Retro Recap: The Thick of It, Episode 1.01

Welcome to the first recap post I’ll be doing for the British comedy The Thick of It. To begin with, I thought I would explain a bit about the show to any newcomers. The Thick of It takes place within the British government and is a satire on, basically, the kind of government that took place under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown – what they called “New Labour.” The episodes focus on a very small and fictional department called DoSAC, or the Department of Social Affairs & Citizenship (the Citizenship part gets tacked on in season two, but we’ll get there), and its dealings with Malcolm Tucker – Director of Communications for the government of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. It’s Malcolm’s job to stop media disasters before they happen and, barring that, mop up the mess afterwards. And he always does this with a rather colorful flair.

This show can be challenging to come into as a new American viewer because there are intricacies to the British political system that we may not know about it. Indeed, I was rather confused the first time I watched the show all the way through. I only now feel comfortable writing a recap/explanation post about this show because I’ve watched all of the episodes at least half a dozen times each. But don’t let that discourage you from watching! Peter Capaldi as Malcolm Tucker is one of the most amazing performances I’ve ever seen in any television show, American or British. And the dry, British wit and way of swearing that only our friends across the pond can achieve is well worth a bit of confusion.

Finally – why have I chosen this show to recap? Several reasons: 1) I love it very much and wanted to talk about it, 2) the show just recently became available on Hulu, and 3) the fourth season is coming out this fall. I hope you’ll join me in this recap/rewatch whether you’ve seen the episodes as many times as I have or you’re a newbie. Of course, I’m available for any questions in the comments of this post and I would love to discuss the finer points of The Thick of It with anyone who is willing

Let’s dive right in!

Malcolm Tucker: Master of Spin

Opening Scene

The main focus as the show begins is squarely on Malcolm. The minster – one Cliff Lawton – is terrified when he hears that Malcolm is waiting in his office. He scrambles around, wanting to please and placate Malcolm. The first line we hear from Malcolm is one that is often quoted: “He’s as useless as a marzipan dildo.” And, apart from being very funny, the line shows something about Malcolm’s method of maneuvering and manipulating people. Is he talking about Cliff on the phone? Is Cliff as useless as a marzipan dildo? We don’t know, and neither does Cliff, which puts him on the back foot in his own office.

The interaction between Malcolm and Cliff starts off friendly enough and we don’t know immediately what Malcolm is like or what he’s here for. Malcolm lets Cliff bring up the bad press he’s been getting and lets him sort of paint himself into a corner until he says, quietly, “That’s why you’ve gotta go.” Poor Cliff doesn’t even know what’s hit him and suddenly he’s being sacked! When Cliff begins to resist the immovable force that is Malcolm, that’s when we see who Malcolm truly is – the shouting, the swearing, and the verbal gymnastics.

My favorite part of this scene is the “logic” of firing Cliff and the way in which he has to leave. The press is bad, but they don’t want people to think like they’re caving to press pressure. Malcolm’s written a resignation letter for Cliff saying he’s jumping before he’s pushed, but the government will be putting out a story that he was pushed. This is just the beginning of the suspension of logic one must do to be a part of this government, as we’ll see later.

Change of Command

Hugh Abbot, new Minister for Social Affairs

Suddenly it seems like they’ve started the show over completely. We see a scene that is identical to the one that opened the show (the minister emerging from a car and going into the office), but now we have a new minister in place – Hugh Abbot. As he moves into the office, we see more of our principle players – Terri, a press officer within the department; Glen, an advisor to the minister; and Ollie, a lower level adviser to the minister. Here we get the set-up for the majority of this episode – the department is excited about a policy, but Terri is apprehensive about its cost and its clearance with the Treasury. Hugh, however, is confident that they have the backing of the PM (the Prime Minister, whom we never actually see in the show).

The Crux

“‘Should’ does not mean ‘yes.'”

In one of those “in-the-car” scenes that happen quite often in this show, Hugh and Glen are on their way to announce the new policy – a “Snooper Force” to root out fraud within the benefit system (which I assume to be like welfare in America). For a while, Hugh and Glen both seem very optimistic about the policy as they listen to it being mentioned on the radio. As soon as the story is mentioned on the radio, the call comes from Malcolm.

Another one of my favorite moments takes place in this scene – the discussion of “should” not meaning “yes.” It appears that Hugh jumped the gun on the policy and Malcolm simply wants to walk it back. But Hugh questions Malcolm’s judgment and I think that we, as the audience, should as well. Were Malcolm’s orders to walk this back really from the PM? Or does he stop it for his own interests, so he doesn’t have to “mop up a hurricane of piss” with the Treasury?

Elsewhere, Ollie is working on his ex-girlfriend, who is a journalist, Angela Heaney.

The Scramble

As Ollie meets up with Hugh and Glen, they are already feeding Terri a new “line” back at the office, which is chiefly to say the policy is not real and that it was merely leaked by a disgruntled employee. Ollie has to walk back the story he’s given to Angela and insist that the government is not flip-flopping on account of pressure from the Treasury (though, of course, they are).

Of course, the larger problem is that they are already en route to a press conference and they now have nothing to announce to the assembled press. It’s incredibly comical to watch as they try to think of something “universally popular and cheap,” to quote Glen, to announce. Eventually they land on what might be called the “Seinfeld solution”: the press conference is about nothing! Though they’ve obviously screwed up, they decide to flip the blame to the journalists for not being interested in every day work and every day policies.

The Press Conference & Aftermath

Hugh heads to the press conference.

A quick scene here shows Hugh, Glen, and Ollie rehearsing for the press conference and trying to weed out what sounds most politically correct and appealing. There’s a great scene switch here from seeing Hugh off and telling him he’ll do well to Hugh barrelling back through the door announcing that it was a “fucking disaster.”

Back at the office, however, they hear the press conference was incredibly boring – as they’d hoped – and will not be covered at all in the media. Suddenly their defeated moods reverse and they’re back on track. This becomes a theme in the show, as you will probably notice. Everyone in the department starts off optimistic about a policy, Malcolm shouts them into utter defeat, and then they come back from that and try to convince themselves they’re good at their jobs. For now, Hugh and Glen are in that final stage”¦ until Malcolm literally sneaks up on Hugh with some bad news.

It turns out that the PM mentioned the “Snooper Force” policy in response to a reporter’s question and now it’s out there completely. The policy they spent the entire afternoon trying to hide and squelch is now probably going to come to fruition. How is Hugh supposed to feel here? Should he feel misled by Malcolm? Glad that the PM likes his policy? Annoyed that they spent the afternoon working for nothing?

“I’m not quite sure what level of reality I’m supposed to be operating on.”

Hugh does make one mistake in his reaction here: he tells Malcolm that he screwed up. This is a lesson he’ll have to learn over the next couple of episodes, namely that you don’t tell Malcolm that he’s screwed up, even if he has.

With everything in place, what Malcolm and the department have to do is, quite honestly, bend reality. Malcolm tells Hugh that he’s going to say he did, in fact, announce the “Snooper Force” and that the journalists must have simply missed it. Everyone knows that Hugh didn’t announce anything. Everyone knows that this will be a lie. And yet Malcolm boils down why it’ll work out for them – the journalists will go along with this truth bending because they need to stay chummy with the government in order to get stories firsthand from Malcolm. Here’s another example of that suspension of logic we saw at the beginning of the episode when Cliff was being told to write his own obituary.

The Change-Up

As Hugh sells this new reality to Ollie, Glen, and Terri, the blame is slung back and forth as they all try to cover their own asses in this mess-up. The irony here is that Malcolm is really the one to blame. He should have consulted with the PM or something before overstepping his authority and telling Hugh to cancel the policy. But he’s the only one completely bereft of blame; the little guys are left to scramble and worry about who’s messed up and they don’t even mention Malcolm. This speaks volumes about the kind of power Malcolm has in the government.

Malcolm is called in to spearhead the effort of bending reality to the press now and the scene before us is a frenzy of phone calls and verbal gymnastics. A highly illuminating scene occurs while Ollie is dealing with Angela Heaney, who is now in the metaphorical doghouse at her job for bringing in contradictory stories from the department all day. Angela hints that maybe she’ll just write a story on the “day of spin” and expose the machinations that occurred between Hugh, Ollie, Glen, and Malcolm. Ollie is floundering with how to talk her down from this, but Malcolm slides right in like a cheeky eel and lays it on the line for Angela. He says if Angela were to run with that story, then she wouldn’t be able to get a job anywhere, clearly implying he’d be the one making calls to people telling them not to hire her.

Malcolm Tucker explains it all.

Here we see three things that will return again: Malcolm’s manipulative style, the threat to expose the spin, and the relationship between the government and the press.

Malcolm repeatedly uses the style of friendly questions and luring people into a false sense of security before whacking them on the head with the reality of the situation. There are several moments throughout the series when it seems like the spin will indeed be exposed, but the threat is always contained, usually by Malcolm. And the relationship between the press and the government that we see in this show is actually incredibly depressing. They work in a symbiotic relationship that Jon Stewart has pointed out in America as well – the government feeds the press stories they sorely need and the press doesn’t go too hard on them. Wherever the press does go too hard on them, Malcolm is lurking in the darkness to whack them over the head with a shovel.

The episode closes with a petty, human problem after all the government spinning and journalist bullying. Hugh wants a new driver because he thinks his current one is “smiling and smirking” at him. I think this is what makes the show bearable – these people are human (except maybe Malcolm) with human problems and they’re caught in this political machine.

So, this first episode contains a mix of understanding the machinery of government and the department while getting to know these characters. By the end of the episode we know that Malcolm is clearly in charge and has a lot of power, the minister (Hugh) is rather hapless, his adviser (Glen) is an old hand in the department and seems fairly competent, Ollie is easy to push around because he wants to get ahead and make the right friends, and Terri is the force they often have to work against.

I hope you all enjoyed this recap of the first episode of The Thick of It. If you’re a newcomer, I hope you try out the show and leave some comments as to how you like it. If you’re someone who’s obsessed with the show (like me) I’d love to hear from you in the comments as well! Let me know if I left anything out or if you have some new insight into the themes and message of the show.

10 thoughts on “Retro Recap: The Thick of It, Episode 1.01”

  1. To my shame, I’ve only ever seen bits of this programme. I do love and adore Malcolm Tucker, though, so the new season coming out will be a good motivation to start watching.

    Favourite quotes:

    You say nothing. You stay detached. Otherwise that’s what I’ll do to your retinas.

    Christ on a bendy bus, Simon, don’t be such a faff-arse.

            1. I’ve heard a lot about Tunnelbear and I would totally get it, except I have a Google Chromebook, so I can’t download applications like Tunnelbear, that are engineered for PC or MAC. Alas. Luckily some really good stuff is up on YouTube.

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