The Thick of It is a comedy, right? Not this week, as all of our favorite, bumbling characters come before the Goolding Inquiry to answer questions regarding the culture of leaking information. For this special one-hour episode, it seemed the show turned into a gripping drama that threatened to send the characters’ world into a tailspin. Last week it was revealed that the inquiry called for by Nicola Murray would be widened to investigate the culture of leaking at large and everyone seemed quite unnerved by this. This week, each character took their turn to answer the panel’s questions and we got to see how Malcolm Tucker deals with intense scrutiny.
As the episode begins, it’s clear that the tone will be rather more somber and professional than we have seen on this show. There are four panel members involved in the Goolding Inquiry, including Lord Goolding himself, and they’re all very straight-to-business personalities. Clearly, they’re not going to take any guff from these characters who so love to dole out guff.
Stewart Pearson, Director of Communications for the Government, is the first witness to appear before the Inquiry. The panel asks him about his role in the Government and Stewart begins to answer in his customary Stewart-like manner. He’s always been one to talk in strange metaphors and proverbs and, immediately, the panel cuts through that and asks him to speak in plain English. This is the only time we’ll see Stewart at the Inquiry and it’s clear from the questioning that he has an important role, but he’s nowhere near as powerful as Malcolm was or is. The panel asks Stewart to clarify a paper he wrote in which he says that government should be like the Pompidou Centre, explicit and open and porous. Leaking is brought up when one of the panelists comments that government should, of course, be “porous, but not leaking.” Stewart points the finger at Malcolm Tucker, whom he considers to be the master of leaking.
Malcolm is up next, conveniently, and the panel asks him about his role in government and his role as an “enforcer.” They read quotes from various newspapers commenting on Malcolm’s reputation. Malcolm is very charming to the panel, to begin with, and is very much himself up there, but with less swearing. Malcolm willingly admits that he believes leaking is just “the way it is” and then goes on to flaunt one of his great leaks. He shows the panel the photo from episode two of Nicola Murray holding her policy folder with her notes about “quiet batpeople” exposed. Malcolm willingly admits that he made sure the notes were visible and made sure the photographer knew where to look. This act of brazen arrogance is not seen as such by Malcolm; he simply sees himself as explaining the reality of politics to the panel.
The panel then asks Malcolm if he played a role in the leaking of Mr. Tickell’s medical records. Malcolm says, adamantly, that he would never attack a civilian with leaking. He uses leaking, he says, to attack idiotic and duplicitous politicians. Following that, Malcolm tells the panel that he’s heard Fergus Williams has been in talks with Dan Miller about a possible coalition partnership. He literally leaks some information at the inquiry about leaking information.
Fergus is up next and, when asked, describes “getting Tuckered” as a rite of passage in government. Fergus is very shifty and gives a lot of non-answers to the panel’s questions. He basically spends his whole time up there implicating Malcolm as a bully and then calls Terri a “blockage” and obstacle to legitimately getting information out of their department.
Peter Mannion takes the stand next and puts his foot in his mouth right off the bat while talking about Mr. Tickell. At times, the show can put Peter Mannion on display as a good, old-fashioned politician, but it’s clear here that he is quite callous about Mr. Tickell’s situation. Peter defends the leaked emails as “rough office banter.” The practice of “data smuggling” is brought up and described as the passing of information from closed facilities for money, but it’s clear that Peter doesn’t know about it at all.
Next, Phil, Emma, and Adam all take the stand together. They all admit that they are aware of data smuggling and even call it an endemic problem, but then say they don’t know of individuals who will offer such information. Clearly, they all wish to condemn the system and avoid implicating themselves at the same time. Just as Fergus did, these three witnesses point the finger at Terri as being a hindrance rather than a help.
Conveniently, Terri is up next to answer to these accusations. She describes her job as “herding sheep” and says she is a buffer rather than a blockage. Terri says that she thinks Malcolm leaked the email, though we know that it was her and Glen. She says that Malcolm is very tough, but is unwilling to go on record saying he’s a bully. Clearly, Malcolm’s influence is still spread all over this inquiry – no one wants to speak ill of him outright in fear of retaliation.
Malcolm is back next and responds to the accusation that he is a bully by calling it slander. He also says that Terri is a woman who just wants her pension and the panel asks him how that isn’t slander. The panel then turns back to the photo that Malcolm so arrogantly flaunted as one of his great successes. The photo has now been enlarged to show Malcolm and they zoom in on his folders to see several numbers written on a document. Those numbers, it turns out, are the phone numbers of Mr. Tickell and his ex-wife, as well as Tickell’s NHS (National Health Service) number, which could have been used to leak his medical records.
Malcolm seems extremely uncomfortable when they bring up this observation. He takes a very long time to answer and then simply replies to their questions with, “I don’t recall.” It’s actually horrible to see him at a loss for words and completely backed into a corner like this. The real tragedy is that he did this to himself with his own hubris. By showing off the photo, he called the panel’s attention to it and they found the damning numbers.
Nicola takes the stand next and the panel asks her about her sudden fall from power. They read off all of the bad press she received and it’s quite sad to see how dejected these stories made her. Since Malcolm already admitted to engineering the leak of Nicola’s “quiet batpeople” notes, it’s quite possible that he engineered all of this bad press to try and push her out earlier. The panel seems to be reading these stories out in the hopes that Nicola, too, will implicate Malcolm. But she doesn’t. For some reason, she doesn’t bring up his name. Whether this is out of fear of retaliation or something else, we don’t know.
Nicola’s testimony is interrupted because those in the audience of the inquiry begin to receive messages on their phones and leave their seats. Lord Goolding then declares a recess of the inquiry due to developing events, though we never hear what they are. I can’t help but feel that the developing events are the result of Malcolm leaking some more information somewhere and it’s just more salt in Nicola’s wound that his timing interrupts her chance to give a statement.
Terri and Robyn take the stand next and Robyn is incredibly candid with the answers she gives the panel. Robyn says that she has experienced bullying in her time at DoSAC and that she considers Malcolm to be the big bully. Terri says that the leaked email could not have been leaked by her because it came from her computer and that’s not how it’s done. But, when asked, she can’t seem to tell them how it is done. It’s also revealed here that a story has been circulated about the female panelist in the inquiry and it’s not hard to imagine Malcolm Tucker at work in that handy distraction.
Next up is Ollie, who is his usual cheeky self with the panelists. They ask him if Malcolm is an intimidating presence and Ollie says that he certainly isn’t intimidated by him. The panel then reads off some of what Malcolm has said about Ollie and Ollie simply says it was banter. Ollie also says that he was in the hospital at the time of the leak, so it couldn’t have been him (though we know he was quite instrumental in the leak). Before he goes, Ollie blurts out Glen’s name as the leaker of the email and it’s rather stunning how quick he was to sell out a man he worked with for so long.
Glen takes the stand next and he does not admit to leaking the email. What he does do is completely discredit Ollie’s accusation by saying he is self-serving and atrocious. Surprisingly, Glen operates very well in front of the inquiry.
Finally, Malcolm returns once more and seems a bit miffed that he keeps being called back. This time, he is harsher with the panelists and it’s clear that he’s being backed into a corner. We’ve seen him lash out like this before when he’s attacked or threatened. In this instance, he tries to say that the whole panel are victims of leaking and so they should recuse themselves because they are prejudiced. He says that everyone in the room has bent the rules a bit to get where they are now because that’s how things work.
The panel asks him once again how he obtained Mr. Tickell’s NHS number. Malcolm is visibly quite fed up with this whole thing and says he can’t recall. Malcolm then gives an amazing speech about leaking, saying they’re just using him as a scapegoat because they can’t “arrest a landmass or cuff a country,” so they’re laying it all at his feet. He blames the political class, who has deviated from morality and now only relies on popularity and he’s right, isn’t he? The politicians are the ones who gave him his marching orders. As his testimony comes to a close, the panel asks if he’s finished. Malcolm replies, “I’m finished anyway. You didn’t finish me.”
Malcolm is a truly tragic character in the face of this inquiry. On one hand, he’s done this to himself. He has spread his name around as the one to be afraid of and now it’s coming back to bite him as they all call him a bully. But on the other hand, wasn’t he just doing his job? It’s his job to man all the wheels at once and clamp down on any shit that threatens to develop into a storm, and he was very good at his job. Now, when he’s faced with actual consequences for this culture of leaking and bullying that has been ingrained in him for so long, Malcolm just seems tired of it all, as evidenced by his final line in the episode.
This episode was completely stunning and was, actually, more a master work of drama than the usual political comedy. Peter Capaldi gave a heartbreaking and powerful performance as Malcolm Tucker. The whole cast deserves a lot of credit for their performances because, as was revealed in an article earlier this week, they were purposely not given a chance to rehearse for this tense episode. Next week we see the conclusion of the season and, if the show creator’s comments are any indication, the conclusion of the show completely.