The Observer’s Guide to The Thick Of It – Series 1, Episode 3

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Housing Bill

Much has been written about how The Thick Of It takes its inspiration from the real government of the time. Whilst the character of Malcolm Tucker was undeniably inspired by tales of Alastair Campbell, the character as presented distanced itself by deliberately being an amalgam. It’s only three episodes in and this idea is about to be abandoned, as we get our first character based unequivocally on a single real life figure.

We don’t meet our avatar in this third episode[1] straight away as Hugh is riding high after a presumably rare good performance in the House of Commons[2], ensuring the latest passage of a new Housing Bill. “A very satisfactory Report Stage Debate[3]” basks Hugh. Hugh’s balloon is punctured somewhat when Glenn notes a smarmy piece in The Guardian[4] about someone called Dan ‘fucking’ Miller, who dared try to steal some of Hugh’s thunder. Hugh tries to brush away talk of a possible usurper. “He’s just a bit green.” As indeed is Hugh.

Enter Dan Miller, as played by Tony Gardner (also a veteran of The Armando Iannucci Shows, as well as appearing in Chris Morris’s Jam). Immediately, there’s no getting away from the fact that Dan Miller is supposed to be David Miliband[5] – not just in the similarities of name but also that Gardner is a virtual look-a-like of the one-time Foreign Secretary. Having characters obviously based on real figures in government (and opposition) would become a large part of the show.

Hailed by Ollie as “Danny boy, man of the hour”, suggesting that he had a lot more to do with the Bill’s passing than Hugh, Dan is greeted frostily by Hugh whilst everybody else is delighted to see him. Even Malcolm wants a piece of him, calling him on his mobile and praising him for his work. Malcolm is in his office, so this is the first time we get a glimpse of his ever-present and loyal secretary Sam (Samantha Harrington), who doesn’t say much and seems to be the only person not intimidated by him[6].

The conversation doesn’t last long, as is Malcolm’s want. “Did you get bumped for someone more important?” sympathises Hugh, looking for any opening. But Dan has to go and play squash with Pete from the Treasury, to impressed noises from those present who aren’t Hugh.

Hugh also has an appointment. “It’s just supper with the Prime Minister,” he notes nonchalantly. Dan is impressed, as he should be in Hugh’s mind. “No it’s just what we do,” assures Hugh, turning his back on him. This is a far more aggressive and petty Hugh than the exhausted bewailer of his fate we saw in the last episode[7]. Exit Dan, full of overly effusive praise for everyone present.

Elsewhere, Malcolm is now on the phone to ‘Tom’, a rare person who he answers to[8]. Tom’s been discussing the Government’s recent failures with the PM, with Malcolm is defending himself because of having to work with the likes of Hugh Abbot (“bangers and mash”) when he could be working with Jerry from the Home Office (“fucking risotto and scallops”). Seeing as he’s had the equivalent of a bollocking from this Tom, he feels the need to pass it on, so cheerfully asks Sam[9] to send over Terri and Glenn.

Hugh, Glenn and Terri are the latest trio to be unhappily squeezed into the back of a car, carpooling on their way to Number 10 and two very different meetings. Once there Glenn innocently asks whether Hugh stayed in his Notting Hill flat last night. Hugh takes Glenn aside and gets to the nub of the episode. “Malcolm’s been on at me about the flat. There could be some problems with the Housing Bill.” Note how, for once, the Housing Bill doesn’t keep changing its name. This is not an on-the-fly policy. “But I need it,” carps Hugh. “Every other fucker’s got a huge grace and favour flat in London, why haven’t I got one[10]?”

“Leave it to me,” assures Glenn. “We’ll do what we said, the ‘sale and not a sale’.” Terri, overhearing, looks very suspicious. We see neither Hugh’s meeting with the PM nor Glenn and Terri getting chewed out, but we can assume that both went about as well as can be expected.

The next morning Hugh and Glenn practice interview questions for yet another interview with Angela Heaney. Hugh bats away questions with ease, even Glenn’s “Where’s the Nazi gold, you donkey shagger?” Apart from the swearing, this scene could have been taken straight from Yes, Minister. “I’m very please you asked me that, Angela…”

Dan and Ollie arrive after an early morning squash session, both looking every inch the next generation about to take over[11]. Old hands Hugh and Glenn can’t help but be prickly. Hugh claims to be a big squash player himself, although he’s mystified by Dan’s query over whether he’s on a ‘ladder’[12]. As they leave for the interview, Glenn asks Ollie whether he knew Angela was in the building and, looking pointedly at Dan, “will she be jealous?”

Malcolm is such an omnipotent figure that it’s odd to see him getting another phone dressing down from Tom, this time discussing Hugh’s housing arrangements. According to Tom there’s a piece about it in the offing but Malcolm assures him that Hugh is being interviewed by “that twatbubble from the Standard” before realisation dawns. “Fuck, she’s just gone to the Mail[13].”

With a twirl of his jacket he’s off, legging it down Whitehall whilst Hugh is shown getting increasingly hostile questions from Angela about why he hasn’t sold off his ‘empty’ flat, which the Bill clearly states he should. She sweetly enquires whether this is because a family who are particularly interested are Asian.

“No. God no! I’ve very glad you’ve brought that up because that gives me the, er…” This is not quite the practiced Hugh deflecting questions about Nazi gold. Fortunately, a puffing and panting Malcolm has arrived outside the ‘goldfish bowl’ office where the interview is taking place. In a wonderful sequence, we see but barely hear Malcolm giving a grinning Hugh a magnificent bollocking from inside the goldfish bowl (a bellowed C word is just about audible) until helpful Terri opens the door to offer coffee and biscuits, allowing us to clearly hear, “You’re a fucking prick!”

A jocular Hugh returns, apologising for a “bit of a disagreement.” Since Angela has herself been on the end of a Malcolm rant (see the first episode), he’s fooling no-one. This sequence is maybe the one moment of the first series that made a lot of people sit up and take notice, so scatologically funny is it. It’s a shame it doesn’t really belong in the general plot.

Glenn explains the grand scheme to a much calmer Malcolm. Hugh’s flat is on the market but they’re turning down all offers so he isn’t a zombie when he walks into the office. Hugh arrives, looking like a zombie. “That was supposed to be a nice interview,” he says, staring blankly at his underlings. He tries to look on the bright side. “I think I denied being a racist.”

Terri sighs. “So what’s the line on this then?” Emphasis on ‘this’ as it’s obviously the latest in a long line of ‘this’s. Hugh barely has time to open his slack-jawed mouth before Malcolm re-enters with the news that he’s sold the flat to the Asian family (he moves fast) for £40,000 below the asking price. Hugh’s already flaccid jaw hits the floor but it’s too late; the papers have got hold of the story and the word ‘scandal’ is already being bandied about.

Alone with a shell-shocked Hugh, Malcolm has to explain exactly why the situation is so bad. “It is a second home, in a borough with thousands of homeless people, that you have kept more or less empty for ages. Have you not read your own Housing Bill?” It’s entirely possible that Hugh hasn’t, or at least he has and hasn’t quite grasped it.

Hugh laments the fortunes of having something as outrageous as using a flat in order to get some sleep now and then. “Obviously on reflection I should have filled it with prostitutes and rent boys and crack cocaine pimp tattoo freaks.” Malcolm is not having it: the Housing Bill is a success – thanks to Dan Miller, as he pointedly says – and Hugh is threatening to derail the whole thing. Hugh utters the fateful words. “Well, what do want me to do? Resign?” Meaningful pause from Malcolm. “No, no. I’m not going over this… this is madness.”

Malcolm likes the idea of Hugh resigning. Hugh begs for his life, quoting himself from the last episode. “I need to sleep. I need to eat. Occasionally I need to take a dump. Do we put that on the Evening News? Minister in disgusting defecation outburst? Mollie Sugden[14] at Number 10, ‘Did you enjoy your shit Mr. Abbot?’” Hugh deplores the changing world, arguing that Malcolm would love to have cloned Ministers, “like that fucking brushed aluminium Dan Miller cyber prick!”

To no avail. Malcolm tries to convince him that resignation can be a good thing. “People really like it when you go just a bit early. You surprise them. ‘Blimey he’s gone, didn’t expect that. Old school. Respect. I rather liked the guy. He was hounded out by the fucking press.’ What a way to go.” Malcolm has to go and meet Tom and the PM, assuring Hugh it would be awkward if he was there too as they’ll be talking about him.

Hugh frets in Malcolm’s office whilst Ollie and Glenn discus options over a cigarette outside the Department[15]. Glenn is considering doing the honourable thing and resigning to take the flak from Hugh, although within seconds he’s accusing Hugh of dropping him in it after 37 years’ loyal service[16]. Ollie also decides to go, although he immediately changes his mind when Glenn agrees. “I’m just a counter man at McDonald’s,” argues Ollie. “You’re the clown running the shop[17].” They both agree that neither of them is going to do the decent thing.

Malcolm returns to a terrified Hugh with news. “There’s going to be an Inquiry[18].” Hugh is delighted, unknotting himself with joy and even shaking Malcolm’s hand. Whilst Malcolm takes a call from the PM, Hugh retreats to a back room to eat some nervous biscuits. He phones his conference-called underlings with the good news. “Yes!” erupts audibly from Hugh’s mobile.

They discuss which Lord would be best (for them) to head it up. “We’ve had this conversation before haven’t we,” notes Hugh, “about the ideal person to have an inquiry. It was a dead heat between Eamonn Holmes[19] and Alan Bennett[20].” Glenn suggests someone called Lord Monckton, whereupon Malcolm returns with news that it will indeed be Lord Monckton, to more noisy cheers down the phone.

In what seems to be another case of scenes missing, we cut to Hugh’s gang miserably huddled over the newspapers. Hugh is surprised they’re still interested in a story that’s gone on for “four… five days now.” As anyone who has followed the myriad Inquiries over the years would know, you’d be lucky to get one that lasted less than six months[21]. Malcolm calls having seen an early version of Monckton’s report, which quotes the driver Hugh got rid of in episode one. “I never liked him. He was a smirky bastard.”

The driver heard Hugh and Glenn talking about the flat. “It was just words. It’s not as though we were plotting like Guy Fawkes[22], concocting our evil master plan.” Malcolm wants Hugh’s guys over, but not Hugh, as they’re going to be talking about him again. Ollie leaves without a word. Terri at least says, “Bye. See you later,” with a muttered “probably anyway” as she’s out the door.

Glenn takes the time so say a proper goodbye. Hugh looks uncomfortable at Glenn’s inappropriate clutching. “We’ll ride again.” So for the second time, Hugh has to sit it out and await his fate, consoling himself with more biscuits.

Malcolm has the hairdryer on for Glenn, Ollie and Terri. “Department of Social Affairs? Department of fucking shocking shitty charlatan shits.”

We interrupt this alliterative flow to go back to Hugh who is visited by Dan, naturally looking for Ollie. Hugh tries to bluff away his lack of staff, before coming clean. “They’re talking about how fucked I am.” Dan cottons on immediately and tuts sympathetically. Hugh bemoans missing his ideal resigning point, as each delay mean it’ll be longer before he can get back in. Dan looks thoughtful at this, even though Hugh says, “If I resigned the day I was appointed, I’d actually be Prime Minister by now.”

Back to Malcolm’s ‘discussion’ and he’s outlining a plan where Hugh won’t be thrown to the wolves, so long as the press get another head from the Department on a plate, specifically either Glenn, Ollie or Terri. Cue more squabbling back at the office about who knows what, mercifully curtailed (at least for Terri) when Hugh enters, his thoughtful time with the biscuits having had an effect.

He world-wearily explains that he’s going to offer his resignation, rationalizing that if he goes before the report comes out he’ll be back in Government within two years and, best of all, will be “shot of this fucking department.” In a very meta monologue, Hugh ponders his Department’s vague brief. “Social Affairs? What the fuck does it actually mean? ‘Hello I’m Hugh Abbot, I’m the minister for, I don’t know, stuff.’”

Hugh leaves, but Malcolm is already accepting someone else’s resignation: Dan Miller. Malcolm looks delighted. “You won’t regret this Dan. Trust me, you won’t.” Hugh actually bumps into Dan coming out of Malcolm’s office but he’s too late. He’s stuck with the Department until the next resigning issue.

Back at the Department, Glenn and Ollie tell him that Dan’s resignation has caused admiration throughout the government, right up to the Prime Minister. Glenn reads out his words. “I’m immensely sorry to lose you but I predict you will one day find yourself in very high office indeed.”

Terri and Ollie (the turncoat) are for once agreed that they never liked him. Hugh avers that he thought Dan was “quite good”, which he certainly is when spotting an opportunity. Hugh can’t face going to his one distant home and returns to ask Glenn if he can sleep on his sofa. The postscript is that Dan would eventually find himself in very high office indeed, but not as quickly as the never-seen Tom Davis.

And so ends this brief first series of The Thick Of It. The second series will be equally brief but it was very quick to arrive at the time, and would quickly cast off the Yes, Minister trappings and establish its own rhythms. Which isn’t to say that the first series is at all bad. It’s very good indeed. Soon, it’ll be sublime.

[back] 1. This episode credited to Armando Iannucci, Simon Blackwell and Jesse Armstrong.

[back] 2. British Parliament is divided into two Houses: the Commons and the Lords (the equivalent of the US House of Representatives and the Senate). The Prime Minister and most Ministers sit in the Commons, and that is where most power resides.

[back] 3. The report stage is the fourth stage of a Bill as it goes through Parliament. It’s relatively unimportant – if kinks haven’t been knocked out in the first and second reading and the committee stage, they never will. There are a mere seven stages to go after this (mostly through the House of Lords).

[back] 4. The Guardian is one of the four broadsheet newspapers in the UK, and the only one to lean left (The Independent tries hard to live up to its title). As a result, it sells the worst (apart from The Independent).

[back] 5. Former golden boy of the next generation of Labour, who suffered a famous case of fratricide when his brother Ed beat him in what should have been a walkover for the leadership in 2010. At the time this episode was made, Miliband was no junior minister but Minister for Communities and Local Government, an absurd title that must have caught Iannucci’s eye.

[back] 6. Considering that she’s present right until the last episode, including In The Loop, you’d think there’d be an effort to flesh out her character some more, but it’s almost like she’s a calm and mute yin to Malcolm’s roaring monster yang. That she’s still working for Malcolm in the fourth series means she’s not a civil servant, suggesting that Malcolm actually wants her around. Her character is slightly more fleshed out in the Missing DoSAC Files book, presumably where there wasn’t an actress to get in the way.

[back] 7. There is an argument to be made that there was an ‘exhaustion arc’ planned, with this week being the second episode and the degeneration of Hugh completed in last week’s episode now he no longer has the flat, as this was how they were shot. However, there are a couple of references to the last episode here, including Hugh quoting his “I take a dump” speech and Malcolm referring to the ‘focus group’ mess. Answers on a postcard.

[back] 8. Tom (Davis) was also on the phone to Malcolm in the first episode, but this is the first time we hear that he’s someone of power. He would later take centre-stage (whilst remaining off-screen) in the Specials, where he became Prime Minister. He’s obviously based on Gordon Brown, of which more anon.

[back] 9. A noticeable mistake in the camerawork here, for a show that specialises in wonky camerawork, as the camera whips one way and then the other, seemingly trying to work out where Sam is.

[back] 10. This is possibly a reference to Peter Mandelson’s very agreeable town house, coincidentally in Notting Hill as well, and bought with a loan from millionaire fellow MP Geoffrey Robertson that Mandelson failed to declare, hastening his (first) resignation.

[back] 11. It’s interesting that Dan and Ollie team up so early, since by the last episode in 2012 they’re still together, top of the tree with everyone else fallen by the wayside. If that was the long-term plan it’s brilliantly executed.

[back] 12. A league of individual players, denoting the level you’re at and who you get to play.

[back] 13. As noted before, the London Evening Standard and the Daily Mail were owned by the same company at the time. The Mail is much bigger than the Standard though, so it’s a huge step up for Angela, giving her more leeway with Malcolm. Hence his panic.

[back] 14. Mollie Sugden was not a political reporter. She was a much-beloved sitcom actress, most famously as the pussy-addled Mrs. Slocombe in Are You Served. This and other creatively bizarre lines were written by Ian Martin, The Thick Of It’s notorious ‘swearing consultant’ on the first two series. He’s a writer who still lives in Lancaster and got Armando Iannucci’s attention with his website Martian FM. He later graduated to be a ‘real’ writer on the show.

[back] 15. The ban on smoking anywhere indoors came into effect in 2007, but many offices had banned it before then.

[back] 16. 37 years!? How old are these characters supposed to be? Has Glenn been carrying Hugh’s bag since they were in school?

[back] 17. The clown running the shop, as Glenn later states, is Ronald McDonald, McDonald’s long time mascot. He’s long since been dropped to avoid accusations that they were aiming for kids, despite a leering clown being exactly the sort of thing that would discourage children.

[back] 18. Judicial Inquiries, heading by a trusted Judge (with a natural inclination to support the establishment) are often used by governments to bury bad news. Instead of addressing a problem immediately, an Inquiry shunts a problem down the calendar until everybody has forgotten about it. Although there has been the odd Inquiry that backfired on a government (the Leveson Inquiry into Phone Hacking and related matters is a partial example), most have favoured the government, often to belief-stretching lengths (e.g. The Hutton Inquiry into the death of David Kelly, which strongly favoured the government and gave the BBC a kicking wherever possible).

[back] 19. Corpulent and genial Northern Irish TV front man, then best known for presenting ITV’s breakfast show GMTV. Soon after this was broadcast, he moved to Sky to present their breakfast show Sunrise where he remains.

[back] 20. Alan Bennett is a beloved playwright and actor, possessed of the most unthreatening voice in Christendom and the perfect narrator of Winnie the Pooh.

[back] 21. At the extreme end of things, the Saville Inquiry into the Bloody Sunday killings commenced in January 1998 and the report was issued in June 2010.

[back] 22. Britain’s greatest monster, who was caught surrounded by gunpowder threatening to blow up the House of Parliament in 1604, a very early case of religious terrorism. His image has mellowed recently, both as a symbol of anti-government feeling (e.g. the blogger Guido Fawkes) and anti-establishment protest (the face of the anarchic masked ‘hero’ of the film V for Vendetta, based on Fawkes, has been taken up by Occupy and every ‘the world is shit’ organisation going).

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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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