This week, we’re back in DoSAC. The Department of Social Affairs and Citizenship, one of those phrases which could either mean something deeply wet or remarkably sinister. It’s very possible that New Labour’s major achievement in centre-Left politics was making that seem like a meaningless distinction. Ollie is baiting Glenn about leaving the departmental party early the night before (I do have a life, Ollie. Yes, but only in the way, say, jellyfish or athlete’s foot have a life) in a way that reminds us that The Thick Of It shares as much DNA with The Office as with Yes, Minister. All politics is local, said Tip O’Neill, and DoSAC set out to prove him right. As in local infection or local anaesthetic.
Meanwhile, Terri is rushing around in trainers. That’s an urban signifier, that is; as Bridget Jones would say, she is wearing skirt suit and trainers in manner fast-moving career gal on the go. The clash between the trainers and the suit makes it clear that wherever you are seeing this person is not their intended destination, they are merely passing through on their way to somewhere more important. It’s Gaston Bachelard and the politics of space. It’s also probably also Manolo Blahnik and the politics of not obliterating your feet because of centuries of institutional sexism. Except Terri is wearing them less in manner urban career gal and more in manner primary school teacher at sports day trying to keep the headmaster away from the gin long enough to get the races run in time because it looks like rain and we need a cup awarded in sunshine if there’s to be any chance of a decent photograph for the newsletter this term. You wonder if you’re hallucinating the whiff of gender politics until Nicola turns up. I love the division of labour in this place. I like the way the women do the heavy lifting, and the men do the heavy sarcasm.
There’s an interview to do with the BBC before tonight’s launch of the Fourth Sector initiative1, though the journalist the Beeb have sent isn’t exactly big name DoSAC were hoping for (Gavin Boyes! I’m Glen Cullen. No need for me to get up) and Terri may have overdone Nicola’s makeup a little. In the midst of the jokes about face-painting tents and dead geishas, it’s worth quoting her line The Fourth Sector is really all about empowering ordinary people to give a little bit extra, and thus create something extra-ordinary, if only because it sounds so eerily similar to the Big Society rhetoric which is currently spilling out of the Conservative-led Coalition. (If you ignore the distasteful Frankfurt School gloss of “empower”, applied about as thoughtfully and effectively as Nicola’s lippy.) Chalk another one up to Armando Iannucci’s uncanny ability to observe the detail of things so closely he ends up overshooting and slightly predicting the future.
Whilst Nicola is boldly leading the department into new vistas of vacuity, the staff are increasingly aware that no electorate is going to stand for being repeatedly empowered like this for long. It’s not so much that the people will rise up as they will forget how much they hate the other lot. To say that the grass is always greener on the other side of the political fence might be overstating the case. The sod is always fresher. That seems closer to the mark. And speaking of pastures new, Glenn has a plan for when it all goes wrong/right and he’s out of a job: he’s decided to go into politics. Seriously. With a great air of mystery he lets Ollie know that he’s trying to get selected as a candidate. Ilford East, in case anyone’s wondering about which constituency he’ll be standing for.2 And, bizarrely, Ollie does seem excited by the news. It’s sort of hard to take on board. It’s like being told your Dad’s gay or something. I am strangely really proud of you. Could be a stirring of interest at the human potential to surprise each other, but I reckon he’s more excited by the sniff of actual politics.
The interview completed with only a couple of verbal stumbles, Ben Swain arrives, ex-DoSAC, currently at the Department of Education (if, as Steve Punt once said, they haven’t renamed it DepMassivSkillz yet…) Oh great, I’m flypaper for dickheads today. He and Ollie have this aggressive faux-matey game where they make up nicknames for each other. Ben! Ben Ten, Benstrual Cycle, Ben on the Fourth of July. It takes one of those mildly noticeable social rituals and hypes it up ‘til we notice what’s actually going on underneath the words. (At a cricket match the other week I heard one of the fielders address another as “The Graham-meister”, apparently without any irony, but it’s difficult to tell…) I gather there’s an obscure Saturday Night Live sketch about a fellow with a photocopier who does something similar, but to see it done properly English-style you have to go back to Autumn Term by Antonia Forest and read the bit where the Third Remove discover that Pomona insists on being called by her real name.3 When Malcolm arrives, Ben complains about DoSAC poaching his policies through Ollie (Is this true, the little man in the red and yellow car?) which proves he wasn’t watching last week when we learnt some valuable lessons about conflict escalation. Nicola, who has learnt even less, invokes the name of Steve Fleming, noted rival of Malcolm’s who is on a foreign trip with the Prime Minister instead of him, of which more anon.
Nicola’s still bothered by the slight misspeaking she indulged in during the interview, that she’d said the PM was “the best man for the job” and then asked if they could rerecord it as “the best person” instead. It’s not the possible feminist backlash that concerns her, it’s the notion that it looks like she’s suggesting there are women in the party who could lead it instead of the PM, and as she’s the only woman talking at the time, it might look like… but Malcolm is unbothered. No offence, but you’re not leadership material, yeh? I mean, fuckin curtain material in that outfit, but y’know. Which is either a failure of textual criticism or a failure of paranoia, because as he speaks the BBC are declaring that Nicola has made a bid for the leadership. A crisis has officially commenced. Terri is dispatched to call the Beeb and Fuckin’ nuke them. Nuke them and rebuke them. whilst the office is put on lockdown. No-one enters or leaves, no communication with the outside world. DoSAC re-enters its natural state, cleansed of any taint of politics. Glenn plays chess via the internal phone, Ollie memorably addresses him as Deep Beige and Ben tries to locate an old a stash of chocolate from when he used to work here.
On discovering that Ben has in fact been whipping up the press via his Blackberry from inside the office (Why? Because I’m bored, it’s funny and…I hate you), Malcolm creates a powerful allegory of the Department of Education by ripping a keyboard off one of the computers and making him stand in the corner holding it. I’m pretty sure I saw that in an Elizabethan emblem book somewhere. Symbolic stage pictures aside, Malcolm seems to be feeling the pressure. He sends Nicola down to speak to the assembled journalists, where she makes linguistic pedants everywhere very happy by proving that it matters whether you say the PM is the man of the moment or the man for the moment4. Just how bad an idea standing for the leadership would be is brought vividly home to her by the fact that she has the full support of the Daily Mail and her husband.5 Under the circumstances, it is decided she shouldn’t give the speech launching the Fourth Sector initiative6 and Ben is subbed in. He knows nothing about the policy, he hates the department and has actively been trying to destroy the minister’s career for the last few hours, so this may be something of a signal as to how seriously policy initiatives coming out of DoSAC are taken.
Before this happens, Terri attempts to stage some sort of intervention on Malcolm. She tells him he’s been making the wrong calls all day, and she thinks he’s wrong now. The other staff are torn between glee at the coming detonation, and slight uneasiness that they may end up as collateral damage. Particularly when she mentions Steve Fleming, which is a bit like explaining to Caesar that you understand why Pompey might make him feel a little insecure and even inadequate, but… He takes her to one of meeting rooms, and I’m genuinely uncertain how we should read the resulting blend of outrage, bile and angry self-pity. There’s a metaphor involving crisp packets, there’s fury against the world, and I was particularly struck by the bit about vampire hags who want to use his face as a flannel. Are we seeing Tucker cracking? Or has he decided that a flurry of cod-psychological admissions of the pressure he’s under would be the quickest way to neutralise Terri and stop her interfering in his plans to manage the crisis? Or are we somewhere awful in the middle, with a Tucker who has managed to short-circuit his own emotions so he can channel his rage and despair to his own political benefit? He is, after all, the Director of Communications par excellence, and this might be the final refinement of political spin: sourcing “authenticity” from his own horror and alienation and plugging it right into the demands of the situation. It’s incidental to the plot of the episode, but this was a fascinating performance.
Nicola escapes the lockdown, and manages to deliver a truly incomprehensible speech to the waiting journalists. Where Malcolm had face-flaying vampire hags, she has a self-eating cake and an accidental scrotum pun.7 Returning to the office, she finds she’s destroyed Glenn’s chances of being selected as a candidate: she’s now so toxic that even escaping from her office would taint him. Welcome back to DoSAC, where lockdown is a way of life.
1 No, you didn’t miss the meaning of that phrase because you’re American. You missed the meaning because it didn’t contain any.
2 British electoral constituencies are one of the greatest gifts presented to a political satirist by an already munificent universe. When Walter Bagehot published his magisterial account of The English Constitution in 1867, he put the elements of it into two categories: “dignified” and the “efficient”. These are not the first words which spring to mind when contemplating the division of Britain into democratic units such as “Congleton”, “Banff and Buchan”, “Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle” or indeed “Pontypridd”. (Especially not if you know anyone from Pontypridd.) Oscar Wilde declared that rhyme in poetry was the one chord we have added to the Greek lyre, and it is satisfying to think that whilst Aristophanes may have said some apt things about voting machines and inappropriate behaviour with squid, he never described the current British Chancellor as “the member for Tatton Cosplay”. Ian Martin done that.
3 ‘“What is her name?” said someone who had never encountered Pomona before. Tim told her. “It’s the name of the Roman goddess who presided over the fruit trees, she added with a coy simper.”You remember, dear, the French lessons you had last year? La Pomme – the apple: La Pomme-de-terre – the potato. That’s our Pippin.” “Apple blossom” said someone helpfully. “Winter russets.” “Cox’s orange.” “Blenheims.” “Cider,” shouted someone on a burst of inspiration.’ Of course Forest really shows her paces in the call-backs later on in the novel, the little unexplained references to “our Apfelstrudel” and so on.
4 That’s the genitive rather than the dative, for those of you following along in your Shortbread Eating Primer. As any fule kno.
5 If you don’t know what the Daily Mail is, make a small votive offering of thanks to whatever power has kept this knowledge from you so far, and stop reading this footnote immediately. If you must find out, do try to go via one of those mirror sites which allow you to read this worst and most hateful of British tabloids without actually giving their site traffic.
6 Nope, still no perceptible semantic content.
7 And a joke about Top Gear. I make that two jokes in the last two episodes. It might be a touch embarrassing for BBC America to have one of its shows so enthusiastically using another as a touchstone for crass sexist vapidity, but I’m all for it. With a bit of luck if Top Gear gets enough exposure in the US someone might offer the hosts enough money to relocate and Britain would be another few gits down.