It’s really self-defeating if I have to explain abbreviations to you. FFS. One of those zingers which is delivered in the Department of Social Affairs and Citizenship without any joy in the point gained, but a weary recognition of the truth. This week Nicola Murray, Minister for said Department, is launching a Healthy Choices initiative. Does she desire to help the people of Britain in many decisions which will lead the longer, happier lives? Is she simply chasing a good soundbite in the broadsheets which approve of terms like “responsibility” and don’t mind a whiff of intrusion into people’s private lives? Or can no-one in government tell the difference any longer…
Meanwhile Malcolm Tucker is over at his house cooking a curry for a group of journalists. It’s a very weird situation, the communications office beast using his sweary powers for hospitality rather than carnage. (The choice between good and evil long since having disappeared into irrelevancy.) No healthy choices are being made here. It’s cooked in ghee. I love ghee, it’s like freebasing fuckin’ butter. After Malcolm’s bizarre behaviour last week, we’re hardly surprised when one of the journalists brings up Steve Fleming, another favourite advisor of the Prime Minister’s. Is Fleming in and Tucker out? I don’t know, but I’m speculating from a distance. In Tucker’s company I would shrink from even thinking that question.
We finally see the terror in question – Mr Steve Fleming – when he arrives in DoSAC to ask that they publish some interim crime statistics earlier than had been scheduled. David Haig plays the role with an alarming new level of sinister. Though, as Olly mutters, he may look a little like a Lego man, he exudes an air of menace which gets to everyone by being so apparently friendly. His suggestion that Nicola has lost weight, and his insistence that she had when she demurs at what sounds like a compliment, gives the impression of hiding some gruesome meaning which we’re never let in on. There are several hints as to which political figure in real life Fleming may be based on: the prominent moustache (look at old photos of the Blair inner circle) and the fact that he’s referred to as the man who brought the party back into power after years in the wilderness: Fleming is surely the Third Man of the New Labour triumvirate. If so, it’s a remarkable depiction: as a rather more clued-up watcher of this series has suggested, it’s the Third Man without any of his trademark charm. Say what you like about that particular Machiavel, but he does what he does very smoothly, so smoothly you have to keep reminding yourself to listen hard to the words. If Fleming is a character sketch, it’s by someone who doesn’t find him at all as glamorous or even interesting as so many voters, journalists and politicos have over the years.
DoSAC are not happy at having this extra work dumped on them, and one of the most telling lines of the episode comes when Glen spills a pile of the crime stats and Ollie declares I would kill you, but I’d have to add you to the fucking figures. Here, in a nutshell, we have the shift from the punitive state to the surveillance state (and from Tucker to Fleming…?). Massive retributory violence, though, unpleasant, somehow sounds less bad in Ollie’s phrasing than the pervasive surveillance and information-gathering which the modern state indulges itself in. In a number recent cases involving briefcases left on trains and data CDs sent through the post, the state does so with a lethal combination of zeal and incompetence. No problem in centralising data, just no idea how to stop it leaking out in all directions from that central bucket.
Speaking of information, let’s turn our attention to Nicola’s triumph in landing the tennis player Andy Murray as a spokesman for her Healthy Choices initiative (it sounds, aptly enough, like a section of the menu at McDonald’s, who probably sponsor a number of sporting events which DoSAC would happily endorse.) In Malcolm’s fathomless (or directionless) cunning, the sports star is dumped, but not before his website has put out a statement saying how happy he is to be fronting the campaign, effectively launching a policy initiative before the department concerned. In other words, he’s committed a terrible crime, not by stealing information, but by stealing attention. In the world of The Thick of It, secrets are a far less marketable commodity than publicity.
Back to the crime statistics, and of course it all goes wrong. Interim stats are released which haven’t been confirmed and don’t include a specific slice of data, allowing the opposition to attack the government for apparently faking a drop in crime. An enjoyably telling moment ensues when venomous argument breaks out over whether “up to” includes the item mentioned as the limit: counting up to eighteen includes eighteen, but the events leading up to the Second World War stop short before the conflict begins. It’s cheeringly ludicrous to see a methodological quibble forming the basis of the fight, when it’s obvious to everyone (including the participants) that they’re simply trying to fob off the blame for a fuckup onto anyone but themselves. It’s even funnier when you realise that in trying to wriggle out from underneath this pile of manure, they’ve both produced entirely coherent and contradictory accounts of gathering and analyzing information. It’s a measure of the skill of the writers on this show that they get the audience so involved; that it seems so hilariously funny anyone should think accurate and effective data management would have anything to do with a department like DoSAC…
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