“The Rise of the Nutters” has a lot of work to do, and it does it well, but in typical The Thick Of It style, it does it quickly and expects you to keep up. It aired just after the New Year in 2007 as an hour-long mini-movie, while the country waited on Chris Langham’s trial (so Hugh’s on vacation). It mirrors real-life events even closer than before—Tony Blair had announced that he would retire sometime in the near future (but not provided a date) and his longtime deputy and rival Gordon Brown was massing his forces to take over. For Malcolm and Jamie, Ollie and Glenn (as well as the increasingly bitter Julius) everything’s hanging in the balance as they wait for an indication of when it’s safe to jump ship to “the nutters.”
“The nutters” being fans of the PM’s incoming replacement. In Britain, if the Prime Minister retires or stops being the leader of the party, there’s just a vote on who to replace him as leader of the party—no national election. In the case of Gordon Brown, the obvious analogue to “Tom,” he walked into the office unopposed, having bided his time for 10 years amid constant media chatter over his rivalry with Blair. For Malcolm and his junior spin doctors, the idea of breaking their steadfast loyalty to associate with the nutters is unthinkable, but we’re watching them all come around to the realization that it has to happen.
At the same time that “The Rise of the Nutters” introduces you to the whole concept of the nutters (who are spoken of in hushed tones more than actually encountered, apart from the blinking buffoon that is Ben Swain), we’re also given an extended look at the opposition, who we’ll see more and more of in future episodes. The wonderful Roger Allam is Hugh Abbott analogue Peter Mannion—the befuddled Shadow Social Affairs Secretary, a moderate-seeming Tory who is disinterested in keeping up with the new hip image being promoted by young leader “JB.” JB is an obvious spoof of David Cameron, who had been around for about a year at this point and had already succeeded in changing the party’s logo from a flaming torch to a tree.
JB’s influence is felt through the insufferable Stewart (Vincent Franklin), who can’t stand the sight of any elected official in a tie and even convinces Peter to untuck his shirt, although he backtracks on that—“You look like you’ve been startled by a fire alarm.” His advisors are Emma (Ollie’s girlfriend, first mentioned last season) and Phil who is more of your typical posh young Tory type, who longs for the party’s glory days of the ’80s—“Miami Vice, deregulation of the stock exchange, us being in power, that was pretty good!”
If “The Rise Of The Nutters” suffers at all, it’s just because it’s doing so much in one episode. There’s a fairly typical Thick Of It plotline running through this episode, with policy ideas bouncing between Hugh’s office and Peter’s, via Ollie and Emma’s relationship, and mostly due to Malcolm’s schizophrenic machinations. Sure, Hugh’s not even a character (he’s in Australia) and Glenn and Terri aren’t around much either, but otherwise that sounds like business as usual.
But we also have the inept power plays of Ben Swain (who might be a rival for Hugh’s job), Malcolm and Jamie grasping for influence, the opposition getting into messes of its own (mostly revolving around the comments page on Peter’s blog) and the welcome return of Julius Nicholson, who realizes his influence and friendship with the Prime Minister will only take him so far. He’s as clueless as ever when it comes to Malcolm’s machinations, but at the end of the day, when the PM announces his surprise retirement, the two of them commiserate together over being truly out-of-the-loop for once.
There’s a surprising amount of drama laced into the episode—Malcolm and Jamie’s scenes together are laced with menace and suspicion, Ollie and Emma’s relationship (while comical) involves them constantly at each other’s throats, and the ultimate revelation of the PM’s retirement plays out in a frenetic montage (although all Terri does is plan her holiday while she waits for the dust to settle).
But there’s room for ridiculous comedy and the whole character of Ben Swain, particularly his dual meltdowns on Newsnight (the preeminent BBC news talk show, hosted by the terrifying soul-eater Jeremy Paxman) and near-constant blinking problem. Ben is pretty much the only reason Malcolm and Ollie et al. aren’t quaking in their boots at the idea of the nutters—sure, “Tom” has his fans among the party, but not too many of them are battle-tested, probably by design. Ben is sure he’ll be able to stand up to Paxman’s style (just watch this video), but he crumbles in ways that Malcolm and Jamie could never imagine. He’s not even able to debut the “week at the coalface” proposal, which allows the Tories to steal it out from under them.
Peter Mannion and his clashes with Stewart are a pretty reliable fountain of laughs too, though. Allam finds a brilliant new perspective on the bedraggled, disinterested minister—Peter is tired not just by the idea of meeting constituents or other empty press gestures, but by the general devolution of principle that has occurred since he was last-in-power. He wearily shrugs off jokes about a love-child scandal from long ago, but seems to have some kinship with Julius, who has the same sense of civility. Like Hugh, he’s a largely passive, sarcastic character, sighing as he does what he’s told, but his moments of rebellion are wonderful, like snatching his tie back out of Emma’s jacket at the end of the episode.
“The Rise Of The Nutters” was part one of the leadership change-over saga; next week we’ll cover “Spinners and Losers,” which covers one day of the handover of power and is even more frenetic and tense than usual. As The Thick Of It expands its universe and plays with its narrative abilities, it’s more and more exciting to watch.
- Peter is suspicious of a comments section on his blog: “Have you ever Googled your name? It's like opening your door to a room where everyone tells you how shit you are.”
- He insists he’s a modern Tory: “I say black instead of colored, I think women are a good thing, I’ve no problem with gays—most of them are very well turned-out, especially the men.”
- Malcolm knows Jeremy Paxman’s powers all too well: “What are you gonna do when he pulls that big rubbery horse-face of mock incredulity at you?”
- Ben is stuck with Jamie until he’s done with Newsnight: “Even if I take a dump, and I shit a lot. It's smoking, and a fast metabolism.”
- Phil and Ollie, usually rivals, are equally horrified at Paxman’s mauling of Ben: “This is like watching a lion rape a sheep. In a bad way.” “He spelled just with four Js!”
- Peter’s blog goes as well as he expected: “I don't trust you, you Cypriot crook.”
- Jamie is outraged at Ollie’s poor espionage abilities: “You're the fucking shittest James Bond ever. You're David fucking Niven!”
- Malcolm won’t allow Ben on TV again: “You're like a sweaty octopus trying to unhook a bra!”
- Jamie agrees: “Your meltdown was witnessed by 1.2 million people. That’s more people than saw Al Jolson in his entire career, and that’s Al Jolson!” “He loves Al Jolson.” “The guvnor!”
- Jamie will brook no criticism of Al Jolson: “I will remove your iPod from its tiny nano-sheath and push it up your cock.”
- Julius inspects his sandwiches before buying them: “I like to see them myself, you know, feel the heft.”
- He’s also good at getting out of a conversation at a party: “I need to find myself a maize-based snack.”