Sunday Watch: The Thick of It – The Rise of the Nutters/Spinners and Losers


My, what an appropriate weekend to watch this pair of extended episodes, what with various nobodies, toerags and disasters vying to become Prime Minister of what used to be referred to, without laughing, as the government of the United Kingdom. Here, fifteen years before this momentous moment in our ciuntry’s slide into Fourth World ignominy, are two specials from the celebrated political spoof that is The Thick of It, revealing the truth of what it’s really like behind the scenes. And you thought what’s in front of the scenes was horrifying enough. It’s a case of deja vu all over again.

Though between them, ‘The Rise of the Nutters’ and ‘Spinners and Losers’ tell a single story, this is not like The Office Xmas Specials (even if the first one appeared at Xmas) in that they weren’t planned to be a single story, told together. In effect, the Specials were stopgaps, or rather two stopgaps, separated by half a year, necessitated by the uncertainty over the position of Chris Langham, who played Hugh Abbott, Minister at the Department of Social Affairs and Citizenship. Langham was on trial on serious charges. He could not appear in the series unless he was found Not Guilty, and even then the course of the trial and the basis for such a verdict would need to be taken into consideration. So, as no third series could yet be planned, let alone written, Arnando Ianucci came up with the first Special, and a follow-up second instalment when it became clear there would be no early resolution to Langham’s trial.

Langham is written out temporarily. Abbott is in Australia on a fact-finding mission. His temporary replacement is Ben Swain (Justin Edwards), a Junior Minister and a ‘Nutter’. That’s the general name for a faction in the Party, headed by Tom Davies (who doesn’t appear in either Special). It’s known that the PM intemds to resign at some near future moment, and the Nutters intend to take the leadership and the Party (these Specials were made at a time when Tony Blair was still PM, but it was public knowledge both that he’d agreed to resign in due course and hand the leadership over to Gordon Brown and that Brown was pressing rather heavily for that to happen sooner rather than later, sooner here being a word meaning ‘like, last week’.

This background tension underlines everything. Glenn Cullen’s going off on holiday whilat Hugh is away. Ollie Reeder is still sleeping with Emma Messinger, who’s on the staff of Shadow Minister Peter Mannion (Roger Allam, introduced here, though not yet at the peak of his game as the bored, cynical Minister), mainly because spinmeister Malcolm Tucker and his right hand man Jamie (Paul Higgins, making his last appearances in the series) have ordered him to do so in case he can get intelligence. Julius Nicholson has ascended yet further in the PM’s confidence. Malcolm’s position, especially with regard to the control he exerts, is ever so slightly precarious, eespecially as he’s the PM’s man, and so what happens afterwards?

‘The Rise of the Nutters’ takes the series’ usual chaotic approach and raises it. On the surface, there’s no sense of an actual, defined plot, intent on getting there, but that’s because the skill of Ianucci and his fellow writers lies in their ability to create artificial but realistic chaos that, under its own hectic hilariousness, knows when to have the butterfly flap its wings and exactly when and where the hurricane is going to hit.

There are wonderful moments. Edwards is generous in portraying himself as little more than a buffoon, out of his depth as soon as he steps onto a plush carpet. There’s a brilliant scene where he gets eviscerated by Jeremy Paxman (spliced in from archive footage), expoosed out of his own words as unprepared, even worse of a waffler than Jim Hacker and possessed of a nervous tic in the form of uncontrollable blinking that is the proverbial dead giveaway.

For all that, you’ve got Ollie, trying to become to Ben Swain what Glen Cullen has always been to Hugh Abbott, who’s accidentally leaked his/Malcolm’s policy for ‘a Week at the Coalface’, i.e., a Minister spends a week working at an actual, real Immigration Centre, to Emma, who brings it up as a suggestion to Mannion, who carries it out. It’s just the first leak. For reasons of his own, Malcolm wants the PM’s legacy policy – taking immigration out of Politics by setting up a completely Independent body – leaked to the Opposition so they can announce it first.

This becomes imperative, if Malcolm is to stay on top by allying with the next PM, when the old one abruptly announces his resignation. The game’s afoot, the hunt is on, the Nutters are the best prepared and Malcolm’s trying to get the legacy policy out faster than the PM. And he’s caught out at it, by Julius Nicholson. This is the hurricane, the legacy of not just one, but many butterflies…

‘Spinners and Losers’ appeared in July 2007, curiously enough only a week before Tony Blair did indeed resign and hand the reins of power over to Gordon Brown (according to the DVD commentary, Blair loved The Thick of It – what Alistair Campbell thought was unrecorded – and used to watch it over and over, pausing and rewinding specific bits several times: life imitates art, eh?) Langham’s fate – conviction and imprisonment – was still not known. It was time for another Special, completing the story. If Langham had been able to return to the series before this point, I assume this would have run through at least the first part of series 3.

Even more than it’s predecessor, ‘Spinners and Losers’ is impossible to summarise. It’s an hour, it covers a single night, it’s about manipulation, about the speed at which things can change – Harold Wilson famously said that a week is a long time in Politics but on this evidence we can safely substitute half an hour – and the virulent hatred everyone has for everyone around them. At its simplest, Tom, the head of the nutters, looks like a shoo-in for the next PM, but he has to habe an anti-depressant blow-out every four months or so. A series of alternates are considered, down to and including Ben Swain. Ollie’s attaching himself to the Nutters. Glenn’s updating hugh, who is flying back from Australia. Ollie’s briefing his Daily Mail reporter ex-girlfriend Angela Heaney, whose night editor, Adam Kenyon, is hsving to remake the front page every half hour or so because every single one of Ollie’s tips are superceded by events that fast.

It’s chaos. There’s a very plausible dark horse oponent in Dan Miller but he’s gone, appropriately, dark: incommunicado. Jamie’s trying to leapfrog Malcolm by attaching himself to Tom. The density and intensity of the swearing increases exponentially, seriously, if four letter words offend you and you found the first two series only bearable, never watch this Special. I’ve said before that I could never work in this kind of setting because I just couldn’t tell someone to Fuck Off to their face and work with them normally straight after, even snakes don’t have that kind of flexibility, but you have to marvel at how every single person in this Special mortally offends everyone else in the most unforgivable manner possible, and they all work happily ever after, albeit for a given value of happy.

In the end, Dan Miller surfsces, only to back Tom. Malcolm stays at the top. Ben Swain crashes in flames, tagged as a racist, Tom’s Press Secretary Nick gets edged out, the door is still left ajar for Chris Langham, and we come to the end mentally exhausted and convinced that this total farrago is indeed how our country is governed. Recent events only bring that impression to the forefront.

Originally, it was intended to have ‘Spinners and Losers’ feature a series of cutaways to the response of the Opposition to ongoing events, but these ended up cut out completely, not without regret. It was felt that their spinning wasn’t sufficiently distinguished from the Government side, but the main reason was that slipping away from Tucker’s side dissipated the claustrophobia and panic: and rightly so.

In the end, about fifteen minutes of footage was excised, and turned into a short film of its own, accessible via the red button. It’s on the DVD but with commentary that seems to be impossible to turn off, so I can’t say anything about it.

So these were the Specials. Chris Langham would be convicted and sentenced to prison. At least Ianucci and co knew where they stood for series 3, which would be longer than the first two series put together. It’s turn will come.


Sunday Watch: The Thick of It -s02 e01-03


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.

Sunday Watch: The Thick of It – s01 e01-03


What better follow up to last Sunday?

These three episodes represent the entire first series of The Thick of It, from 2005, when it starred a pre-fall Chris Langham as hapless Minister for Social Affairs Hugh Abbott, as well as introducing Peter Capaldi’s immortal Director of Communications, Malcolm Tucker, based very heavily on the real-life advisor to Tony Blair, Alistair Campbell, and supportred by the unholy trinity of James Smith, as Glen Cullen, Joanna Scanlan as Terry Coverley and Chris Addison as Ollie Reeder.

The thing is, alerted by the press description of it as a Yes Minister for the 2000s, I started to watch the first episode but didn’t even make it to the end. I just didn’t find it funny and I found the constant profanity off-putting. I was just completely out-of-tune to the general atmosphere, unable then to appreciate the often poetic quality of the swearing – Tucker’s first line was to tell someone over the phone that they were ‘as much use as a marzipan dildo’, which makes me laugh out loud now, just typing that. So I quit it, prematurely.

I didn’t start to appreciate the show until I borrowed the DVD of In the Loop from the library, had a whale of a time with it and decided to get into the show proper, which was by then halfway through series 3. Subsequently, I bught the complete The Thick of It, four boxsets in a presentation pack got up to look like a Ministerial Red Box. Now I’m back at the beginning.

The first series is extraordinarily difficult to summsarise, or even analyse, and I find myself falling back on the factors that distinguishe it from Yes Minister (there’s the swearing, to begin with). Except that they are both set in the realm of Government, there sare very few points of contact. There’s the hapless, inadequate Minister, the same kind of Ministry with amorphous responsibilities that no-one could define, and the same polar opposite who’s the real star of the show. But that’s where The Thick of It kick-starts its own groove.

Instead of Sir Humphrey Appleby, the smooth, quiet pillar of the establishment, we have Malcolm Tucker, the journalist-turned-enforcer, violent of temper and tongue, issuing not guidance but directives. The key difference: Yes Minister was about the battle with the Civil Service, The Thick of It about the battle with Image and Perception. So, instead of structured episodes about a fcussed subject, we get an uncontrolled, impressionistic flurry of confusion, in which there is no stable ground. This is reflected in the filming, done by handheld camera that goes all over the place, unable to settle, looking from person to person, distracted by corners, swinging from side to side, up to down, corner to corner.

It’s as if the camera is an invisible person in the scene, its glance darting hither and yon as it’s ADHD interest is caught by what’s going on. It’s unusual, it’s off-putting, it’s even seasickness-inducing until you adjust to it but it brilliantly captures the uncertsainty Armandi Ianucci wants to portray. Everything is built on shifting sands, disturbable at a second’s notice, or less. In this political word, nothing has any solid footing.

Of course this could not be like Yes Minister. There was an is a massive difference between the politics and the Britain of the change from the Seventies into the Eighties and that of the mid-2000s. Inanucci is too perceptive and brilliant a satirist not to understand this, nor to portray it any way except accurately. The series is chaos loosely grouped into segments: Press Conferences that, despite the presence of cameras, don’t show what Malcolm Tucker briefs has been said, a hopeless Minister who flip-flops from struggling to survive to being bent on resignation and welcoming survival. Everybody is on their own, arguing at all times, directly rude and offensive to people’s faces. It’s an environment I could never survive in as I’m constitutionaly incapable of telling someone to Fuck Off to their face and then carrying on working with them – and I’m not referring here to Tucker, who is the overwhelming monster who is unchallengeable, but to the peons – and it’s simultaneously fascinating and horrifying in its depiction.

Especially as we understand it as being real all along.

The swearing. Oh yes, the swearing. I was brought up in a very staid atmosphere. I’ve grown out of that, a long times back, I use ‘bad language’ but I don’t use it indiscriminately, every third or fourth word. I use it for impact and effect. Repeat Fuck too many times and it just becomes a sound, and thus useless. The plethora of swear words – there was a solitary, half-swallowed use of the C-word in episode 1 – sometimes appears crude and juvenile: dockers’ language, fish-market language as it would be termed when I was young, and it did repel me a little, even today.

But it’s also an accurate reflection of the mindset of these people, masters of the Universe in their own minds and so licenced to talk as they wish, even as they can’t act as they wish. Big boys grown up, look, I can say Fuck. It’s juvenile, and it’s an integral part of what they are. And I can find it funny.

Overall, series 1 isn’t that good. I like Chris Langham, and he’s good here – everybody is good – but I can’t watch him now without being conscious of his flaws. Capaldi is of course monstrous, and monstrously good, and the rest are tight and sharp. But the show is learning about itself at this stage, it doesn’t quite understand itself. It will be back, and it will be better. Another Sunday.

Film 2019: In The Loop

I didn’t go for The Thick of It in the first place. I watched the first, three-episode series, the one with Chris Langham. It was billed as Yes Minister for the 21st century, which led me to expect what I wasn’t going to get. I didn’t find it funny, and it took me a long time until I did find it funny.

In The Loop, borrowed on DVD from the local library, got me over that hurdle. It’s a spin-off from the TV series, a 2009 feature film splitting its time between England and America, intended as a satire of the Iraq war. Several of the Thick of It cast appear, together with half a dozen American actors, the biggest of whom – in every sense – being James Gandolfini, Tony Sporano as was.

What I didn’t understand properly, then, was that only Peter Capaldi as Malcolm Tucker and Paul Higgins as Jamie MacDonald were playing ‘themselves’, with other familiar characters, most prominently Chris Addison, playing new characters closely related to their TV selves.

The spine of the story is very simple. Minister for International Development, Simon Foster, played by Tom Hollander as a soft-boiled egg, says something stupid on the radio, bringing down the ire of Tucker (it’s no good, Capaldi is and always will be Malcolm Tucker, forget this nonsense about being Doctor Who). Foster, you can rapidly tell, is born to say something stupid as he stands for nothing except being a career politician.

His new aide, Toby Wright (Addison), undermining his rather more efficient Director of Communications, Judy Molloy (Gina McKee, looking frankly gorgeous), gets Foster into a meeting with American Assistant Secretary of State for Diplomacy, Karen Clark (Mimi Kennedy) but only as ‘meat’ (i.e., another warm body to make the meeting look good). Foster compounds his error by speaking up when he’s not wanted.

This gets him dragged into affairs in America, where Secretary of State for Policy Linton Barwick (David Rasche) has created a secret War Committee aiming to invade an unnamed Middle East country. Clark, assisted by a very much more Con than Pro position paper written by her staffer, Lisa Weld (Anna Chlumsky) and General George Miller (Gandolfini) are opposed to War and want Foster to help ‘internationalise dissent’. Malcolm Tucker has other ideas.

There’s more to it than that, a lot more, branching out in multiple directions, but that’s enough. The film is a wind-up toy that whirrs and crashes. It’s embedded with personalities that are all exaggerations, but the thing that worries you is just how big – or in the circumstances little – an exaggeration they are.

Capaldi is just Tucker, his non-stop foul-mouthed invective a masterpiece of scripting given the perfect delivery: Tucker is bile and fury, he doesn’t just run on it, he is it. Foster is all soft edges and no convictions, the only flaw in Hollander’s portrayal being that you wonder how he got as far as he did without a vertebrate spine.

Addison’s Toby gets the biggest comeuppance in the film, in an unemphasised way. He screws Lisa in Washington which blows his relationship with girlfriend Suzy (Olivia Poulet), costing him his home, and is displaced at the Ministry almost as soon as Foster departs. It’s difficult to know whether to characterise him as a slimy creep or a creepy slime but after he tries to to explain away fucking Lisa as a protest against the war, he deserves everything he gets.

Of the other performers, I have just got to pick out Gandolfini. His is the most grounded in reality in the film (apart from McKee as Judy, who is more level-headed and unneurotic than everyone else). You can believe in him as a soldier and a General, more solid on the earth than anyone else, and yet every bit as cutting.

In the Loop was a success on all levels, thugh it’s fair to say it was slightly out of date when it was released. Obama was in the White House by then, and the film’s world is Dubya and Cheney, Republican hawks. Nevertheless, it hits all its marks with stiletto-like precision, and you come out of the film not merely wondering how close to the reality this is but convinced it’s more accurate than any history book or hard-hitting documentary will ever be.

I should also mention that it’s bloody funny too, that’s it’s full-to-bursting with undercurrents, sub-stories and clashing personalities without ever once feeling crammed, the performances are exactly brilliant and, most worrying of all, in these days of pandemics, crisis and potential panic, the feeling that you wish this lot were really in charge instead of the, you should pardon the expression, leaders we actually have.