Right. The Thick Of It, Series three, Episode five. Not an easy show to recap, The Thick Of It. Or at least, not easy to do so without simply repeating the lines in a gleeful shout and doing really bad Scottish accents in an attempt to sound like Malcolm Tucker. So please excuse me if occasionally the critical commentary breaks down. You are an…OMNISHAMBLES! A bit like that, for example. Normal service will be resumed once the giggling has ceased. And talking about this show is always going to involve a bit of inside baseball for British politics, but I’ll stick any explanatory points in the footnotes, so as not to get in the way of the (Fuck me, this is like watchin’ a clown run across a minefield.) discussion of the show.
But first, a word on swearing. The Thick Of It is a very rude show with rude words. I’m not going to quote many of them (though if a few f-bombs per thousand words are a problem, don’t read on), because firstly you can just watch the show and get as many as you like, and secondly because they rely so much on the context and rhythm. I don’t know if the stories are true that the writer Ian Martin (who moved from being credited for “additional material” in earlier episodes to a “written by” on this series) was originally employed as a “swearing consultant”, but he is very serious indeed about verbal abuse. Ian Martin doesn’t just write off-colour jokes. He’s having his Blue Period. Like Picasso, but with more references to genitalia. In the tirades written for the notorious Malcolm Tucker, actual f-words are the least nasty moments – he uses them as something between punctuation and metrical pauses, to make sure the stress falls on the most important words in the line. Martin’s book, The Coalition Chronicles, is a set of fake records of Parliamentary debates, and despite claiming to be two hundred pages of cock jokes, shows a stern concern for form – for when a reference to the scrotum will collide best with the conventions of political reportage1. And (coming back to The Thick of It) he knows when to ease off on the obscenity, when “Bagpuss”, the name of a children’s TV character, will be far more punchy than a line of curses. I sometimes wonder if he actually doesn’t find swearing funny: whether if you asked him if naughty words made him laugh he’d just look at you like you’d asked the Bauhaus Group if their buildings had good parking facilities.
Of course we can’t know what goes on in the writers’ rooms, but combining Martin’s hand-turned insults with Armando Iannucci’s long expertise in pointing out the ridiculous and solipsistic way we live our lives seems to be a winning combination. The continuing lurch towards the domination of politics by media narratives provides tempting targets for Iannucci, whose fake news show The Day Today still ranks high in the toplists drawn up by satire nerds. I suspect shouting the word “FACTGASM!” is the password and shibboleth at more than a few cynical pub tables in London…
So episode five, and both sides of our political drama are converging on the BBC radio studios for what Richard Bacon hopefully describes as a showdown between two political heavyweights. On one side, Rebecca Front as Nicola Murray, the hapless Minister for Social Affairs and Citizenship, on the other, Roger Allam as Peter Mannion MP2, her opposite number. Murray looks like a classic late New Labour minister: an over-promoted professional who did once want to change things for the better but got swamped in a party which long ago abandoned any class analysis in favour of a career structure. She now finds herself on the radio parroting policy-twaddle like “Fourth Sector pathfinders”, which comes down to finding people who’re actually doing useful work in their communities and slapping a label on them so the government can desperately claim some of the credit. She’s behaving like a squirrel trapped in a pedal bin. We’re looking for people to “inspire each other out of poverty” she babbles, taking the last fifty years of thinking about how complex economic and social factors might interact, and using it to blame working class people for not being richer.
Mannion is another case altogether: a old-style Tory conservative baffled by being told to wear his shirt untucked, think about the ecological implications of policy and start criticising the outsize bonuses of City bankers. He has the air of the kind of Tories epitomised by Julian Critchley, who wrote “I have long enjoyed a love/hate relationship with the Conservative Party. I was not converted or even convinced. I quite simply could have joined no other…To have become a Liberal would have been to opt out of parliamentary politics; to have joined Labour would have been unthinkable.”
Some people tell us that “man” is fundamentally a social animal, some that “he” is a political animal: the Critchleys and Mannions of this world demonstrate how those two can both be true at the same time. They grow up seeing that chaps like them are in charge of things, and not seeing that there’s any reason that should change. Some of my best friends are money-grubbing wankers. Odd, then, that Mannion regularly comes across as the most likeable character in the whole show. Partly it’s Roger Allam’s presence. He has charisma like other people have cholesterol: you can make whatever cosmetic changes you like but it’s still embedded deep in the system. Listening to him drawl his lines across the microphone in the radio show Cabin Pressure is one of the finest experience Radio 4 has to offer – those more clued-up on actors than me have speculated that he performs every episode from a chaise longue. More substantiated gossip has it that in the week when the Scandal in Belgravia episode of Sherlock aired, Allam went out to lunch with Laura Pulver, who played Irene Adler in that episode. We know this because she took a photograph of him having lunch with her and posted it on Twitter. That’s the way the world works for Roger Allam. Maybe Iannucci was particularly canny in writing the role of Peter Mannion for him – parlaying his natural assurance into a character who finds himself adrift in a world where his certainties no longer work. When he jokes with Richard Bacon the radio host about that time they got drunk at the cricket match the establishment credentials are working full blast, but on air the clumsy riff about the bandleader Jools Holland makes him look like everyone’s ageing Dad.
Meanwhile, over at Emma3’s flat, a classic misunderstanding sequence is taking shape between two members of political staff from the opposing offices. Think the restaurant scene at the beginning of Legally Blonde with a cruder edge. He thinks he’s getting lucky, she thinks they’re breaking up, and the only thing stopping them realizing this is the fact that she’s got to rewrite a speech for the Confederation of British Industry and he’s planned an elaborate meal which is taking forever to prepare.
Party Animals used a relationship between members of opposing parties to explore how far adversarial politics has corrupted our capacity to recognise what we have in common, but The Thick of It show us Emma and Olly to underline the lack of any difference separating the two sides which spend all day fighting each other. They don’t have to put aside their ideological convictions to bunk up together because neither would know where to find any. Olly can sneer all he likes at her vague air of countrified wealth, but he comes from a slightly different slice of the same upper middle classes. (I’ve not read much classical Marxism, but even I know that reading Polly Toynbee’s column whilst taking a dump doesn’t actually qualify you as a democratic socialist.) As the situation gets worse at the radio station, exacerbated by a caller who seems to have revealed an embarrassing fact about a donor to Mannion’s party, they’re both separately called into help mop up the mess. Without having actually broken up yet, of course. The canons of farce must be maintained, even within a political satire.
As everything gets even worse, the spin doctors start getting involved. They’ve made us wait for twenty minutes in this episode before seeing Malcolm Tucker in more than the occasional phone call and a short vignette involving a birthday cake with probably the most offensive four-letter word in the English language iced on top. (One of the letters is starred out, but he helpfully pronounces it for us later, in case we’ve failed to decode the sugary cipher and thought it was a reference to the smallest denomination of the US currency.) But like the super-heavyweights at a title fight, they’ve simply been biding their time whilst the undercard worked itself through. Now Malcolm Tucker (Peter Capaldi) and Stewart Pearson (Vincent Franklin) collide as they both hurry to the BBC studios, obviously to quell any imputation that modern politics is controlled more by the directors of communication than the party leaders. And when they meet, it becomes ugly4. Neither is used to finding someone who won’t back down under sufficient bile and bullying, and they begin to reach for more and more unpleasant secrets they have in their files on each other’s MPs.
Quick query for the Parliamentary junkies: when the two spin doctors square off and start slinging the dirt they have, is it as significant as I think when the name of the Conservative Chief Whip comes up?5 If the Chief Whip has traditionally been the archetype of a tribalist, sociopathic political bruiser, isn’t it significant that Malcolm is (implicitly) threatening to blackmail one of them, a suggestion that the new breed of Parliamentary enforcers are so much more vicious than their forerunners that they’re not afraid to go after each other’s Whips? It makes Francis Urquhart look positively genial…
The squaring off ends with both men realizing that escalation can only damage both of their parties. I’m not sure this is the classic Mutually Assured Destruction scenario, but more a recognition that the public’s view of politicians is so low that another slew of stories about rent boys, racial scandals at university and hushed-up abortions will only smear one side without the other getting any credit from the comparison.6
And it’s a cheap joke, but I did enjoy Malcolm coming back at Stewart’s threat “I do have a statement from a rentboy…” with “Well that’s very useful for you, you can claim that against your expenses, can’t you?” But to row back from the conflict, they need to find someone to blame, and it just so happens they both have pawns to trade: the politicians whose incompetence brought them to the studios in the first place. They agree to both release statements that their own people “weren’t in possession of all the facts”. In Malcolm’s phrase, each of them will “Hang your own guy out to fuckin’ dry”, and in Stewart’s “Contain the toxicity. Chernobyl FM.” And the most chilling exchange of the episode follows:
Malcolm: I mean, you carry on like this, and I might not find you utterly fucking contemptible.
Stewart: That’s an incentive. I’ll get my bag.
1 He’s also serious enough about it to disclaim insults that aren’t his own work: when the Malcolm Tucker phrase “You are an…omnishambles!”, as quoted above, was actually used in the House of Commons during a debate, Martin declared publicly that he couldn’t take credit for that particular one.
2 MP = Member of Parliament, the term for any elected legislator in Britain. Sorry if these notes are either derisorily obvious, or holding up the flow. You should have been there when I first watched The West Wing. Actually, you shouldn’t have, we had to keep pausing it so phrases like Ways and Means could be explained to me.
3 Emma, according to a better-informed friend, is a curious character, as she seems to be a sketch of a young Conservative MP who wasn’t even noticeably on the scene when this series was written – Louise Mensch. Even more bafflingly, Mensch has apparently said that she loves the show and this one episode is her particular favourite. Which I suppose just goes to show that a) Iannucci is brilliant at handling social types to the extent that he sometimes accidentally predicts things and b) there’s nothing like satirising people to make them feel important.
4 Hardly surprising, since by my reckoning Stewart Peason is an amalgam of two particularly close advisors to the inner circle of the Conservative leadership. Since this show was written, one of them has been arrested and charged with perjury. Just this last week, as it happens.
5 Whips are the MPs responsible for party discipline within Parliament – the term derives from the “whippers-in” employed to keep hunting dogs in order – and often have a pretty nasty reputation, as you might expect since they’re the people the party leaders rely on to browbeat their own tribe. Technically their job is simply to advise members when the government would like them to vote for a particular measure, and to offer glory and jobs when necessary, but there are stories of blackmail, humiliation and even physical intimidation used to bring MPs to heel when the Whips don’t feel they understand what’s in the party’s interests.
6 I vaguely recall John Dickerson saying once that Sarah Palin had found herself in an impossible position because she needed to go more negative to beat an opponent in the polls, but that this strategy becomes less viable the lower you both are in the ratings – going negative on him would drag his share down more quickly than hers, but in the process her ratings would drop so low that she would make herself unelectable. According to him, at least, the laws of political aerodynamics are subject to some sort of drag effect when you’re in sufficiently murky conditions. And the British political class are in very murky conditions at the moment.