Welcome to another recap of The Thick of It, a British satire that skewers the behind-the-scenes operations of a relatively small and unimportant government department. In this second episode of season one, we see more of the government’s questionable relationship with the press. Whereas in episode one we saw how the government works hand in hand with journalists, this episode shows how that cozy relationship might cause them problems. The episode also demonstrates why we should probably make sure our politicians get a good night’s sleep, but you’ll have to read on to learn why. Without further ado, here is the recap for series one, episode two.
At the start of this second episode, we see Hugh – our not-so-intrepid Minister – coming into the office completely knackered. Hugh complains to Glen that his schedule is running him ragged and that he hasn’t been getting enough sleep. To combat this, Glen suggests that Hugh stay in “the flat,” which refers to a flat Hugh has purchased nearer to the office. Remember this flat, for it will return again.
In this scene, we get another often quoted moment. This is a scene I often notice in trailers for the show. Hugh, describing his crazy schedule, says: “I work, I eat, I shower. That’s it. Occasionally, I take a dump, just as a sort of treat.”
With that scene set, Terri bustles in and hands Hugh a multitude of documents and news stories he needs to deal with that morning. Almost immediately, she receives a call from Malcolm about one of those news stories. Of course, we can hear shouting on the other end of the phone call.
The phone is handed to Hugh and Malcolm tells him that the article sitting on his desk is by Simon Hewitt. The article says that Hugh is, among other things, “the political equivalent of the house wine at a suburban Indian restaurant.” Zing! Malcolm declares vengeance on Hewitt for this bit of bad press about one of his ministers.
Deleted Scene Side Note: I’ve seen a deleted scene from this episode online, which reveals that Simon Hewitt had an affair with Malcolm’s ex-wife and is now currently with her. It’s a juicy piece of Malcolm’s personal life, which we don’t get much of at all, and which might give insight into why Malcolm is extra anxious and upset about this article written by Hewitt.
Hugh’s solution to wipe away this bad press is to come up with a new policy out of his department. Terri, acting as the voice of reason again, says she hopes they’re not going to develop some off-the-cuff policy just to get back at Hewitt. Hugh gives Terri an annoyed look and the next scene we see is Hugh, Ollie, and Glen hiding from Terri’s discouraging tone in a different room.
As they’re talking, Malcolm barrels in and announces that he’s going to spread a rumor that Hewitt’s article was written as a favor to Cliff – poor, dear, old Cliff whom we saw in the first scene of episode one being bollocked and swiftly sacked. He acknowledges that it may not be true, but that’s what they’re going to say anyway. Yet again, we have Malcolm inventing his own version of reality.
So, Malcolm is going to have a story written by Angela Heaney, the journalist who we know is basically in his pocket, to show how “clued up” Hugh is. This leads to a positively hilarious scene where it becomes clear that Hugh knows nothing about pop culture, “middle England,” or indeed the people he is supposed to be serving. It is agreed that Malcolm will get a copy of the “zeitgeist tape,” a boiled down version of the week’s pop culture news they make up for the PM, to Hugh.
Another one of my favorite moments comes from this scene.
Hugh: That’s why the PM always looks so clued up, I always thought he was genuinely quite with it.
Malcolm: No, no, he’s as bad as you. He uses phrases like “with it” as well.
THE FOCUS GROUP
With their brainstorming finished, Hugh, Glen, and Ollie pitch their ideas to Terri. Ollie proposes that they allocate funds for arts education geared toward troubled kids to keep them off the streets. Glen, on the other hand, proposes that they take away all arts funding for troubled kids as punishment. Unfortunately, Terri gives no help at all. So, they decide to throw the idea to a focus group to get a feel for which policy is best favored by the public.
Presumably after the focus group, Ollie comes rushing in excitedly to show Hugh and Glen a tape of the focus group. Ollie points out Mary, a “focus group legend,” who seems to always pick the favorable policy and connects perfectly with “middle England.” Hugh, who is probably still very tired, has been asking Terri to prÃ©cis (summarize or abridge) everything for him. Thus, he hits on an idea: let’s prÃ©cis the focus group. Bring in this wonder woman, Mary, for a one-on-one. They do just this and Mary loves Ollie’s policy, even suggesting the name “Play for Tomorrow.”
Glen, however, is still not convinced about the viability of this policy, so he calls in Malcolm to talk it over. Malcolm immediately asks what the focus group thought and Hugh says, “she loved it,” almost giving away their secret abridged procedure. The focus group backing is there, so Malcolm says he’ll speak with the PM to get the policy moving.
In a scene with just Hugh and Malcolm, Hugh asks Malcolm if he ever gets lonely. After an odd pause that we can perhaps read into, Malcolm says “˜no.’
We see much more of Hugh in this show than we do of Malcolm, but I’m more intrigued by Malcolm. We can see that Hugh is exhausted and running himself ragged, but is Malcolm doing the same? If he is, then he certainly handles it much better. Malcolm seems like the quintessential workaholic – no time for a personal life, seems to live in his office, and from the deleted scene we can surmise that his job cost him his marriage. Just a bit of food for thought because I wish we got more information about Malcolm’s life.
Just before Hulu’s next commercial break, we learn Hugh has not watched the zeitgeist tape yet.
With Hugh on speakerphone as he heads back home, Malcolm briefs the rest of the department about the press’s bad reaction to this policy. Essentially, Malcolm says that the policy is dead and they need to make an announcement to that effect.
In the following scene (another one of my favorites), Glen goes on about how focus groups are useless and Ollie launches into a rant that always reminds me of Eric Idle’s rant about vacations. Ollie says, “I’m Jeff Average…I work in IT. At the weekend, I pop a few pills and do a bit of DJ-ing, spare cash because I’m a single mum and I’m a member of the National Trust, I enjoy any sport on TV, anything with Colin Firth, I enjoy domestic violence and sun dried fucking karaoke.”
Another one of those “late night in the office” scenes follows and this time we see Malcolm eating some oranges, when he gets a call from Hewitt, the reporter who wrote up Hugh and began this whole episode.
In a conversation bristling with competitive anger, Hewitt tells Malcolm he’ll be writing a story about how Hugh can’t do anything without the help of focus groups, clearly playing off the recent failed policy that was, supposedly, loved by the focus group. At the same time, Terri calls Hugh to warn him about Hewitt’s upcoming piece.
The next scene has another great, quotable moment. Hugh asks, “How fucked am I?” Glen and Ollie both declare him to be at a 12 on the “fuck-o-meter,” but Glen’s is out of 50 and Ollie’s is out of 10. Terri begins to blame Malcolm for the whole mess and, as though saying his name makes him appear, Malcolm comes into the office. He announces that they are going to move up Hugh’s interview with Angela Heaney to make him a more sympathetic figure.
Next, we see Malcolm watching the zeitgeist tape with Hugh at last. The tape begins with Eastenders ““ a long-running British soap opera ““ and Hugh makes a horrifying discovery. Mary, the woman from the focus group whom they had relied on so heavily, is an actress. Malcolm says that it doesn’t matter if this one woman is an actress, because they draw opinions from the entire group. Of course, Hugh took only a prÃ©cis of the focus group and used only Mary’s opinion. The irony of this realization is that if he’d watched the tape right away, as Malcolm had said to, he would have known Mary was an actress.
Seeming understandably worried that Malcolm might find out about this error, Hugh excuses himself to break the news to Glen and the others. The office devolves into madness as they realize they didn’t speak to a real, middle England, single mother. Blame is slung back and forth once again as they realize the huge mistake they’ve made. If they had just used the entire group, as you’re intended to, and if Hugh hadn’t wanted to cut corners they may have gotten a better cross-section of opinions. They may not have put the unpopular policy out there at all.
Angry, exhausted, and thoroughly pissed off, Hugh retreats to a cupboard away from the noise, but Malcolm finds him. In a terrifying tone of voice, Malcolm says, “you said she,” as he remembers Hugh’s slip-up from earlier. When there is no response, Malcolm says, “come out of the cupboard, Hugh.”
Hugh tries to explain himself, saying that Mary was the perfect representation of middle England. To which Malcolm retorts, “so middle England is a big fucking field with one woman standing in it?”
Suddenly, Malcolm is convinced that Mary is a mole for Hewitt and that the upcoming article about Hugh’s use of focus groups is a result of Mary being a plant to trip them up.
Where did Malcolm come up with this? Is it paranoia? Is it because of his feud with Hewitt? This is just another conclusion that he’s jumped to. After all, it wouldn’t matter if Mary was a mole if Hugh had just used the focus group correctly. But Malcolm has his mind set on his version of reality and everyone listens to him because he appears to know what he’s doing. In this way, Malcolm is a good representation of the British government as a whole. They must know what they’re doing because they’re in power, but that’s often just an assumption.
Malcolm declares that they will be doing damage control to get ahead of Hewitt’s story. To break the news the way they want to, they will be selling the situation as the department being taken advantage of by this actress/possible mole.
In the final scene of the episode, they’ve called Mary into the office in the middle of the night to speak with her about this misunderstanding. Hugh, Glen, and Ollie are attempting to be civil, but Malcolm is positively apoplectic. Perhaps this is the side effect of him being overworked the way Hugh is.
They basically confront Mary about being an actress and misleading them with her opinions, although they’re the ones who made the mistake. Malcolm goes on a humongous, harsh rant about how the press is going to attack Mary for this situation and how they’re going to be digging into her personal life because now “it’s in the fucking public interest.”
After painting the picture of her being paraded out like “a trollop in the stocks,” Malcolm then turns milder and says they can stop this from happening. Instead, they can offer Mary a story with Angela Heaney and she’ll do a “nice” (i.e., favorable to the government) piece about the whole thing.
Slowly, it becomes apparent that Mary has not spoken to Hewitt; she was not acting as a mole. They all erupt into apologies and Malcolm is visibly shaken by the error they’ve made.
Now, they have essentially leaked the story about Hugh being a careless minister and using one woman as an entire focus group. There is no reason to get ahead of Hewitt’s story. They have put out an unfavorable story of their own volition. Now everyone will know of the department’s colossal mistake and they needn’t have ever found out.
Malcolm leaves, declaring that they’re “fucking on [their] own.” Dazedly, Hugh tries to work out what’s happened, how they have leaked their own mistake to the press. Indeed, everyone seems quite shaken by this incident. Again, just like in episode one, this is basically Malcolm’s error. But he leaves and will probably tell the PM and anyone else he knows about how Hugh’s department messed up big time.
As Mary is escorted from the department, she tells Ollie that the papers might be interested in this story. The story of her being dragged out of bed and told what to say to the press may be an interesting one to all the papers. Again, we have the threat of exposure. This time, Ollie holds her off by trying to offer her some acting gigs as the face of new policies the department will release. Mary is so annoyed by this bribe that she simply leaves.
After another late night in the office, Hugh decides to sleep on the couch rather than go back home.
So we have another story of the department being in a total shambles, with the minister being too tired to do his job properly, so that he ends up cutting corners and making a mess of things. We also see another instance in which Malcolm goes without blame though he jumped to a conclusion because of something personal (his feud with Hewitt) and caused most of the trouble.
It’s interesting, to me, to see how human fallibility and very human mistakes are at the core of these government disasters. It’s partly depressing to see because these people don’t seem fit for their jobs. But, on the other hand, it’s somewhat heartening to see that these government “drones” and ministers (or congressmen, for that matter) are just like us in some ways.
Of course, we don’t have drivers to take us home, or fancy flats halfway between work and our house, or someone like Malcolm to clean up our mess. So Armando Iannucci (the creator and head writer of the show) clearly doesn’t want us to feel too bad for these characters.
See you next time when Hugh’s flat makes a reappearance and threatens his job!