LadyGhosts of TV Past

Retro Recap: “The Thick of It,” 3.01

We’ve gone through the Hugh Abbott years, we’ve made it through the scramble for a new leader, and here we are at the third series of The Thick of It. In these episodes there is a new Prime Minister, a new lead character – Nicola Murray – and Malcolm is still in power. There is also a different tone in these episodes because the party in power is beginning to lose steam. Yes, they’ve survived many small kerfuffles and the transition of power from the old PM to Tom, but as you watch these episodes, you’ll see that their popularity is beginning to wane. It’s an interesting time for Government and an interesting time for Malcolm. This series is given a more feminine, girl power feel by the addition of Nicola Murray, played by the utterly brilliant Rebecca Front. Nicola, as we will see, isn’t afraid to spar with Malcolm and his profanity-laced threats. And in this, the very first episode of series three, we will see the origin of the word omnishambles, which was named as the Oxford English Dictionary’s word of the year for 2012.

Cast photo for season three of The Thick of It

As the episode opens, Malcolm is a very busy press officer. The transition of power has taken place and now, with the new PM installed, cabinet ministers are being chosen and a reshuffle is frantically going on. It’s revealed that Hugh is gone from his position as secretary of state for DoSAC, so who will take his place? Malcolm needs someone to, as he says, “Plug that gaping hole,” and he’s searching for an interested someone. After propositioning several ministers and flipping through a list that Sam gives him, he chooses Nicola Murray.

Nicola comes into DoSAC that morning, ready to get down to business. Terri introduces her around and shows her to her new office, which still has a “˜”Hugh Abbott” placard on its door. Ollie and Glen speak with Nicola about her policy direction and she quickly gets the message that the head of DoSAC does not have much power at all.

Terri tells Nicola that the press have been asking about Nicola’s husband and something called PFI. This is where an American like me has to do a bit of research. According to Wikipedia, PFI stands for “private finance initiative [which] is a way of creating ‘public”“private partnerships’ (PPPs) by funding public infrastructure projects with private capital.” Apparently, DoSAC awarded a PFI prisons contract to the firm where Nicola’s husband works. This could cause a conflict of interest now that she’s in charge of the department. Terri says that Malcolm is coming over.

When Malcolm sidles his way into Nicola’s shiny new office, he’s clearly slathering on the charm for the new minister. They talk a bit and Malcolm immediately brings up the PFI issue. When Nicola tries to explain it away, he apologizes and says that’s just the kind of thing she’ll have to deal with in her new position. As they continue to talk, it becomes clear that Malcolm is vetting her on the spot because he didn’t have time to vet her before giving her the position. He asks about her children and it comes out that one of Nicola’s children is on her way to secondary school.

For those of us unfamiliar with the UK’s school system, at the juncture between primary school and secondary school there is a choice to be made. Kids can be sent to private, independent schools or to the public, state-funded school called a comprehensive. As soon as this is brought up as an issue, Nicola says it’s been settled and her daughter is going to a private, independent school. Malcolm says that this is unacceptable. That choice would tell the world that a minister of the Government is not confident in the schools that Government is funding. Nicola says that her family is off limits, but Malcolm counters by saying now that she’s in this position, nothing about her is off limits.

Nicola says that Malcolm didn’t even know how many children she had to begin with, so who else is going to know about her daughter’s school situation? Malcolm says the press will learn about this and then, to put her in her place, he tells her the reason he didn’t know about her children is because she was so low on the list of candidates he didn’t have time to vet her. When Malcolm leaves, he tells Nicola he can handle the issue with her husband, but he cannot do anything about her daughter’s school choices. She needs to sort that out for herself.

The next day, Malcolm is dealing with the Leamington by-election, what we Americans would know as a special election, and defined by Wikipedia as, “An election held to fill a political office that has become vacant between regularly scheduled elections.” Apparently, an independent candidate is going to stand for the office and that might split his party’s vote. He needs to send ministers to Leamington to show support for their candidate, Liam Bentley.

Malcolm catches Nicola on her way out of her first Cabinet meeting and tells her that she needs to go to Leamington. Nicola, plainly, doesn’t want to, and asks if she has a choice. Malcolm replies, “Of course you have a choice. You can choose exactly how you say yes. Do it with a voice, have fun with it.”

Back at the office, Nicola consults with Glen, Ollie, and Terri to see who might be expendable. After these discussions, she decides to take Ollie with her to Leamington. At DoSAC, they all watch Liam Bentley’s campaign stop on the television to see how Nicola performs.

During this scene, we see Malcolm being uncharacteristically quiet and thoughtful. He looks at a printout of Liam Bentley’s campaign poster and then back at the television. After a little while, he tells Terri to tell Ollie that Nicola needs to be positioned differently on stage. When Nicola shifts to the right on stage, she is perfectly framed with some letters of Liam Bentley’s name behind her: “I am bent.” Bent, of course, meaning corrupt. Malcolm needs to show Nicola who’s boss and this specifically orchestrated piece of bad press is just the way to do it. Here we see the beginning of Malcolm engineering bad press for Nicola, which comes to a head in series four.

Of course, the press grabs this opportunity to attack the new Cabinet minister and Malcolm swoops into DoSAC to deal with the press fallout. He tells Nicola that she has to choose between her husband’s dodgy involvement with PFI and her daughter’s school placement. Malcolm says he simply can’t fight both issues if the press get hold of them. I would have to call bullshit on this sudden helplessness in the face of bad press. Malcolm clearly knows how to make stories go away and he’s made much worse ones than Nicola’s disappear. Nicola accuses him of setting this whole thing up to get back at her or put her in her place. This is, of course, true, but Malcolm denies it. And he almost looks a bit surprised when Nicola accuses him. Who before has had the balls to stand up to him like this?

In fact, Nicola actually follows Malcolm as he tries to leave the building, repeatedly asking if he set her up. Malcolm says she’s paranoid and that this is only the beginning of the press’s attacks. He gets into the elevator and tells her to get in as well so they can continue to discuss the matter. At this point, Nicola flounders and says she can’t get in the lift because she’s claustrophobic.

At this, Malcolm teases her for her phobia and goes on to say, “Not only you’ve got a fucking bent husband and a fucking daughter that gets taken to school on a fucking sedan chair, you’re also fucking mental! Jesus Christ, see, you, you are a fucking omni-shambles, that’s what you are.”

And there we have the origin of omnishambles, which has gone on to be used even in American politics (i.e. Romneyshambles).

On her way out, Nicola is stopped by Malcolm, who asks about her decision. She says she’s going to change her daughter’s schools. Malcolm, clearly pleased with his victory, tells her she made the right decision. He even says he’ll work on her social mobility policies because of her compliance. But this is obviously just to satiate her for now.

So, we have a new minister at DoSAC and Malcolm is still up to his old tricks. But how will he fare against Nicola, who seems to have more gumption and, frankly, balls than her predecessor? Stay tuned for more next week!

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