The review you really don’t need…

…because you already watch The Thick Of It, you political dawg you. But reviews of TV shows that have already been seen by everyone who could conceivably be reading must work, or how would we account for the continuing success of the great Charlie Brooker?

So, three episodes in, we in the People’s Republic are developing a cautious optimism about the series, after a frankly shaky start. I think my criticism of eps 1 and 2 comes down to this: the previous series (plural of series, anyone? Serieses? Series’? Don’t give a Malcolm’s?) have been marked by beautifully sparing character development and incredibly fast direction. They didn’t have the luxury of an eight-episode contract to introduce characters, spin out storylines or set up long plots. Everything had to be here’s Hugh, he’s like this, bish bash Malcolm bosh here’s Glenn, he’s like this, Malcolm Malcolm boom cha boom, here’s Ollie, he’s like this, dum de dum de dum Malcolm argh it’s Malcolm, and we hope you took all that in because here comes this week’s disaster!

All the drama and character, and quite a lot of the comedy, was achieved with sometimes the most fleeting glimpses of expressions and reactions. Plus the half-heard ad libbing was brilliant. I wouldn’t mind betting that a lot of the ad libs in those first two series was based on material the writers wanted to get across but couldn’t run in the formal script because it would take too long. I still seize up with mirth just thinking about Ollie’s offhand one-liner about blue sky consultant Julius – “it’ll be one of his great ideas like inflatable churches for rural communities”. And then Julius comes in and you realise, yeah, that’s exactly the kind of idea this guy would have. It’s brilliantly observed and it’s just one tiny, tiny two seconds of dialogue with another character talking over it – it’s things like that that make the comedy feel so rich, and force you to watch with rapt attention in case you miss a gem.

In short (she says,  three hundred words later and counting), brevity did a lot to make the show what it was. With the first two episodes in the new series, a lot of that quick-fire spirit seemed to disappear. The direction was long and ponderous and might as well have come with big subtitles reading “HERE IS A PICTURE OF NICOLA LOOKING PISSED OFF” and “HERE IS THE NEWSPAPER EDITOR LOOKING SURPRISED AT WHAT NICOLA IS SAYING”. Even Malcolm failed to carry some of his long shots because his rants weren’t punctuated with enough plot development – he has to be swearing for a reason. Just swearing at people because they’ve pissed him off makes him lose that fearful edge.

The ad libbing didn’t seem to have any substance either, all variations on the theme of “We’re in the shit, and it’s not MY fault”, which is probably quite funny if you’ve never seen the show or had a satirical thought about the Labour government cross your mind, but is a bit of a let-down if you’ve been weaned on inflatable churches. It also seems to me that there has been some slimming down on the plot front, perhaps due to the same instinct as the one responsible for building up the characters by focussing…. on…. their…. expressions…. and…. reactions…. for…. an…. achingly…. long…. time… Only one disaster per episode? Not enough, I say! When everyone is essentially in the same scene, worrying about Nicola’s meeting with the Guardian for ten minutes, and then worrying about the aftermath for the next ten minutes, all sense of surprise is lost.

Furthermore, in the words of Sir John Gielgud (probably), where is the motivation, darling? We all knew what Hugh wanted in series one and two. He was a time-serving Labour smugster who, with occasional moments of self-doubt, basically wanted to look as good as possible with minimum effort. He knew there was a game to be played, keeping in with the right ministers, avoiding obvious fuck-ups and serving his time, in the hope that he, followed by the trusty Glenn, might eventually be given a proper department to run. And however awful, self-centred and hypocritical he was, we were still rooting for him.

We may yet end up rooting for Nicola Murray. But she gives us precious little clue about what she wants. What happened to the equality agenda vaguely mentioned at the beginning of episode 1? I think it might be fun to have a minister who actually wants to get something done and has to get round Malcolm to do it – but at the moment the Nicola Murray character is almost completely reactive to events and seems to have neither aims nor a deliberate lack of them.

Most of all, though, we wondered at the setting. These are the dying days of a government being depicted. A satire has got to be current. Where’s the sense that the opposition are breathing down the characters’ necks and that everyone is sooner or later going to have to scramble for position? The first two episodes didn’t seem to have moved on from the old scenario – here is an absurd government obsessed with spin, now laugh if you will. There is so much new material – expenses, civil liberties, protests – out on the ether, and its lack is incongruous in a show whose dialogue is usually so ruthlessly up to the minute.

Saturday’s third episode seemed to break out of a lot of these needless self-constraints. First, it was a scenario that we haven’t seen on TTOI before, a party conference and a brilliantly observed one at that. I was in real cringy tears of recognition before the dialogue started, right at the opening shot of Ollie sitting on his hotel bed in a suit and tie with his laptop. And the John Duggan character, oh my lord, he is painfully good. He is an aggregate send-up of pretty much everyone I have ever met or known of who has worked at Cowley Street (you know who you are), right down to the scraggy little North London beard. The actor deserves a BAFTA on the strength of that episode alone as far as I’m concerned.

The plotting was also a bit more complex, what with Terri scuttling about Eastbourne in a cagoul and Teh Dreaded Bloggers making their first shadowy appearance in a pivotal role. The action seemed a lot faster, with more reversals of fortune and moments where Malcolm’s swearing actually felt contextual rather than bolted on. And, incidentally, I suspect our own Mr Sanders can take the credit for inspiring Punchgate.

But most of all, I felt there were many, many more moments of “Yes! That is what the government is like”. Like when Nicola bemoans the content of her speech as nanny statish and characterises it thusly: “”Death by chocolate” is not just a light-hearted name for a pudding, it’s a serious health issue.” Ha-ha! Oh yes, we’ve heard the like of  that.

It all gives me hope that, now that the characters are established to a fault, we might see more of the pace and cleverness of the old TTOI. Maybe Nicola’s equality agenda will come back into it. The Conservatives certainly will, as we know from the trailer; them parking their tanks on the lawn of power is going to send a lot of interesting rockets up the government characters. And I think Malcolm’s already got the measure of the bloggers – we in the People’s Republic look forward to watching him exploit them just like he does the press.

10 Comments

  1. I think your criticisms of the Nicola character actually are why it works so well for me.

    Take your words again: “she gives us precious little clue about what she wants … Nicola Murray is almost completely reactive to events and seems to have neither aims nor a deliberate lack of them.”

    Doesn’t that sounds to you rather like several actual ministers?

  2. It’s growing on me – but like Alix I had reservations about the Nicola Murray character as a replacement for Hugh.

    I also got the feeling that Malcolm Tucker didn’t really know how to handle a woman minister and his full on testosterone fueled rants were a bit more measured.

    The bloggers rant this week reassured me on that🙂

  3. Wot Mark said.

    Except, really, it’s worse – the thing that defined the last reshuffle was the fact that they had to stick people in the house of lords to fill the Government up because there’s nothing but dross on the back benches – Nicola, a last minute all they could find sort of Minister is, I think, doomed to never do anything except react and follow instructions. She doesn’t actually have any ideas other than the wooden toy initiative!

    What other kind of brand new minister could Armando possibly have written?

  4. Aha! You’re right – in that case she needs to be much *more* feeble. In the same way that you know Robin is feeble. You don’t actually know that with Nicola, and her back story as interpreted by you is perfect, but it doesn’t come across at all. It comes across like she genuinely has a brain but is just, for some reason, helpless. Maybe the actor is playing her too intelligently, but I think the writing is making her too almost-sympathetic. Like, she shouldn’t have had the death-by-chocolate line if she’s a drone scraped off the bottom of the barrel. She shouldn’t be aware that it’s a crap line, she should be a helpless, smiley automaton with neuroses that everyone talks about behind her back. Tho they’re starting to get at that with the rescue remedy, I suppose.

  5. Ah very true. You’re making me doubt my interpretation now.

    She’s idealistic but doesn’t actually have any specific policy ideas good enough to get Tucker’s interest – nothing to really fight for specifically, so she’s bogged down doing nothing but media stuff instead – plus the consequences of the department being run the way it has been.

    Nicola seems like she actually has a personality and an identity of her own, though – not totally media trained, not totally up to speed on what Ministers are actually supposed to be doing (because it’s all been rushed, I expect)

    So, a much richer and more interesting character I think, and I’m curious about where this is all going. It does feel like there is some sort of overall story this series – Malcolm is clearly losing his control over events and is becoming as helpless as the Ministers themselves. He’s becoming a tragic, pathetic character – the final flick of the thumb at Alistair Campbell, perhaps?

    Some little touches are brilliant though – the way Nicola won’t go in lifts, keeps swapping between trainers and heels etc.

  6. >The direction was long and ponderous and might as well have come with big subtitles reading “HERE IS A PICTURE OF NICOLA LOOKING PISSED OFF” and “HERE IS THE NEWSPAPER EDITOR LOOKING SURPRISED AT WHAT NICOLA IS SAYING”.

    Wonder what it is like with the Audio Description on, if available?

  7. The great thing about Hugh was that you ended up caring about him, despite everything. It was partly the character but also the fact that to a huge extent Langham played him largely as Roy Mallard,* with the same mix of twisted innocence, mundanity and not-very-well camouflaged self-interest. Which is quite human – and therefore endearing – after all. I well remember his fantastic skit on just wanting to be able to have a decent crap.

    But that was the point. One adored Malcolm’s rants, but they were also slightly frightening because you were on Hugh’s side. When occasionally you found yourself on Malcolm’s side it was almost a shock. Whereas for the first two episodes, I was on his side the whole way (haven’t seen this one yet; iPlayer beckons).

    Though part of me wonders how much of that has to do with In The Loop.

    *anyone who liked Langham’s performance as HA but hadn’t encountered him before would be well advised to look out the radio series People Like Us. And don’t worry, he did it before he became an Evil Peedo Beast™ , so you won’t get infected.

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