OK, the Tory characters (sorry, the government) are off to a “Thought Camp” in a stately home in Kent, because isolation is the something of renewal. Corporate trips are an easy target – the last new joke made about them was the horror movie Severance – and so the jokes will have to be even funnier in proportion. Because everyone thinks they can be hilarious on the subject of away-days, on the assumption that “common sense” instantly exposes these affairs as nonsensical and despicable. The Thick of It neatly sidesteps the continual temptation to set off squibs about thought-space and getting in touch with one’s inner child, and concentrates on suggesting how much aggression and bullying lies behind the hang-loose, blue-sky ethos. Stuart Pearson turns out to be serene and charming only so long as he is in charge, and needling Peter Mannion until he snaps is a very risky strategy for political operators who think the world was restarted during the 1997 election campaign.
Mannion is increasingly becoming the focus of the show’s sympathy, as I suggested last week. It’s not that we like him much (we can’t get close enough for that) but that he seems to be suffering more than most from the awfulness around him. Glen Cullen is also flailing around the unfamiliar landscape of a coalition, but he lacks Mannion’s charm to get us onside, and Glen is only awarded moments of moral coherence before drifting off again into being a figure of fun.
Back at the offices, Phil has been left in charge. Nominally. Only no-one’s told him it’s only nominal, so when the two Lib Dems reptiles sneak in an attractive female microfinance specialist to consult on community credit, Phil takes enormous offence. I’m not sure Phil’s character is going the right way: in the massive readjustment caused by the election (and the coalition), he’s being edged over into amusing geek who somehow has a job in politics. The references to Jedis, Lord of the Rings and so on were funnier when he was Mannion’s sidekick, because they gave us a glimpse past the young Tory image of competence and threat. But when he’s the office klutz for a party who are in office, it’s not very satirical to go on about action figures, as we can see how ineffective he is already.
The lizards in question continue to present everything that is worst about the left. OK, not quite everything and not worst – I’ve read a history book or two. But certainly the modern mainstream centre-left. If Tolkien references are glimpsed through Phil’s (brief) facade of Tory smoothness, there are far nastier things pulsating just beneath the skin of Fergus and Adam. The continual sexual “banter”, the insecure aggression – it really was a historical and geographical accident that this pair aren’t MRAs. They call to mind all the barbs that Raphael Samuel aimed at the followers of the Gang of Four who split from the Liberals to form the SDLP: professional, pleased with themselves and not seeing why everyone else doesn’t aspire to be modern, urban and like them. “We’re the rulers”, they can’t help telling the economist they both fancy, “We’re the governors.” They also bring to mind a lot of junior estate agents I’ve met. Perhaps it’s the combination of forced laddishness, shiny suits and an awareness that they’ve only got their own image to sell you.
Mannion, of course, is none of these things. And the working out of the episode seems eager to set the coalition archetypes next to each other. A homeless nurse who has been protesting against the cuts in government spending is due to be evicted, and kills himself. (Yes, this series is bleaker in plot as well as tone, at times!) The Lib Dems slither into crisis management, Stuart is revealed to be less in control than we might have thought, and Mannion continues to look like a grey bull who has seen better days. It’s not that he does anything right, he just seems to be horrified and wearied by the right things. And Emma steps out of the background for a couple of moments this episode, ordering the assembled Tories around to deal with the emergency. Turns out she has a phone with an encrypted connection to Downing Street in her handbag. Who saw that coming? “You’ve turned into the wrong Mitford sister” Mannion tells her. That line is damn near perfect.