California Literary Review

The Thick of It Recap – Series 4, Episode 3


September 23rd, 2012 at 12:36 pm

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The Thick of It , Series 4, Episode 3

Diana, Unity or Deborah? Olivia Poulet as Emma Messinger.
© BBC – Photographer: Des Willie

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.

  • Rhian E Jones

    Agree completely re. Phil (“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”). His geekiness worked far better as subversive asides, rather than as the focal point of his personality.

    On the Lib Dem characters, also agreed, although I find it difficult to see them as representing the centre-left. In their jovial laddishness, self-satisfaction, lack of coherency and love of power, they’re more of a post-Blair excresence. NB if I hadn’t been aware of Iannucci’s disappointment with the Lib Dems in government, his creation of these characters would have given it away; they’re far more unlikeable than either of the two main parties.

  • Jem Bloomfield

    Hey Rhian! Good to see you over here. Yeah, I probably should have made clearer that that pair are less representative of the centre-left’s problems, and more the problems that seem so egregious because they’re hypocritical and smirking. At the risk of letting those further to the right off the hook, it seems worse when it appears in the comments section of the NS (not that I go BTL much anywhere anymore, sigh…)
    Interesting you bring up the Blair thing, since I cut a sentence from that paragraph saying that Samuel’s (fairly bitchy) essay in Island Stories about the SDLP finally crystallised a lot of the stuff I found troubling about Blair’s framework – that piece reads like he was describing Blairites in the 70s. Not so much the policies, but the deliberate jettisoning of any historical baggage, the thinly-veiled irritation that people insist on not being middle-class, and the sense that the party leadership (and indeed parliamentary membership) is being held up as an image of life to “aspire” to. But I suspect I’m being let down by my lack of knowledge of Labour history compared to you…

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