Retro Recap: “The Thick of It,” Episode 2.01

Here we are at season two of The Thick of It! Well, this is what’s technically referred to as season two. Some folks consider this episode to be a continuation of season one, calling it episode four. But Hulu categorizes it as episode one of season two, so that’s what we’ll go with. Indeed, there are many elements of the episode that warrant it being called a new season. There are new characters involved and a far more complex plot than the previous three episodes. So let’s sit back and examine why a low-level minister’s encounter with a disgruntled member of the public becomes more important on the nightly news broadcast than a department’s project overspend.


OPENING

As the episode begins, Ollie comes into the office and goes to see Terri straight away. The only problem is that Terri isn’t in her office. In her place is a blond woman named Robyn. Robyn is a member of Civil Service and her official job title is Senior Press Officer for the Department of Social Affairs, Hugh’s department. When I first started watching the series, all I knew about Robyn was that she basically did what Terri does and that’s really all you need to know. Her introduction is interesting because it opens the show further to more characters and to more of the government’s inner workings.

Back to the episode at hand: Robyn calls Ollie a “lover lover man” and Glen also taunts him about some apparent romantic exploits he’s had. It becomes clear that Ollie has shagged someone in the Opposition. For those unfamiliar with British politics, the Opposition is simply the name for the party out of power. Parties are never explicitly mentioned in The Thick of It, but it’s pretty clear to viewers that Malcolm and everyone in the government are supposed to be the Labour Party. That would make the Opposition party the Conservatives.

When Hugh comes into the office, Ollie jokes with him that Terri has been sacked and that’s why Robyn is here. Hugh proceeds to celebrate rather raucously until Robyn comes in to tell them that Terri’s father has had a stroke and she’ll be away for a while. With that embarrassing mistake out of the way, Ollie has an exciting announcement to make: he will be working with the big dogs at Number 10 for the week.

Here we have a quick scene change and are instantly introduced to another new character – Jamie MacDonald. I don’t mind telling you that Jamie is one of my favorite characters and, in my opinion, he doesn’t get nearly enough screen time. Jamie is a press officer at Number 10 and is basically Malcolm’s second-in-command. Despite his not being in very many episodes, I know a portion of The Thick of It’s fandom who loves Jamie for his blue eyes, almost psychotic profanity, and puppy-like devotion to Malcolm

In this scene, Malcolm is strutting around reading some paperwork and discussing the current mess with Jamie, while Jamie trails along behind him, trying to keep up. Here we are introduced to an acronym that will become a running gag in the episode: NOMFP, which stands for “Not My Fucking Problem.” Malcolm starts the quip, Jamie will use it later, and Ollie will attempt to use it as well. Apart from being very funny, I think the acronym symbolizes how much Jamie and Ollie want to be like Malcolm and have his power, so much so that they adopt his terminology

Malcolm and Jamie are discussing an IT project overspend at the MoD, or Ministry of Defense. They will spend the rest of the episode trying to fix this problem and keeping the media away from it. In contrast to past episodes, the main problem of this episode is introduced rather early.

Back at the department, Glen and Hugh are having a bit of fun with Ollie’s new camera phone, specially purchased for Number 10. This scene is juxtaposed quite well with the one we just witnessed between Malcolm and Jamie. The Department of Social Affairs is a far cry from Number 10 and we have to wonder, as viewers, whether Ollie will fit in.

 

AT DOWNING STREET

Over at the center of British government, Ollie is sitting like a schoolboy waiting for direction from Malcolm, who comes flying from his office to shout for his P.A., Sam. Malcolm goes on about how Ollie is “the proverbial bright spark” they need around Number 10. But it soon becomes apparent that what Malcolm is focused on is how Ollie shagged someone from the Opposition. Someone, it turns out, who works in the Shadow Defense department.

To my fellow Americans: do yourself a favor and look up the Wikipedia entry on “Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition.” It is, frankly, fascinating and far different from the system we employ in the States

In the Communications office, Malcolm tells Ollie that what he’ll be doing is gathering information about Emma (the poor girl he spent the night with) and the people she works with in Shadow Defense, presumably to find some mud to sling at the Opposition as a distraction from their own overspend. Ollie is rather disappointed because he had come to Number 10 with his policy folder full of ideas. When he waffles, though, Malcolm goes on the attack to intimidate him into staying and Jamie backs him up. Malcolm asks Ollie to find some angle of attack they can use, even suggesting that he “look around [Emma’s] house” for some information.

We’ve always known that Malcolm is shady and the way he attacks his opponents isn’t exactly ethical, but by taking us into the Communications office, the show really puts the unsavory underbelly of this government on display.

Back at the department, Glen, Hugh, and Robyn are getting ready to go to a factory visit. Hugh and Glen are upset that Robyn has not booked any national papers for the event. In the car, Hugh tells Robyn about the “signal” system they have with Terri that will ensure they only have to be there for twenty minutes.

At Number 10, we begin to get a gist of what working there is really like. There are tons of desks and computers with people typing away madly. But the really important stuff is happening wherever Malcolm and Jamie are. At his desk, Ollie is talking to Emma and trying to secure another date while his desk mate makes fake barfing noises. But we also get snippets of Malcolm and Jamie speaking with Geoff Holhurst, the Minister for Defense, whose department is under fire for the IT overspend. On top of the overspend, it seems that Geoff’s son’s company is the one who handled the project. We see that Malcolm has not singled Hugh out any of those times he’s shouted at him; he does this kind of thing to all the ministers.

This scene contains one of my favorite moments when Emma presumably inquires as to what all the noise is about on Ollie’s end of the phone.

Malcolm: How much shit is there on the menu and what fucking flavor is it?

Ollie: Malcolm? No, no, that’s…I’m in a Scottish restaurant and some man’s complaining because they’ve under-fried his Mars bar…of course it’s Malcolm.

A HUGH MESS

Hugh arrives at the factory where he is making an appearance and things are proceeding typically enough until he is confronted by a woman. This woman begins repeating the rather vexing question, “Do you know what it’s like to clean up your own mother’s piss?” She is complaining about the way her mother has been treated in a care home and she is not letting up.

Hugh does not handle this at all, offering her generic sympathy and saying he’s not the right perso to speak with. The woman, understandably, does not take well to this and continues talking to him, even following him inside the factory. This is a basic story we have all seen at one time or another – a politician is confronted by a member of the public and literally doesn’t know how to converse with them.

Glen is left to deal with the woman and ends up shouting at her. He tells Hugh that the media have gotten some “great shots” of the confrontation. Glen tells the woman he will give her the phone number of someone who can help her out

In the next shot, we see poor Ollie answering his phone and saying, perplexedly, “No, I’ve never cleaned up my own mother’s piss.”

Ollie informs Malcolm of the mess that Hugh has gotten himself into. Malcolm says he’s going over to ITN (a television network in the UK) and will have a bit of therapeutic shouting at Mark Davis, a producer there. Jamie grills Ollie on what he’s been able to get out of Emma, and Ollie has clearly gotten nowhere. His fumbled response about “tickling trout” doesn’t fool Jamie and he tells Ollie to call Emma up for a date that evening.

 

MANIPULATING THE MEDIA

At the factory, Hugh gets a call from Ollie, who tells him that Malcolm is on his way to stop the story, which leads Hugh to say, “He’s like a bad Gandalf.” Ollie also tells Hugh about the MoD problem and that it will probably be the most important story on the news. Just as an amusing anecdote – as you watch this scene, pay attention to Jamie verbally abusing one of his employees in the background.

As soon as he’s off the phone, Hugh gives Robyn the “signal” and she makes an excuse for them, saying they have to get going. Hugh goes too far, however, in his polite insistence that he would like to stay and Robyn mistakes this for a genuine desire to stay on. They end up roped into the visit for another two hours.

Over at ITN, Malcolm squirms his way into the production room and tells Mark Davis that he can’t use the Hugh story because it’s “dumbing down the news” and that he’s going to tell Mark’s boss about it. Mark hardly knows what’s happening before Malcolm is telling him which shots to include in the report and which ones to take out. He accuses Mark of exploiting Hugh through camera work, but Malcolm’s doing a bit of exploiting himself, isn’t he?

On the phone, Malcolm asks Ollie if he’s been able to dig anything up on the woman who confronted Hugh. Unfortunately for Malcolm, it looks like she has no dirty laundry to speak of. Malcolm braces himself, clearly aware he has to make something up, and tells Mark Davis that she’s affiliated with the British National Party, a horribly racist political organization.

Malcolm gets a phone suddenly and rushes away from ITN, hurrying back to Number 10. It appears that someone has leaked the story about the overspend, but no one knows about the situation with Geoff Holhurst’s son. Malcolm and Jamie both spring into action, mobilizing their Communications team and telling them to “overcomplicate,” to flood the press with numbers and facts so that they don’t find the corruption angle. Malcolm gives a rousing pep talk, finishing up with, “come on, unleash hell!”

In stark contrast, Hugh is stranded at the factory with a missing driver who is off on a break. At Number 10, Malcolm hits upon an idea: let’s bring Hugh’s silly little distraction of a story back into the news so they don’t concentrate on this overspend story. Ollie is positively reeling, clearly not used to this kind of work environment. He’s trying to concentrate on the issue at hand, while also being told he needs to keep in touch with his girlfriend to get fuel for an attack.

 

TAKING THE FALL

At the factory, Hugh is ranting to Glen about how annoying the general public is. The scene is a bit on the nose, showing politicians behaving just the way we think they are behind closed doors, but it does fit Hugh’s character. Hugh gets a call from Ollie, who tells him the situation at Number 10. Hugh tries to tell Ollie that he needs help in covering his ass over there, but Ollie is adamant that he’s not powerful enough to do anything about it.

All is cacophony at Number 10. Geoff Holhurst has been called in and is being talked to by Jamie. Everyone is rushing around and working on the press, feeding them the party line. Malcolm is storming about looking for a fax from one of the newspapers. Frankly, it looks like an absolute mess. Amidst all of this, Malcolm and Jamie confront Ollie and tell him they need to “fuck Hugh” for them. Basically, Ollie has to go over to ITN and ask Mark Davis to bring Hugh’s story back up in the running line as a distraction.

After Jamie shouts at him to get this done, Ollie says another one of my favorite lines, “When I met you this morning, I thought you were the nice Scot.”

With no other choice, Ollie heads over to ITN to speak with Mark Davis. Ollie is nowhere as smooth as Malcolm was, asking quite plainly for Mark to bring the Hugh story back up again. In a hilarious moment, Ollie says that it’s “ROMFUP,” a “Number 10 word,” misquoting Malcolm and Jamie’s made-up word. It’s a perfect illustration of the fact that Ollie is not fit to run with the big boys. He’s not like Malcolm and Jamie and he doesn’t really want to betray Hugh like this. But he has to if he wants to fit in at Number 10, which he obviously does.

At the department, things are fairly normal. Hugh and Glen are sitting around discussing the earlier confrontation and wondering how it will be featured on the news.

At Number 10, everyone is also huddled around their television and as soon as Hugh’s story appears at the top of the broadcast, they all cheer loudly. Why shouldn’t they be happy? They were able to completely change the narrative of the day and hide the mess at the MoD. Everyone laughs raucously as the news plays a clip of Glen shouting at the woman. There is a close-up of Ollie in this moment where he appears almost physically ill amidst everyone’s joy and relief.

The mood at the department is quite dour. Hugh and Glen are gearing up for more media attention and deciding who looked worse on the news. Glen is dejected, but Hugh seems quite relieved that he escaped the brunt of it. And he clearly is relieved, as we hear in the voicemail he leaves for Ollie, thanking him for shifting the blame to Glen in a very “Tucker-esque” way.

The episode ends, appropriately, with the woman who caused Hugh so much trouble at the factory. She, too, leaves a voicemail for Ollie asking what can be done next to resolve her problem.

This episode is one of my absolute favorites, and not just for the introduction of Jamie (though that plays a large part). We are introduced to new characters, but also gain a new insight into the heart of this government and just how much influence the Communications Department has over everything at Number 10. We also see the classic tale of a politician dealing badly with the public and being pushed into the spotlight for it.

Though it seems commonplace and a bit mundane as a story, I think there’s a more seedy element to it here. Hugh’s side of this episode was just a superficial problem, the kind that the media loves to devour. The real issue at hand was a government overspend in a very large department – Defense – and it was simply swept under the rug. It certainly gives us something to think about regarding government and the way the media covers its operations.

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