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The Thick of It: Rise of the Nutters (Review)

The wonderful folks at the BBC have given me access to their BBC Global iPlayer for a month to give the service a go and trawl through the archives. I’ll have some thoughts on the service at the end of the month, but I thought I’d also take the opportunity to enjoy some of the fantastic content.

Are you f***ing kidding me? I mean, you’ve just watched me break my not-inconsiderable balls trying to get you the second spot on Newsnight. And succeeding! I can’t back down! No, no, you’re on, pal, right? And it better not be too boring, and it better not be too interesting either, ok? And it better not cost too much. It can’t be an old thing, obviously, and don’t make it too new. And whatever you do, please try not to embarrass yourself, right?

– Malcolm tells Swain his media strategy

I love the BBC’s Christmas specials. I mean, I know that other networks do Christmas-themed episodes of their shows, but the BBC does tend to go the extra mile. We get the opportunity to spend some time with a series that is on hiatus or even to provide an epilogue to a series that has ended. It generally affords considerably more leeway to a series to tell a different kind of story than they normally would. Here, in the hour-long Christmas special, Armando Iannucci’s political comedy gets a chance to drift its attention away from the fictional surroundings of the Department of Social Affairs and Citizenship to explore the resignation of the sitting Prime Minister. Mirroring Tony Blair’s decision to step down at the same time, it lends the series a somewhat especially timely feeling, as well as allowing more focus to fall on the show’s main attraction, the brilliantly cynical and manipulative political advisor Malcolm Tucker, brought to life by Peter Capaldi.

Bully to that...

In fairness, there’s obviously a lot of behind-the-scenes sub-text going here. Actor Chris Langham, who had portrayed Minister Hugh Abnett, had been arrested for possession of child pornography. His character was written out of the show when he was convicted, lost in a cabinet reshuffle, but here he’s put on a long trip to Australia, and is referenced quite a bit on phone calls and such with other characters. I think that it’s fair that the show didn’t immediately dump the character during Langham’s initial detention, and waited for a conviction to jettison the actor.

However, this creates a somewhat strange feeling to the episode, seen as the supporting cast consists of Glenn, Terri and Olly, Hugh’s three staffers. While Olly is dating his opposite number in the Conservative Party, and thus has a reason to appear, I can’t help but feel like Terri and Glenn are somewhat surplus to requirements here, with the script doing several backflips in order to fit them into the plot. This involves sending the Shadow Minister Peter Mannion to Terri’s department, and having Olly and Glenn interact with the somewhat befuddled “nutter” Ben Swaine, who might be rising in the party’s esteem following the Prime Minister’s departure.

It's sink or Swaine time...

These attempts to include the three staffers do feel a little transparent, if only because they seem to draw attention away from the two more interesting plots unfolding. The first, obviously, involves Malcolm’s attempts to manage the situation and to ensure his own political survival in the time of transition. I think this is the first time that we’ve truly seen Malcolm as a protagonist on the show. He’s generally the guy who shows up and directs the response to a situation, leading to the department getting tangled up in loops. His top priority is generally the government, even if he’ll allow himself to get distracted by a personal problem like Julius Nicholson from time to time.

“I am not the story here,” Malcolm insists after he’s caught posting obscene comments to a Conservative weblog. “You kinda are the story here,” his loyal lapdog Jamie replies. “They even spelt your name right.” In a way, it seems like the character is reacting to the subtle shift within the show itself. In the initial episodes, it was very clear that Malcolm was a supporting character and the stories were driven by the inept government officials. When Capaldi’s Malcolm became one of the most compelling comedic characters on television, the stories gradually shifted. Indeed, the entire third season features a defined character arc for Malcolm himself, and I think that character arc truly begins here.

Toilet humour...

Here we actually see Malcolm do some truly personal and truly dangerous maneuvering, as he tries desperately to sabotage the Prime Minister’s departure. At least some of that seems to be down to the fact that he might lose his standing in the party following the leadership change, and it’s fascinating to see Malcolm (the most loyal enforcer) effectively go off the grid, so to speak. “Who do you even answer to?” Olly asks at one point. “You’re like a one man guerilla army operating against your own government.” It’s an absolutely fascinating twist.

I have to admit, despite the fact that I liked most of the rest of the cast before they became sociopaths, I do like Olly’s involvement here, especially as Malcolm effectively “pimps” him out to the Opposition, only for Olly to (a.) leak vital information, and (b.) end up looking like a self-obsessed moron. “You’re like the sh!ttest James Bond ever!” Jamie yells at him. “You’re like David f***ing Niven!” Bonus points for the relatively geeky film reference. There’s something incredibly desperate and fascinating about Malcolm’s reliance on the incredibly incompetent Olly, and I think it demonstrates the thin ice the character finds himself standing on.

Just decorations...

The other major plot point in the special sees us introduced to the Opposition. Given the public’s rapidly declining support for Labour and the inevitable upcoming General Election, it is a shrewd move on the part of the writers to include these new characters. Not least because it actually underscores the series’ political philosophy quite shrewdly, about the vacuous nature of government politics. The Labour and Conservative representatives are so similar that their political ideas can be swapped with impunity.

The episode features several leaks from one party to the other, both on the fundamental issue of immigration, and there’s no suggestion that there’s any ideological divide. “Not only was it a sh!t idea to ruin my holiday,” Peter Mannion complains to his staff, “it was  sh!t idea you stole from the government to ruin my holiday.”Indeed, despite the fact that the Prime Minister as stepped down, Peter is still more excited about some plumbing news.

Not-so-Happy Holidays...

In fact, it’s easy to imagine pretty much all the problems affecting Peter Mannion here could affect any of the show’s other ministerial characters. In particular, he seems to spend most of the episode fighting with his advisors over how casual he should look, reluctantly removing his tie several times over the course of the episode. He’s aghast when his press officer suggests untucking his shirt. “I always tuck my shirt in. It’s part of getting dressed.”

That said, I did like the discussion over racism from various other party insiders, and the press officer trying to shrug off senior figures telling racist jokes. “J.B.’s got some very progressive views. I think you’ll find what he was doing was ironising.” Like I said, it’s pretty much the same show, different party, which pretty much sums up the show’s cynical outlook on the political system brilliantly and effectively.

It'll all (Mal)colm together in the end...

On top of that, there are just some great comedy moments thrown in, managing to perfectly blend the sophisticated and dry political wit with the more slapstick situational comedy that the British do so very well. I especially like the clandestine reporting from DoSAC with Mannion speaking on the phone to his aides while Terri reports to Malcolm, both trying not to appear to be spying. Similarly, Ben Swaine’s first interview is brutally hilarious as he fields awkward question after awkward question.

Rise of the Nutters is great fun, a biting slice of political satire that fairly effectively captures a moment in British political history.

You might be interested in our other  reviews of The Thick of It:

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