“This is an inquiry into…” Recent British political life has been haunted by the words which open this episode. The Scott Inquiry at the beginning of the 90s looked into the possible sales of defence equipment to Iraq, the Hutton Inquiry involved hearings into the death of David Kelly, an employee at the Ministry of Defence who had been cited as the origin of quotations that the Blair government “sexed up” the dossier which took Britain to war in Iraq (again), and the Leveson Inquiry is currently examining the “culture, practices and ethics” of the press in the wake of the phone-hacking scandal. When this episode was being written and filmed, the Leveon Inquiry was holding its open hearings, and my mates and I were keeping the live feed open on our desktop, toying with the odd MSWord file in between checking the ticker along the bottom of the screen. Judicial inquiries are supposedly to allow impartial but rigorous scrutiny of events by those without a party political interest – following the old political aphorism that if you can find someone who doesn’t have an axe to grind, you should make them the executioner.1
The Goolding Inquiry (into the death of Tickel and the relationship between political organisations and the press), in which TTOI is coming to a crescendo, looks very similar to both Leveon and Hutton, with the circumstances surrounding a famous death causing a more general investigation into how information is gathered and transmitted. Whilst the earlier episodes were being aired, of course, events have once more overtaken the show: the terrible stories emerging about apparent child abuse by the DJ and presenter Jimmy Savile have led the BBC to launch its own internal inquiry into the corporation’s culture and practices at the time. These inquiries seem to signal that “culture” is now the most popular explanatory category when it comes to imagining how awful events occurred, and how blame can be distributed. Personally, I’m all for this: it might make it difficult when specific police cases can’t be discussed on the hearings (since blame needs to be distributed in a highly focused and legally binding way in those cases) but it allows a more general discussion of the fact that events don’t come out of nowhere and institutions shape our public activities as much as anything else. On the other hand, that diffusion of blame in order to understand causation better can be a right bugger when you’ve got some slimeball on the stand who knows all he has to do is stonewall and nothing will happen to him.
The format of this double-length episode is carefully tailored to mimic effect that watching Leveson had over a few weeks, but crammed into a single exciting package. There are the witnesses called back, the conflicting stories, people trying to unsay what they’ve said in previous appearances. But it also functions as a set of character-sketches, taking individual personalities out of their environments and plonking them down in front of a metaphorical anglepoise. Stuart Pearson gets badly tested, his style standing up badly in front of people who aren’t employed by his boss. He looks like a smoother version of David Brent.
But who cares, Pearson is peripheral. Tucker zig-zags intriguingly: sometimes he seems to be on top, as when he gets the inquiry to ask questions of the Lib Dem minister on his behalf, sometimes he seems to have lost it, like his failed attempt to discredit Baroness Sureka by leaking personal stories about her to the press and painting her as too emotionally involved in the topic. Goolding and he have an oddly easy relationship, possibly because they’re just comfortable dealing with the sort of men they are. But Tucker’s outburst near the end, about how this truly is a cultural issue for which he can’t be blamed, leaves us with the same uncertainty as the speech about vampire hags attacking his face last season. Is he losing it in a verbally impressive way? Is he channelling his own existential angst outwards so he looks angry rather than vulnerable? Who are we even supposed to think has won at the end of that encounter?
Everyone at DoSAC gradually suggests that Teri is The Problem, so she takes the stand with a lot of lead-up, and acquits herself with splendid incompetence. Emma, Phil and Fergus form of triumvirate of unwise monkeys, only improved by the bizarre spectacle of Phil trying to incriminate himself as much as possible (so long as he only has to do so morally, not legally) in order to achieve absolution in front of the nation. Peter assures the inquiry that he got into politics to do good, to serve his country, which is ineffective as a means of deflecting their questions as to what he actually did. Nicola Murray, is, well, Nicola Murray, only more so.2 The scenario is a brilliant way of watching each figure respond in almost laboratory conditions, offering them the same stimuli and noting their responses. It also taps into the general feeling at the moment that everyone in power is trying to hide something grubby from us – a reasonable atmosphere after the expenses scandal, the recent news that some MPs have been renting each other their houses and claiming the money back, and the ruling by the Court of Appeal that letters from Prince Charles to government departments cannot be published because they would compromise his political integrity.3 Judgement has sat upon the characters of The Thick Of It, and found them wanting. And left us wanting more.
1 It’s half an hour old, how much older do you want your aphorisms?
2 And it’s an odd bit of intertextuality that whilst the Leveson Inquiry was going on, Rebecca Front – who plays Murray – remarked on Radio 4 that she had idly fantasized about Mr. Jay, the council for the inquiry, reading her own emails out to her in a stern and disapproving manner – an image which she described as “strangely stirring”.
3 What integrity would that be? No, me neither.