You will fucking see me again! Like a very scary Malvolio, Malcolm Tucker left us last episode vowing his revenge. The master of the Dark Arts of spin (and isn’t it faintly nauseating how eagerly that phrase has been seized upon by those it describes) disappeared into the wilderness. He did not resign, nor was he resigned. Someone resigned him on his behalf. As this episode begins, everyone in both parties is possessed by a sense of epoch. A thing has taken place, even if no-one is quite sure what it means. Tucker’s resignation is the two-headed calf or woman giving birth to rabbits of the modern era: it is demonstrably not natural and probably portends something really very dicey from some quarter or other. Over in the Tory camp, Peter Mannion is oddly quiet in front of the TV screens as his staff whoop awkwardly, trying to persuade themselves that they’ve won. Then we cut to DoSAC, where Steve Fleming is gathering everyone together for a quick chat. Ah. That’ll be what the monstrous portents were nodding towards, then. The Age of Fleming. Never has the phrase slightly rejigged regime been so viciously spat out from beneath such a rubbish moustache.
The wilderness looks very much like a sofa, when we get a glimpse of Malcolm in it, wearily turning down suggestions from his agent. He doesn’t want to do a charity swim or write a children’s book called The Very Angry Spider. But no time for us to linger in the desert, as we’re back to DoSAC, to hear Fleming murmuring threats about what might happen if anyone defected from the PM’s clique to that of Dan Miller who seems to fancy a tilt at the party leadership. Assuring him of her loyalty, Nicola rushes off to demand why the hell no-one’s tried to suborn her. There’s an interesting question: how much can she value her own integrity if no-one’s offering to buy it off her?
The wilderness has grown glass walls and chromium piping and now looks more like the BBC TV Centre, where Malcolm is being wooed for possible media projects. He wears the uncomfortable expression of a man gradually realizing that people think he’s “a bit of a character” rather than the Antichrist. Nicola is trying to get a job at a think-tank in Yale, and misquoting House of Cards. You might choose to comment, but I couldn’t possibly say that. There isn’t the set-piece building we’ve been used to earlier in the series, and certainly none of the symmetry of the radio episode. The story seems to be shooting outwards in lots of different directions, as everyone scrambles to adjust to a post-Malcolm era.
Too soon, I fear. Reinstatement comes in the most unexpected guise, as Julius Nicholson, he of the soft voice and bumbling competence, invites Tucker over for a curry. The possible leadership bid by Dan Miller is apparently the result of a lack of stability within the party, triggered by Malcolm’s resignation (the resignation that someone in the PM’s office saved him the trouble of actually tendering himself, you will recall.) Nicholson suggests it would be beneficial if he reappeared in a consultant role. You’re askin’ me to come back here, and mop up the splatter from my own fuckin’ assassination? Indeed he is, and he shows how serious he is (Julius takes himself very seriously, despite anyone else’s opinion, and who knows if he isn’t wise to do so) by bestowing an onion bhaji with all the problems and obstacles which might prevent a smooth reTuckerisation of the party. See what I’m doing? I’m eating the onion bhaji. Why? Because I’m the man who makes the bhaji go away.
So Malcolm is back, calling people “mate” and wearing a fleece and suggesting bygones be bygones and generally putting everyone in a highly twitchy state at what fresh yet unpredictable mode of revenge this might be. Particularly those who were standing right there when he was defenestrated, to whom he appealed, but who held out on him. Nicola Murray, to take an example at random. He protests that his motto is forgiveness. She always thought it was Honi soit qui Malky fuck, which is a better rude joke in Norman French than I think many of us have heard in a long time. The writers are in ebullient mood, and they do not let this scene end without getting another swipe in at Top Gear, and quite rightly so. I fuckin’ despise the guy, you know? I despise him as much as James May presumably despises himself.
With Malcolm’s return, the plot snaps back into tighter shape. Julius Nicholson is forced by a swift bit of media manipulation into being elaborately and publicly unfair to Steve Fleming in order to maintain his appearance of fairness and lack of bias. There’s a certain symmetry, not to say poetry, in the consummately judicious Julius needing to violate his principles in the interests of appearing neutral. Fleming, vanquishes, threatens to join the Miller cabal.
And then we discover that a snap election is being called. The PM is going to the country, as the slightly prim phrase has is. Life is just a succession of five minuteses goes Malcolm, which is either his life philosophy or something he found in a fortune cookie. Suddenly almost everything up to now is irrelevant. And over at the Tory HQ, another political fixer appears. Ah, The Fucker! And you thought he was just a myth invented to get naughty MPs to eat all their truffles and swan.
The copulator in question is Cal Richards, Conservative populist hardman, played by Tom Hollander, doing that slightly waddly walk he used in Rev. He is also doing at least one tabloid editor1. The hint of a break in his voice gesturing at powerful emotion held back, the sudden switches in volume, the glib references to England’s past, the battery of cheap demagoguery which can be seen so often on debate shows like Question Time. Peter Mannion smites the nail abaft the head. I’m sensing a switch in management styles here. From touchy-feely to smashy-testy.
Speeches are given, troops roused, curious robot metaphors invoked. (There is also something very very funny about the babble of the office with Hollander shouting in the background yelling “Stop saying ‘Abingdon’ to me, I want a chocolate biscuit.”) It is left to Mannion, so often the moral compass of this world (and let’s not even start on how concerning that should be…) to express his sense of renewal that there is an election, that some actual politics might take place. Everyone assumes he’s making a joke about his penis. And so, as everything gets alarmingly close to said actual politics, the credits roll.
1 Both those I have in mind don’t actually have much connection with Britain any more, of course. They spend their time telling us the country has gone to the dogs whilst raking in their fees in America, rather prompting the question of how they would know. That aside, look at the way Hollander is acting with his shirt collar, sort of wriggling his neck down into it and talking out of either side. I have no idea how he does that, but it’s very effective.
Dr. Jem Bloomfield studied at the universities of Oxford and Exeter and is currently an Associate Lecturer in Drama at Oxford Brookes. His research covers the performance of Early Modern drama and the various ways it has been adapted and co-opted throughout the centuries. His own plays include “Bewick Gaudy”, which won the Cameron Mackintosh Award for New Writing, and he is working on a version of Oliver Goldsmith’s comedy “She Stoops To Conquer”. His writing on arts, culture, and politics have appeared in “California Literary Review”, “Strand Magazine” and “Liberal Conspiracy”. He blogs at “Quite Irregular” and can be found on Twitter @jembloomfield