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The Thick of It – Series III (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.

No one forgot their first carpeting from Tucker – it was like a red hot poker.

– the BBC’s career retrospective on Malcolm Tucker

The first two seasons of The Thick of It proved to be quite the success for BBC4. Critics were raving about, the politicians it sought to ridicule were loving it. Creator Armando Iannucci even got to produce a movie with HBO using characters from the series (In The Loop) and plans were underway for a US adaptation. (In fairness, the adaptation was killed very quickly, which might be for the best given Iannucci’s opinion of it, but he’s currently working on Veep for HBO with Julie Louis Dreyfus.) So it seems fitting that the series came back to television in a big way. Fresh off two specials, with a new minister and a new slot on BBC2, the show was commissioned for eight glorious episodes. And it was great. The decision to re-focus the series on Malcolm Tucker, the Prime Minister’s advisor who thinks of himself”as a thin, white Mugabe.”

It's Party (Conference) time...

You’ve seen Misery?

I’m in the BBC, aren’t I?

– Phil and Peter Mannion bite the hand that feeds

Following Chris Langham’s controversial departure from the show, Rebecca Front was drafted in to play the new Minister for Social Affairs and Citizenship Nicola Murray. While the show still focused around the somewhat incompetent dealings in the DoSAC offices, with Hugh Abnett’s staff hanging around to advise his replacement, the eight-episode structure allowed the story to experiment with slightly longer-form storytelling.

While DoSAC would inevitably have a mishap of the week (Nicola accidentally organising a coup against the sitting Prime Minister, Olly misplacing a memory key with the details of 7,000 immigrants, a week at Radio 5), the show contextualised these embarrassing affairs as just minor lightning bolts in a gathering storm. Written and airing as Gordon Brown’s Labour government found itself coming under pressure, the show explored the slow-motion collapse of a British government, and the sheer force of will holding it all together.

Who will be getting DoSAC?

Malcolm Tucker is the show’s ace-in-the-hole. he shows in the first scene in the pilot and makes one heck of an immediate impression. From that point on, for the first two years, Tucker played the role of a boogie man. Hugh and his incompetent staff would inevitably make a massive mistake, and Tucker would blaze in to “manage” the situation. Loudly and aggressively. He was like a force of nature. However, he wasn’t the focus of the show, and we learnt relatively little about the Prime Minister’s loyal terrier, save that he was exceptionally creative when it came to vulgarity.

“I used to be the f***in’ Pharaoh!” he tells Terri at one point. “Now I’m f***in’ floundering in a Nile of sh!t!” It’s telling that Malcolm’s influence seems to be weakening. In the first episode, he was able to silence a reporter by threatening to get her blacklisted. Now he can’t gag a freelancer who overheard something she shouldn’t have. The season swings against him when the media snap back at him. “Malcolm, you’ve started beating up your own guys,” one reporter remarks after Malcolm swings at Glenn. “That’s not a good sign.” As Steve Fleming explains, “The problem is that you are shifting from the man people love to hate to the man people just hate. From Simon Cowell to Piers Morgan.”

Interview to a kill...

Although Malcolm doesn’t drive too many of the early plots in the third season, there’s a sense that we’re watching him put out a series of small fires in the middle of a volcanic eruption. Peter Capaldi has been one of the best comedic revelations of the past few years, and he nails the opportunity to develop Malcolm beyond what he know of him. “Just because a man kills people doesn’t make him a killer,” Malcolm tells Olly during his uncanny calm and zen “new Malcolm” phase towards the end of the season.

While his logic might not be infallible, as Olly observes, we can see his point. The loud, angry Malcolm is the guy doing his job and trying to keep the government working, dealing with a rabid media and an incompetent government. You could make a strong case that Malcolm is actually the least incompetent cast member in the show, seen as he’s normally the one pulling various cast members out of the fire.

I hope Nicola doesn't need a lift...

His aggressiveness might be a bit excessive, to be fair. “Does it never occur to you that your poisonous male obsession with conflict – which is making people despise politics?” Nicola challenges him at one point, and she has a fair argument. It’s Malcolm’s own hubris that leads to his political downfall, with a prideful “I am the heart of government!” rant in a room full of reporters.

And yet the series makes the point that you need somebody like Malcolm to get things done. Throughout the series, we’re presented with two alternatives to the sultan of spin. There’s Stuart, the Conservative spindoctor with his mind games and Orwellian double-talk, organising “fractal retaliation.” It’s telling that, when the Conservatives go from just existing in opposition to actually contesting an election, “the f***er” is drafted in. As Mannion notes, it’s a tangible shift from “touchy feely” to “smashy testy.”

The Mannion of the moment...

We’re also introduced to Steve Fleming, who initially appears more upbeat and polite. “Malcolm never bought us tea,” Terri observes of the spin doctor. However, Fleming is a dangerously unstable fake, who masks his contempt and hatred through a veneer of camp cheer. At least Malcolm is honest with the people he is handling.

And, to be frank, one can detect a slight softening of Malcolm here. For the first time, we get to see him outside his job. We learn that he’s a pretty good cook and that he has a young child at home. The fact that he spends his holidays with a bunch of reporters cooking them an Indian meal makes him seem quite pathetic, as does the dawning revelation that he seems to have nothing outside his job. Despite the hatred he holds for the men who fired him, he still doesn’t hesitate to come back, because he has nowhere else to go.

Labouring under some false assumptions...

We get to see a more caring side to Malcolm over the season. He’s always polite to his loyal secretary, even standing up for her when Julius Nicholson and Steve Fleming try to pressgang her. He seems a lot kinder dealing with Nicola than he ever did with Hugh. He forces her to make terrible choices, but he also tries to keep her optimistic. He even suggests that, when the publicity dies down, she can send her daughter to a private school.

Of course, it might be that Nicola herself seems like a more sympathetic character than Hugh ever did. Hugh Abnett seemed to be a veteran politician just hoping to make it to his pension without causing a massive incident. In contrast, Nicola was the lowest name on a list of candidates for the crappest job in government. She doesn’t necessarily want it, and yet she seems for more proactive than Hugh ever did. She even has a pet project with her whole “healthy eating” thing that seems like a rather futile uphill battle.

Getting ready for a group bollocking...

What I like about The Thick of It, as opposed to most political comedies, is that its protagonists actually seem like people. You don’t hate them just because they are elected officials – they’re often fighting against institutional barriers and a press eager for the next scandal. While Hugh seemed a bit like a flailing fish out of water, not meriting the sheer force of press pressure brought to bear on him, Nicola actually feels like something of a victim.

“My family is off limits!” she declares to Malcolm early on, and it seems a fair principle. After all, why shouldn’t she be able to make her own choices as a mother rather than sacrificing her daughter’s education to tow the party line. And yet the press repeatedly use her daughter as a means of beating her over the head, which hardly seems especially sporting. The media lambasting the department receives over losing critical data seems more than fair, but criticising Nicola for personal choices seems quite unsporting.

Strategic Opp...

In a way, it seems like the politicians themselves are the most sympathetic of the characters. Even Nicola’s opposite number, Peter Mannion, comes across as a decent person caught in an awkward situation. When Stuart conspires to use Nicola’s daughter against her, Mannion is the one who takes a stand. “F*** that, Stuart, we are not going to use this.” He seems quite passionate about it. “If you have to wade through all this sh!t to win the election, I’m happy to lose it.”

As with the rest of the show, the cast are excellent. It’s great to see the Opposition included, and Tom Hollander totally steals the last ten minutes of the season, appearing as the wonderfully coarse Conservative spin doctor. Rebecca Front makes a fitting replacement for Chris Langham, even if Hugh made for a slightly more comedic central character. Chris Addison, Joanna Scanlan and James Smith are great as the trio of advisors. However, it is definitely Capaldi’s show, and the man is absolutely brilliant.

You can't go home...

It’s great to be able to catch up with pretty much the entire series on the iPlayer. I think that’s wonderfully handy, and I’d actually love to see more shows completely covered. (For example, Wallander has only the first season.) I’m no fully ready for the fourth season of the show, coming this Autumn.

I’ll leave you with the great Malcolm Tucker summing up the series.

We’re not in a prison drama, are we?

This is a prison drama. This is the Shawshank Redemption. Only with more tunneling through sh!t and no redemption.

-Nicola and Malcolm tell it how it is

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

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