got Hugh’s attention but the sight of Mary from the focus group playing the stereotypical surly housewife telling the visiting police her villain of a husband isn’t home. Malcolm isn’t bothered, as it’s not unusual to have the odd actor on focus groups[22].

Hugh asks Malcolm to pause the tape for him whilst he belts out, Malcolm looking suspicious. Hugh rushes to his advisors with the bad news, and the bickering begins. “I thought I recognised her,” says Terri. “She was in Midsomer Murders[23].”

In response Hugh hides in a cupboard, but he can’t hide from Malcolm’s staring eyes of doom, the attached brain of which has worked it out. “You said ‘she’.” Hugh refuses to come out of the cupboard, once again pleading ignorance of any cultural matters.

Hugh’s bollocking is put aside when Malcolm realises that Focus Group Mary must be the mole for Simon Hewitt’s forthcoming piece in The Times. He leaps into action, bringing forward the Angela Heaney interview. Late at night, Hugh suggests getting Mary in to explain herself.

There seems to be several scenes missing here, which might have explained why Hugh and Malcolm want to talk to Mary, whilst seemingly still under the suspicion that she’s already spilled the beans to Simon Hewitt and it’s therefore too late to stop her. This is partly confirmed in the audio commentary which reveals there was a whole sub-plot involving Simon running off with Malcolm’s former partner, thankfully dropped.

Pre ‘friendly chat’, Malcolm suggests Hugh look less intimidating. “You’re looking evening telly. I want you to look afternoon chat with the Daily Mail[24].” Despite sarcastically requesting a Hawaiian shirt, Hugh is informally decked out in a pullover when Mary arrives. Malcolm hasn’t changed, of course, and glowers in the background, making Mary thoroughly uncomfortable. “You know that film Notting Hill, have you seen that?”

“She’s probably fucking in it,” mutters Hugh.

Malcolm is stopped in his tracks – no easy feat – when he mentions Simon Hewitt’s name and Mary hasn’t heard of him. “He’s fat guy with a tiny little prick the size of a bookie’s biro.” But Mary is not acting this time, and the realisation slowly hits Malcolm and Hugh. Mary is bundled out whilst Malcolm goes nuts. Ollie asks if the Heaney piece can be stopped. Malcolm briefly stops screaming. “I’m good but I can’t hold back the tide, can I? That’s it, I’m going to bed. You’re fucking on your own.” Slam.

Hugh haltingly tries to make sense of everything. “So we’ve voluntarily… of our own volition… leaked the story to the press… unnecessarily… damn.” As Ollie ushers Mary out, she threatens to go to the press herself. Digging deep into the well of things the department could use as a bribe, Ollie offers to make her the face of the department. Mary is far from tempted by this.

Back in the office, Hugh tries to sleep on the couch. “There’s no point in going home. I’ll just pass myself coming in.” It’s been a long day, and tomorrow won’t be any better. We don’t even need to know what Simon Hewitt actually wrote about focus groups.

The second episode feels like it was taken directly from an insider, bemoaning their Ministerial life. Whilst it’s tempting to feel sympathy for a Minister with a protracted working day and a long commute, this, and the next episode, feels prescient of the 2009 expenses scandal[25] designed to help such Ministers and exploited to the hilt by some.

The efforts to not listen properly to focus groups should not invite such sympathy. The satire in this episode comes, as in all such political satires, from representatives being out of touch and not listening to the people who elected them. And that includes knowing your Big Mo from your Little Mo.

[back] 1. Credited to writers Simon Blackwell, Tony Roche, Jesse Armstrong and Armando Iannucci. Blackwell was a long-standing writer of mostly political comedy material, especially Have I Got News For You. Roche had only written the little-known World of Pub and Broken News beforehand. They both worked on Iannucci’s satirical TV series Gash.

[back] 2. A long-running drama on ITV1, variously retooled over the years as a dry study of police life, a hard-hitting drama and a soap. It started in 1984 was finally killed off in 2010.

[back] 3. Weekly political magazine, at the time of broadcast owned by Labour MP and former Paymaster General Geoffrey Robinson. In 2009 it was guest-edited by Alastair Campbell. Hugh reading it confirms this is a Labour government, as it’s a left-leaning publication. A Conservative minister would read The Spectator.

[back] 4. An upmarket chain of supermarkets. Managing their press would be relatively easy compared to the rapacious likes of Tesco or Asda.

[back] 5. The wearing of poppies around the time of Remembrance Sunday has recently become utterly essential for anyone in politics and at the BBC, thanks to hysterical tabloid witch hunts about these public figures ‘not respecting our heroes’ and such-like.

[back] 6. AKA The London Times, for foreign readers. Owned by Rupert Murdoch so not likely to be sympathetic to a Labour government, despite Murdoch’s public support for Tony Blair.

[back] 7. The Daily and Sunday Sport, easily the lowest rung on the British tabloid hierarchy (even worse than the Daily Star). As Malcolm hints, it’s a ‘newspaper’ that mostly consists of upskirt shots of celebrities you’ve never heard of.

[back] 8. Teenage soap with a high turnover of young, good-looking actors. No need to know anything else.

[back] 9. Even in 2005, the perceived quality of HBO was all-pervasive, most notably in Britain thanks to Band of Brothers, a high profile HBO/BBC co-production shown on the BBC. Other notable HBO shows on British TV at the time were Sex and the City, The Sopranos, Six Feet Under and Da Ali G Show (another co-production, this time with Channel 4).

[back] 10. VH1 at the time was quite interesting, thanks to its Behind The Music and I Love The… series. It isn’t any more, thanks to an over-reliance on reality shows.

[back] 11. You know who Pixar are.

[back] 12. The Streets were a British hip-hop/garage act consisting of Mike Skinner, forever on the edge of being cool or ridiculous depending on Skinner’s take on urban life.

[back] 13. As Hugh doesn’t know, this was a recurring sketch on Little Britain, where Matt Lucas’s Welsh Daffyd forever bemoans his singular status, despite all evidence to the contrary.

[back] 14. Character from long-running BBC radio soap The Archers (1950-present). He’s not gay, despite once being one half of a country and western act.

[back] 15. Could this be Ben Swain?

[back] 16. Chavs was the de rigeur insult at the time, essentially meaning aspirational but tasteless working class people who covered themselves in Burberry clothing. Mostly lived in Essex.

[back] 17. ‘Cool Britannia’ was originally a Bonzo Dog Band song then a Ben & Jerry’s ice cream flavour before becoming the catch-all description of life under the nascent Blair government, encompassing fashion, music (Britpop) and a general sunny optimism. It didn’t last long.

[back] 18. EastEnders is the BBC’s almost daily soap opera, shamefully the most regularly watched programme in Britain for the last thirty years.

[back] 19. Middle England is an almost mythical demographic, said to represent the average British voter and their interests, no matter how extreme.

[back] 20. EastEnders characters Big Mo Slater and her granddaughter Little Mo Slater (later Mitchell) were introduced in 2000. Little Mo left in 2006 but Big Mo is still there, as played by Laila Morse – Gary Oldman’s sister. Hugh wouldn’t know that.

[back] 21. Lead characters of 70s ITV Show The Professionals, an unlikely cop drama about terrorist-busting macho men.

[back] 22. The inspiration for this story came from Joanna Scanlon’s own experiences as an actress being paid £30 to represent a demographic.

[back] 23. Cosy detective drama set in a sleepy village that has a higher murder rate than Compton.

[back] 24. Right wing newspaper, the paper of Middle England (see 19). Obsessed with house prices, cancer scares and immigrants.

[back] 25. The Expenses Scandals was the defining moment of the fall of this Labour government, which was voted out in 2010. A full list of exactly what MPs and Ministers had been claiming on expenses (i.e. from the taxpaper) proved thoroughly embarassing for some (duck pond houses and the like), and actual criminal in other cases. This was particularly with regards to ‘flipping’: swapping ‘official’ residences with closer ‘parliamentary’ residences so that the state would pay the mortgages of rather agreeable, and eminently saleable townhouses. Hugh is not quite as guilty as this (some MPs went to prison), but it’s unlikely his career would have survived the Expenses scandal when it broke.


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

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