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Retro Recap: “The Thick of It,” Episode 1.03

Welcome to a recap of the third episode of season one of The Thick of It. I often think of this as the episode where everything begins to coalesce into what we’ll see for the next three episodes, which are sometimes known as a continuation of season one and are sometimes broken off into a season of their own. Here we see more desperate measures being taken by the government’s communications department. We also see some more characters introduced into the mix and I think this episode is where we see Peter Capaldi truly grow into the role of Malcolm Tucker. For newbies, the first two episodes probably seem just fine. But watching them back as a veteran, I see how Malcolm isn’t yet what we know him to be. He’s just beginning to grow as a character. In this episode, I think Capaldi really begins to have fun with the role.

OPENING

This episode opens with something we haven’t yet seen: a triumphant mood. Hugh, Glen, Ollie, and Terri are all exuberant about a committee meeting that went well for them and for a housing bill they are working on. This may be the first (and, perhaps, only) time we see Hugh so happy and they all seem to be acting as a united front for once. As they continue to discuss the good news, Dan Miller – a junior minister in the department – is mentioned as having also had some recent success. They say he’s still a bit “green” in the department and Hugh doesn’t seem very glad that he was mentioned at all.

Almost as soon as they bring up his name, Dan Miller comes into the office. Instantly, he overshadows the news Hugh was about to announce. Glen, Terri, and Ollie all flock to Dan Miller and begin kissing his metaphorical boot.

Dan Miller: If you’re going to make an omelette, you’re going to have to have some frank and honest discussion with the eggs.

As they all vie for Dan’s attention, Hugh is left in the lurch and doesn’t even get a handshake from Dan. While there, Dan gets a call from Malcolm to congratulate him on the admirers he’s been gaining for his work with the department. But he is soon bumped because Malcolm gets a call from someone more important.

Indeed the call is from someone named Tom, who will be brought up in a later episode and will be rather important. In this scene, we also see Sam – Malcolm’s personal assistant (PA) – for the first time. After his call with Tom, Malcolm calls in Hugh’s department.

Next, Hugh is on his way to see the PM and Glen and Terri are on their way to see Malcolm. Here we have yet another in-the-car scene, and it’s one of my favorites because Hugh is very concerned about whether the tie he’s wearing is appropriate for dinner with the PM. The tie seems to have “unidentified amusing creatures” on it, which always cracks me up for some reason.

Once they are at 10 Downing Street, we hear a snippet of conversation between Hugh and Glen concerning Hugh’s extra flat. Hugh says he was able to use it, but only for a very short time because his daughter had an ear infection and he had to come home to be with her.

Inside Malcolm’s office, we hear him complaining that Hugh’s extra flat may clash with the housing bill that his department has put forth.

Back outside, Glen mentions a previously agreed upon strategy of having a “sale but not a sale” on the flat. In other words, they will put the flat on the market so they can say they’re selling it, but they won’t accept any offers so that Hugh can keep it.

With that, Hugh is off to have supper with the PM, and the others are off to see Malcolm.

THE INTERVIEW

At the start of the next scene, Ollie and Dan are seen walking together with squash equipment, having just returned from a match. Across a courtyard, Hugh and Glen see them and theorize about whether they might be “an item.” It’s clear that Ollie idolizes Dan – a young and flashy junior minister, which Ollie would like to be – but that only goes as far as a bromance.

Hugh is prepping for an interview with Angela Heaney, who –we are told – has left the Standard and has gone to The Daily Mail. Back at Malcolm’s office, he has gotten another call from Tom. Apparently, Tom knows about Hugh and Glen’s scheme to “sell but not sell” the flat. It’s clear that the press has gotten a hold of this story now and will undoubtedly report on how it clashes with Hugh’s housing bill. At first, Malcolm seems calm about this, saying that Hugh has an interview with Angela Heaney. But when he remembers that she’s gone to “the Mail,” he panics.

What follows is one of my absolute favorite scenes in the entire series of The Thick of It. Hugh is having his interview with Angela in a glass room, and we get scenes of this interspersed with scenes of Malcolm running as though his life depends on it to stop Hugh from fucking up the interview. It’s such a perfect comedic strategy to combine scenes of someone slowly doing the wrong thing with someone trying desperately to stop them.

Angela, who seems to have grown some lady-balls and has stopped toeing the government line, is now asking hard-hitting questions about Hugh’s housing bill in conjunction with the flat he is keeping empty most of the time. Malcolm is trying to get there, running from 10 Downing Street, but Hugh is bumbling his way through the questions in the meantime. Angela says that an Asian family has had their bids on Hugh’s flat rejected and she asks whether it’s because they’re Asian.

Finally, Malcolm arrives and we see him, apoplectic with rage, pacing around outside the glass room where Hugh is being smashed over the head by investigative journalism. He comes in to ask if he can “borrow” Hugh for a moment and Hugh follows him outside.

This leads to another fantastic scene that juxtaposes Malcolm’s shouting fit with Terri serenely asking Angela if she wants some coffee. The scene is handled so well in terms of comedic value – they let us hear only muffled shouting at first and then the full force of Malcolm’s anger when Terri opens the door. We’ve seen Malcolm angry and shouting before, but this is the first time he truly unleashes on Hugh in a way that makes us, as viewers, feel bad for Hugh.

THE ISSUE

Back at the department, Malcolm confronts Glen about the flat and their scheme to not sell it. Then he rounds on Ollie, shouting at him for his “girlfriend’s” apparent audacity to ask real questions. Then Malcolm gets a call from Tom, who is clearly spearheading the clean-up effort regarding this mess around Hugh’s flat.

Hugh comes into the office, presumably finished with his interview with Angela, and they grill him about the disaster. They’re all worried that Hugh has implicated them somehow in keeping this flat unsold, Glen especially. Again, we see the default setting of these government officials: covering their own asses when something goes wrong.

Suddenly Malcolm returns and announces that they’re saved because the flat has sold. They had to let it go to stop the press asking more questions. But Terri says the press has already dug its way into the story. Newspapers have been trying to buy the flat and have had their bids refused, so they’re running with the story.

At this point, Hugh exclaims, “This is madness, I just own a flat. I haven’t raped somebody!” And I’m inclined to agree with him – there seems to be an awful lot of fuss over this flat, when the press should really just be focusing on the substance of the housing bill they were so happy about at the start of this episode. This show often displays the worst of government’s inner workings, but it also has a lot to say about the state of modern journalism. Most of the time, they are being yanked around by the government’s communications team (i.e. Malcolm), but couldn’t they simply think for themselves and write more substantive pieces?

In Malcolm’s office, Hugh is fighting for his life, trying to justify his empty flat while Malcolm closes in on him. Malcolm says that Dan Miller has done good work to get the housing bill through, but now this scandal with the flat is overshadowing that success.

Finally, Hugh arrives at the destination Malcolm was driving him toward. He suddenly says, sarcastically, “What do you want me to do, resign?” Malcolm gives him a look and there is a fantastic pause before Hugh back pedals furiously, clearly regretting he even mentioned the “˜R’ word. Frustrated, Hugh protests that he’s only human, saying, “They should just clone ministers, you know, so we’re born at 55 with no past, and no flats, and no genitals,” and calling Dan Miller a “brushed aluminium cyber prick.”

Perhaps a bit ruffled by this show of a backbone from Hugh, Malcolm launches into a tirade (one of my favorites) about how Hugh could have a “good resignation.”

Look, people really like it when you go just a bit early! You know; steely jawed, faraway look in your eyes! Before you get to the point when they’re sitting “˜round in the pub saying “Oh, that fucker’s got to go!”, you surprise them! “Blimey, he’s gone! I didn’t expect that! Resigned? You don’t see that much anymore! Old school! Respect! I rather liked the guy! He was hounded out by the fucking press!” How about that, eh? What a way to go!

Back at the office, Terri is telling someone on the phone that Hugh will likely be leaving over this issue. Malcolm leaves Hugh to discuss the issue of “flat-gate” with Tom and the PM.

AN INQUIRY

While Malcolm discusses this issue with the powers that be, everyone else is left to wait and speculate about what might happen. Terri says that a change in command at the department wouldn’t shake things up much. Glen and Ollie have a rather roundabout discussion about which one of them should go, if it came to that. They start off each saying they should go and eventually sling blame back and forth so much that they end up adamantly refusing to resign.

Back at Downing Street, Malcolm has returned to tell Hugh that there’s going to be an inquiry. Hugh is immensely relieved to hear this because it means he doesn’t have to resign, or at least that he doesn’t have to resign yet. Hugh thanks Malcolm profusely and then, when Malcolm gets a call from the PM, is ushered to wait in the pantry to hear further news.

In a funny and rather absurd scene, Hugh munches on some biscuits he finds in the pantry while he waits. A woman happens by and offers to get him some more biscuits, and perhaps a chair. It’s just so absurd that Hugh is standing there enjoying a snack while his fate is decided by Malcolm and the PM.

Hugh calls the office to let them know the news about the inquiry. Everyone is ecstatic that it’s come to that rather than a swift sacking. But now comes the question of which Lord will preside over the inquiry. For those who don’t know, it’s my understanding that those who have the title of “Lord” are chosen to investigate issues such as this in inquiries, such as the Leveson Inquiry that is taking place in Real Life British Politics.

Malcolm comes into his pantry and the bemused look he gives upon seeing Hugh set up with a chair and plate of biscuits is a comedic credit to Peter Capaldi. Malcolm announces that Lord Monkton will preside over the inquiry and this seems to be a good thing because Glen is elated at the news.

Several days later, the press has not let go of the issue because they are awaiting a decision from the inquiry. While sifting through newspapers, they receive a call from Malcolm, telling them to come to Number Ten without Hugh. Malcolm tells Hugh that Monkton’s report is not good and that the driver Hugh complained about has told the press about their “evil plan to not sell a two-bedroom flat.”

Worried for Hugh’s fate, they all head out to see Malcolm. Hugh settles in to eat some biscuits once more and await the news, whether it be good or bad.

TIME TO RESIGN?

At Number Ten, Malcolm is clearly upset with the department and the way this issue has been handled. Back at the office, Hugh declares, “Yes, I am the king of remembering my own password.” That line is a personal favorite of mine and one that I often say to myself as I log in to my email.

Dan Miller comes by and Hugh takes a moment to commiserate with him about just how deep in trouble he is. Miller agrees with Hugh, declaring the whole thing rather silly. Hugh says that, at this point, he can’t possibly resign.

I’ve missed my ideal resigning point. With every day I delay, it’s another year before I can get back again. If I had resigned the day I was appointed, I’d actually be prime minister by now.

Meanwhile, Malcolm is telling the department that Hugh is going to stay, but they need to sacrifice someone over this mess. In another great moment, Malcolm says they need someone’s head on a platter. Ollie makes some joke in response and Malcolm says, terrifyingly, “How much does your head weigh?”

Back at the department, people are scrambling to decide who will leave, but everyone is trying to get out of it. Luckily for them, Hugh waltzes in, announces he’s going to resign, and it seems to be taken care of. He goes on and on about how it’ll be really good for him to simply leave and maybe return to government in a better position soon. He says he never really enjoyed the department anyway, saying he wasn’t sure what the department was for. “I’m Hugh Abbot, the minister for – I don’t know – stuff.”

In Malcolm’s office, we see him accepting someone’s resignation, but we don’t see who it is. Hugh comes in and we see Dan Miller leave Malcolm’s office. It seems that Dan enjoyed his talk with Hugh, thinking that perhaps if he resigns now, he could be PM in the near future. As an interesting tidbit, Dan Miller’s character is based on the Miliband brothers, one of whom is now leader of the Labour Party in Real Life British Politics.

We see Hugh enter Malcolm’s office, but we don’t get to see Malcolm tell him that Dan already resigned. I wish we could have seen Hugh’s reaction.

Back at the department, Hugh apologizes and makes nice for everything bad he said about them. Glen reads the PM’s response to Dan’s resignation letter and we get a shot of Hugh’s forlorn expression as he hears praise that could have been his.

As the episode ends, Hugh asks Glen if he can spend the night on his couch. After all, he no longer has that fancy flat to use.

This is one of my favorite episodes, but for the comedic value rather than the plot. The plot is good enough and it shows some interesting dynamics of the pressure put on ministers for sometimes trivial things. But the comedic value of this episode with excellent lines and the further development of Malcolm as a character truly make it one of the best.

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