Considering how we are awash with cheerful optimism and a light-hearted appreciation of how it feels to live in the best and most open-hearted of countries, I felt the passing need for a counter-balancing dose of cynicism and fuck-’em-over fantasy, just to take the edge off things.
Well, no, not really. The Thick of It‘s second series, again of just three episodes, still starring Chris Langham as Hugh Abbott, Minister for Social Affairs, may still be the product of New Labour and Tony Blair and Alistair Campbell, and the policies of the mid-Noughties, it may be a case of more-of-the-same-only-different, except that we clearly haven’t yet had enough of the same to grow in the least bit bored of it, but it is horrifically emblematic of things as they are now, except in one little factor: that despite the chaotic and ramshackle nature of Abbott and his little crew, they come over as far more efficient than their 2021 equivalents.
Chaotic is the best word for how each of these three episodes are planned. The wobbly hand-held camera, the rapid and overlapping dialogue, the confusing cuts to other scenes, the frenetic pace even in the quiet moments and the overwhelming amorality of practically everyone involved does not make for easy viewing, or easy comprehension. There are usually multiple mini-stories happening at every moment, not to mention the truly impressive levels of swearing throughout, that achieve the minor miracle of never becoming dull and tedious, and Armando Ianucci and his fellow-writers never wait for their viewers to catch-up, nor are knowingly under-vicious.
But what distinguishes The Thick of It from other shows and films intent on confusing the audience is the assuring air of coherence the show gives off in its every moment. Like David Lynch, we sense that there is a controlling mind that knows what it’s doing, and there’s an underlying structure beneath it all, like Chaos Theory. It means something, even if we can’t quite grasp it.
I’m trying to avoid comparisons to Yes Minister, inevitable though they are. All the two series really share is a focus on Politics and the process thereof, representing the different eras in which the shows were made. But Hugh Abbott, played to perfection by Chris Langham, comes from the same mould as Jim Hacker: a weathercock blowing whichever way the wind turns him, an empty man with no political ambitions except for ambition, though in Abbott’s case it’s to stay where he is rather than fail upwards. Both Ministers are overly dependent on those who, nominally, serve them.
Trying to summarise a single episode, let alone three, is a near impossible task. In the first, Abbott is ambushed, at an under-prepared Factory visit, by a woman with a wholly ‘irrelevant’ complaint about the NHS and one of those perfectly vulgar but impressive single lines, ‘Do you know what it’s like to have to clean up your own mother’s piss?’ It’s a natural for the TV news, even without Abbott’s instinctive non-responses and it escalates, even as, on the one hand, Ollie Reeder is seconded to Malcolm Tucker’s unit at Downing Street because he’s shagging someone in the opposite party and is thus a useful spy, whilst news is about to break as to Ministry of Defence overspend and nepotism in handing out contracts, leading Hugh’s piece to go up and down the news agenda like a rabbit on honeymoon.
The second centres upon outside Advisor Julius Nicholson, brought in by the PM (whose wife apparently doesn’t like Abbott), who’s out to transform Government and Whitehall. Not only is there a reshuffle looming, but Nicholson is advancing on Malcolm Tucker’s turf, which is not something you do unwisely. Nicholson is clever, conspicuously clever, and he knows he’s clever, meaning that he doesn’t understand the need to set up defences (rather reminiscent of Kevin Keegan at Newcastle United, except for the conspicuously clever bit). This episode ends with a stunningly brief and magnificently comprehensive takedown of Nicholson, orchestrated by Tucker, using Abbott, Ollie and Glenn Cullen, that you have to applaud even as you start to either despise or get very scared of the whole notion.
The final episode of the second series was Chris Langham’s last appearance. The Ministry has added Citizenship to its title, Citizenship here being a word that means any old shit every other ministry in town wanted to offload whilst Hugh Abbott was on holiday and unable to fend it off. Principal amongst these is a bill to close down Special Needs Schools and integrate their pupils into ordinary ‘super-schools’ with two specially-trained teachers. Despite the show’s general avoidance of actual policies, Abbott is genuinely involved with this, having trenchantly opposed the idea (his friend and Senior Advisor, Glenn Cullen, has a son who is in a Special Needs School and Abbott actually cares), until he has the bill dropped in his ministerial lap to push through.
This turns the episode into the most cynical of them all, with two issues arising out of this situation that very seriously test the ability of the viewer to continue to accept Abbott as even the broken reed he is and always has been. The first is Abbott being advised by the ‘expert’ tossed up by Tucker to back-up his volte-face. The man is clearly a c**t and at one point Hugh excuses himself to send an email to Glenn, from Press Secretary Terri Coverley’s computer, to say so. Unfortunately the email goes to a different Glenn Cullen, who’s an eight year old girl. Scandal ensues, and even though Terri cons Hugh into admitting his culpability, she is the one who hads to take responsibility, apologise and bear the brunt of all the opprobrium.
It’s nasty, but that’s as nothing to what follows. Throughout the episode, Abbot has made a genuine thing of his opposition to the bill, supported enthusiastically by Glenn. In front of a Select Committee, having already lied about the number of experts consulted, he is quizzed on just why he has changed his mind by 180 degrees, instantly on hearing the second one. And Abbott brings up Glenn, sat beside him in the chair and stiffening immediately, and sells him down the river, using his son as a talisman for thinking, and perverting Glenn’s views to serve Abbott’s need.
It’s shocking. It’s unforgivable. It strikes so far below the waterline of decency that it is beyond unforgivable. How Abbott’s relationship to Glenn would have been continued in the next outing is impossible to guess but the need never arose. In 2007, Chris Langham was tried and convicted of possessing child pornography, allegedly for research into a character for the second series of Help which, as a consequence, was killed off, never to return. When it came to The Thick of It, a new Minister would be required.
In a wierd way, the show foresaw this. In episode 1, Abbott objects to a particular publicity photo of him, from when he had a moustache, that made him look like ‘a disgraced geography teacher’. And the second episode was also eerily foresighted in that, when Abbott asked what he had to do to get invited on TV, was advised by Glenn to have sex with a pig. Ten years later, the very same allegation was levelled against David Cameron, though strongly denied and never proven.