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

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).


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.

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.

Club Review – Liquidation

Pop Liquidator

(Originally published in L:Scene magazine, February 1996)

Liquidation at Hardy’s is the true essence of Britpop in the north. Two years old, it is only recently that people have caught onto the organisers’ almost petulant love of Blur, Supergrass, Pulp etc. Now, they have just opened another floor of fun-filled frolics that should have the bright young things of Liverpool languidly draped over the enormous dance floors.

The latest grunge sounds from America are not welcome. Check shirted long hairs ‘getting down’ are asked politely to leave. Here it’s all slinky young hipsters climbing off their mopeds and flicking their fringes elegantly in the direction of the bar. “It’s fun, it’s unisex, it’s all happening at Liquidation,” say the posters. The origins of Liquidation are mistily obscure. Jim and Julian’s need to put on a night for all the unsigned bands they knew collided with Danny’s penchant for “new music”. At the time, this consisted of Babies by Pulp, Sunday Sunday by Blur and not much else. Oasis were still waiting for Noel to get back from roadieing for the Inspiral Carpets. But this could all be bollocks; the people here are, after all, very cool.

Liquidation started slowly, gradually building up an audience on the top floor of the student-friendly Hardy’s on Hardman Street. Initially they were getting less people than downstairs, where mainstream dance was more the done thing. These positions slowly reversed until the end of last year when doors had to be closed at 11pm and bouncers were regularly turning away over 300 people a week. Now the little fish has swallowed the big fish and total capacity of Liquidation throughout its three rooms is equivalent to that of the rather famous Cream.

But there’s no pulsing beats here. In fact the music played could easily be described as that darling of the music weeklies, Britpop. “It’s basically what we were doing when we started, but it wasn’t called Britpop then,” says Danny. “It’s more to do with people being into human music. Three years ago, I was so fucked off with the music scene. It was like if you don’t want to take a tablet then it’s shit.”

Another aspect of this new improved whiter than white Liquidation is something called, rather splendidly, the Technicolour Suite. This is a cinema situated in the other downstairs room which shows the best in ‘far out’ films. This week we had David Hemmings, Vanessa Redgrave and an annoyed Jeff Beck smashing up his guitar in Blow Up. By a strange coincidence this is also the name of Liquidation’s equivalent and higher profile rival in London, where the world looks equally bright and spangly rose-coloured pebble spectacles. “Everyone talks about Liquidation being a copy of Blow Up, despite the fact that we started exactly the same week,” says an almost heated Danny. “But this venue is so much bigger than theirs, we can overtake them in exactly the same way as Cream has overtaken the Ministry of Sound.”

The last word goes to a misty-eyed lad who came all the way from Solihull. “It’s got its finger on the pulse. You know when it started, like dance music was all the thing. Now it’s gone sort of upbeat, with the Blur and Oasis thing. It’s hit the right note at the right time. Whatever you say about those two groups, they’re doing this country a good service, you know what I mean like?”

And so I wandered off into the gaily upbeat throng – currently dancing to Menswear – and tried to work out how to do that hands-behind-your-back-bouncing-up-and-down dance. Liquidation play greatest hits for the 21st Century girl or boy. Fab.

Liquidation at Hardy’s: Every Saturday 10pm-2am. £2.50 entrance, though you may have to get there early.

Article – Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut

The Two Deaths of Stanley Kubrick

(Originally published in TVS Magazine, September 1999)

When Stanley Kubrick died in March this year there was a noticeable lack of the usual plaudits and tributes that tend to be bandied around in such instances of Great Artist Loss. It felt like this wasn’t quite the end of the story and in a way this is true; for the great man actually had something further to add. For Kubrick had made the great artistic decision of dying just as he’d completed work on Eyes Wide Shut, the legendarily gestated film which, now that it’s finally been released, will bring a sense of closure to his career.

It’s as if Kubrick has done what even the greatest could never do: cheated death. The plaudits and tributes and theme nights are now starting to pour in. Kubrick’s career as a whole can be judged as more than something that ended nearly fifteen years ago with the release of his previous film, Full Metal Jacket. When it takes that long to make a film, it’s not hard to see why most people eased off the judgements for a few months. Stanley has had two deaths: his actual death and, on the day Eyes Wide Shut was released and people were able to draw a line under his phenomenally successful career, his real death in the eyes of everyone who didn’t know him.

So here it comes, sailing over the horizon like a fifteenth century explorer ship long since assumed to have fallen off the edge of the world. In case you don’t know, Eyes Wide Shut holds the record for the longest movie shoot from first shot to completion. It beat the nearest competition by months and it’s certainly not an effects-laden blockbuster. It may also be the most expensive film ever made, thanks to the money expected and lost from the films a certain Mr. T Cruise would have made had he not been caught up doing 100+ takes of individual scenes for Mr. Kubrick. Many people have already had fun pointing out that, in the time it took to make Eyes Wide Shut, Kubrick could have employed the most bog-standard special effects operation in the business to create and animate reasonably life-like versions of Tom ’n’ Nicole.

But then Eyes Wide Shut became the classic example of a joke that just wasn’t funny anymore. Months after it went beyond its original completion date and stories started filtering out about the extraordinary lengths the notoriously perfectionist Kubrick was going to achieve what he wanted, people were merrily making jokes about what an old card Stanley was and how it couldn’t have happened to a nicer couple of Hollywood egos than Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman. Poor them! Stuck in provincial ol’ England for so long!

But then the months became years and the stories just got more and more unbelievable (Harvey Keitel being fired for reasons unknown and his entire, not insubstantial part being reshot, no scene requiring less than 50+ takes to get in the can) even the hardiest old cynics were giving thanks that they weren’t working on the seemingly unfinishable behemoth that was Eyes Wide Shut. Like making fun of Mother Theresa or Victoria Wood, the reality of what you were poking fun at could withstand any attempt at humour.

And then, with almost suspicious timing, Stanley pops his clogs and the announcement is made that the film has been finished. Idle speculators were left wondering how long the production would have rumbled on for it Kubrick had lived, or whether he was maybe done away with in a secret pact concocted by various interested parties ranging from the movie’s backers, through to Tom ’n’ Nicole (or, more specifically, Tom ’n’ Nicole’s agents), right down to the legions of fans who just wanted to see the bloody thing.

Now there is a finished product it brings almost surreal amounts of baggage for what is, in essence, two-and-a-bit hours of celluloid. There is no real reason to think this isn’t what Kubrick wanted to be released and Tom ’n’ Nicole, bizarrely loyal even after his actual and real death, are claiming it’s the best thing each has done. Well, it’s better than Cocktail.

Cruise and Kidman play a drop-dead gorgeous married couple who indulge in a little bit of extra-curricular flirtation at a party. Kidman giggles incessantly with Sandor, a leery Hungarian, whilst Cruise walks arm in arm with two virtually-clad English models. From the start the themes are set up: sex ’n’ foreigners.

Virtually everybody apart from Cruise, Kidman and party host Sydney Pollack is from another country. This film is set in New York and yet shot in Britain, and it’s a testimony to the sort of person Kubrick was that he appears to have imported large sections of Manhattan, rather than take on the onerous task of flying the pond.

The first third of Eyes Wide Shut is a dissection of a marriage, and very effective it is too. “I would never lie to you,” says Cruise in a post-sex marijuana session with Kidman. Up till now this seems to be about the things men say that piss women off and the revenge they take. In this case Kidman brazenly tells him about the lascivious thoughts she had about a sailor she once met.

Pissed off, Cruise sets off into the night and here we get the rather unexpected second third of the film, which is entirely centred on Cruise’s night-time journey. Dodging thugs accusing him of being gay (raises eyebrow), the phenomenally bad acting of Marie Richardson (another last minute addition to the cast after Jennifer Jason-Leigh was Keiteled) and a peculiar fancy dress store that hides a couple of transvestite Japanese (raises other eyebrow), Cruise gets wind of a Masque-cum-orgy and the final third of the movie begins.

Although the orgy features about as much thrusting nudity as an average evening on Channel 5, it is played out to an intensely provoking score which consists entirely of two piano notes being played over and over. Eyes Wide Shut is an incredibly slow film and yet begs for a repeat viewing, something Kubrick specialises in achieving. It features many of its author’s typically memorable moments yet it gives every impression of being a film about nothing – it will lull you into head-scratching confusion and post-match conversation along the lines of, “what the hell was that about?”

But for all its power and striking exceptionality it will be a film more remembered for what happened off-screen than on. As good as it is, the better story was being played out in the somewhat eccentric mind of the late, great Stanley Kubrick.

You only die twice, as the saying goes, but there is a footnote to this whole story than may extend Kubrick’s mortality yet further. A.I., the film which he spent the lion’s share of those fifteen years developing, looks like it may yet be made, with a certain Steven Spielberg directing. What are the odds that, on its eventual release, it is Kubrick who will get the critical notices and not Spielberg? You only die thrice?

Article – The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Film

Awkward Genius

(Originally published in Inform Magazine, May 2005)

…Two words which do tend to go together, you must agree. Not least when it came to Douglas Adams and his creation The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the galaxy, there lies a small, unregarded green planet. And on this planet they tend to make things called feature films, which are so astonishingly primitive that they still think computer generated effects are a pretty neat idea. This is the story of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, a wholly remarkable film that has taken nigh on 25 years to get to the screen, which might possibly redefine the phrase ‘development hell’.

It starts with a house. This is the house that Douglas Nathan Adams (DNA to his friends) lived in, and in 1979 he’d just finished being script editor of Doctor Who and was now about to enjoy the success of his radio series The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy with the release of a novel based on the same. Even before the phenomenal success of this book (which came fourth in the BBC’s Big Read poll), people were interested in making a film of the story of how Arthur Dent finds himself lost and alone in a dangerous universe after the planet Earth is destroyed.

However, this early attempt to make a film soon ground to a halt when Adams realised that he was only doing it for the money, and money was no longer an issue, because the book was selling phenomenal amounts. Then, in the early eighties, none other than Ivan Reitman simply offered him more money than seemed strictly reasonable in order to make a film. In retrospect Reitman was perhaps not the best person to do a project like this, as his reputation at the time was based entirely on the sub-John Landis crudities of Stripes. When he and Adams failed to see eye to eye one too many times, Reitman walked away from the project and made Ghostbusters instead, and Adams gratefully left Hollywood and returned home to England, rather richer but less than happy with the whole affair. It was at this point he famously described filmmaking as, “grilling a steak by getting a succession of people to come into the room and breathe on it.”

Yet part of the problem with this whole thing may have been Adams himself. The stories about his lateness are legion, and he was also completely unable to be hands-off about anything. All through the making of both the radio and TV series he was ever-present (very unusual for a writer) and the perfectionism which, possibly more than anything else, made him so beloved also made him a nightmare to work with. Even after the Reitman effort, people were still queuing up to make the film, yet they all fell foul of Adams’ precision, even his good friend Terry Jones.

There was also Adams’ paradoxical desire to move away from the Hitchhiker’s world and yet retain total control over it. Over the years, Adams wrote many drafts of a film screenplay, often tinkering with the basic concept and inserting things which he happened to like at the time. Ask any filmmaker and they’ll tell you this is not very conducive to the collaborative process of making films. And as someone who always declared that he never wanted to be a writer and hated the actual process, Adams showed an almost masochistic desire to torture himself with his creation. He wrote four sequels to the book in the end, and even when he tried to get away from it with his Dirk Gently novels, was planning to make a sixth book when he died.

Alas, Douglas Adams’ death in 2001 may have been the best thing to happen to get the film made. Four years earlier he had signed another deal, with Austin Powers director Jay Roach assigned to the project. Once again living in Los Angeles, this is what occupied the last four years of Adams’ life, as he slowly produced yet more tortuous versions of the screenplay. The script which is finally being made has Adams’ name on it, but also that of Karey Kirkpatrick, who wrote Chicken Run. No doubt it was his job to make a coherent movie script out of the tortuous mess of Adams’ various versions.

The film arrives with an surprisingly good team – British producer and director in video makers Hammer and Tongs (who did Blur’s Coffee and TV and Supergrass’s Pumpin’ on Your Stereo) – as well as a pretty perfect cast: Martin Freeman is ideal as the eternally put-upon Arthur – one of Adams’ many stipulations was that he should be played by an Englishman. Rapper Mos Def seems an odd choice as Ford Prefect, although I suppose a black Brooklynite is as alien to Arthur as anyone from Betelgeuse. Sam Rockwell plays Zaphod Beeblebrox as the character was originally envisioned, a Californian beach bum with blonde hair (the two heads are still in place – you just can’t see the other one). And Stephen Fry is just about ideal as that fountain of all knowledge and wisdom, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy itself.

The film is probably not big enough to be a huge success, but for fans like myself it’s positively manna from heaven. Despite all Adams’ awkwardness when it came to his creation, he did write the best concepts and dialogue in existence. And the only person who could mess that up, seemingly, was Adams himself.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is out now.

Douglas and the Doctor

It’s appropriate that the revival of interest in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy should arrive at the same time as the revival of Doctor Who, as they are often inextricably linked. At the same time Douglas Adams was writing his first, seminal radio series – which would contain all the grand concepts that have been making people’s heads spin for decades now – he was also, thanks to some exceptionally bad planning, writing an episode of Doctor Who – Tom Baker episode The Pirate Planet. At the time, Doctor Who was just about the best place for a young writer interested in sci-fi and daft ideas to get work.

As a result, there is plenty of cross-pollination between the two. The Pirate Planet features plenty of Hitchhiker’s in-jokes and a typically bonkers plot that delights in taking the mickey out of sci-fi wordplay. Hitchhiker’s, on the other hand… well how can we say this politely? It’s ripping the almighty piss out of Doctor Who. Ford Prefect is the Doctor amalgam, full of aggravating knowledge about things that no-one should ever have to know and smarmy to boot – although he pointedly prefers to go to a party rather than saving the universe. Arthur is the companion substitute, except he’s got no interest in “excitement, adventure and really wild things”; he just wants to go to a home that no longer exists. It’s as if after writing pages for the good Doctor, Adams took out his frustrations with Hitchhiker’s.

Nevertheless, this never stopped Adams accepting the job of script editor of Doctor Who the following year, and this is often thought as the show’s golden age, with Adams himself (pseudonymously) writing the best episode of Doctor Who ever: City of Death. However, success was overtaking him and he left the show after a particularly knackering year. He felt frustrated by the huge work generated by one of the show’s strengths; that with ability to go anywhere, anywhen it provided a lot more work for producers and writers working on such a strict budget. Despite the obvious piss-taking he did of the show, he remained a fan and, like most true fans, was often highly critical of the show in subsequent years.

It would have been nice to hear his opinions of the highly regarded new series of Doctor Who, although there’s no doubt that Executive Producer Russell T. Davies has taken a lot from the fun-but-far-out template established by Adams. After all Billie Piper’s character does like a cup of tea.

Article – Flouncing Guitarists

Strings of Strife

(Originally published in Inform Magazine, April 2005)

With Bernard Butler reuniting with old mucker Brett Anderson in The Tears (playing this month), it’s time to tell a cautionary tale of band dynamics.

In the long and frankly revolting history of popular music, egotism tends to be rife. And when it comes to group dynamics, it’s long been held that the singer is the one whose ego stretches that much further than the rest. But in this country, over the last twenty years, this has been challenged by that unassuming little guy who stands at the side of the stage teasing out patented sonic cathedrals of sound from his instrument (a-hem). The guitarist is now the unchallenged leader in the all-flouncing egotistical stakes.

It was never always thus. Despite guitar heroes of the sixties like Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix being regularly deified, they still were surprisingly modest. Even in the indulgent seventies when Dave Gilmour and Jimmy Page were the godheads, neither promoted themselves above the bands they comfortably played a part in. Punk encouraged one or two guitarists to think themselves better than their bands (e.g. Brian James of the Damned) but even Steve Jones of the mighty Sex Pistols was happy to dispel thoughts of him being a guitar god, garnering the respect of even the professionally ornery John Lydon.

It was only in the eighties that things changed, largely propelled by one man: Johnny Marr. Smiths fans are odd creatures, elevating their group far above anyone else and openly declaring Marr a guitar hero. It might have just gone to his head. Although he never left his group – as was soon to become the trend – there’s no doubt that Morrissey’s patience was worn very thin by Marr’s desire to play session man to lesser acts like The Pretenders and Bryan Ferry.

Since the Smiths, there have been plenty of proto-Johnny Marrs frustrating fans of some of the greatest guitar groups Britain has produced. Strangely, they all have one thing in common: shyness. Perhaps it’s an aspect of the eternally reticent to finally vent their feelings as explosively as possible, and there’s nothing more final for a musician than leaving a band.

The Stone Roses were the first great post-Smiths group to arrive in the public consciousness, and John Squire was their bashful guitarist. He started off as an unashamed Hendrix copyist (all wah-wahs and augmented 9ths) but it fit perfectly with the rest of the group’s sunnier and dancey outlook. However, five years of the rest of the band’s dope-fuelled inactivity left him to take over most of the writing and recording of the second album. After its poor reception he quickly jumped ship, leaving the rest of the group to cope with the fall-out. Cue The Seahorses, a band notable for the huge amount of guitar wankery on show, as if Squire was placing aural ‘Musician Available’ ads in the public’s conscience.

To be fair to Squire, the collapse of the Stone Roses was not entirely his fault, but at least he lasted most of the distance. Pretty soon, guitarists couldn’t wait to leave the bands that made their name. Nick McCabe had the unique distinction of stomping out of (the) Verve not once but twice. Despite the original version of the band being based almost entirely on McCabe’s soaring axe work, he obviously didn’t think that his muse was being truly respected. Even when he surprisingly returned for the band’s big breakthrough album Urban Hymns, which featured actual songs, it was inevitable that he wasn’t just going to accept fame, money and critical lauding. Goodbye again. When, shortly afterwards, Oasis suddenly found themselves without a guitarist, it was thought that McCabe may be the one to replace him. On hearing this, Noel quashed it in typically brusque fashion: “he’s fucked up his band, he’s not fucking up mine.”

More recently, Graham Coxon left the seemingly unshakeable Blur. Why is still a bit of a mystery but there’s no denying that Coxon was very indulged in his former band, despite having somewhat contradictory musical tastes. But even this wasn’t enough for Coxon, who, despite once calling Damon Albarn his best friend in the world, left the band to pursue a solo career. The rest of the band still haven’t forgiven him, yet have maintained the door is always open for his return.

This is something that Coxon may still take up, judging by past experiences. Perhaps the man who takes the biscuit with regards to egotistical behaviour is Bernard Butler, unashamed Johnny Marr fan, guitar noodler in excelsis and guitarist with Suede – once seriously thought of as the greatest band Britain has ever produced. Plastering his tricksy guitar fills over everything only kept Butler happy for two albums before he flounced off to the inevitable session work and solo career.

Now, nearly ten years later, Butler is back with Suede singer Brett Anderson in the band The Tears. But the rumours are that they’ve already fallen out, so perhaps they will not trouble us too long. Maybe this is for the best – guitarists are odd sorts who should be reminded of their peripheral stage position slightly more often.

The Tears play the Carling Academy on Saturday 23rd April

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