I first happened upon the 'Yes, Minister' series while living in Britain and working in Parliament. How is that for timeliness! Paul Eddington and Nigel Hawthorne (both knighted for their services to entertainment and the theatre, so the official story went -- Maggie loved the show so they both got awards, if you must know the truth) are perfectly matched as the new Cabinet Minister and experienced, somewhat jaded Permanent Secretary, poised to spar over virtually every detail of work together.
The series begins with Jim Hacker becoming a Cabinet Minister for the first time. It proceeds through his gradual process of gaining experience and then surprisingly being elevated to the position of Prime Minister; at the same time, Sir Humphrey Appleby is elevated to the position of Cabinet Secretary (the most senior of civil servants) and the 'Yes, Minister' series graduated to become 'Yes, Prime Minister', made all the more hilarious by virtue of the fact that Jim Hacker becomes PM largely due to a crisis about sausage (narrowly escaping being called an offal (pronounced awful) tube).
Political situations large and small are highlighted throughout the series. The humour shifts from being blatant to being very subtle; the common wisdom about the House of Commons with regard to the accuracy of the programme was that 'Reality is twice as true but half as funny'. The issues of promotions, wages, policies, inter-departmental struggles, down-in-the-dirt politics (British-style) all arise at various points. Sir Humphrey and Jim Hacker win their share of victories over each other, shifting back and forth in their pericoretic movement that typifies politics, from as minor as who has which office, to recognising heads of state and setting election dates.
The duo of Hacker and Sir Humphrey are wonderfully served by Bernard, a faithful PPS (personal private secretary) whose subtle shifting loyalties provides grist for both mills. Those who will be so enamoured of the series that they seek out the printed form will be happy to learn that eventually Bernard becomes Sir Bernard, and is himself eventually Cabinet Secretary. The books of 'Yes, Minister' and 'Yes, Prime Minister' are done in the fashion of diaries, with the neat addition of verbatim letters, photographs, charts, etc., providing a wonderful companion to the series.
This is British political satire at its best. Some of the episodes include:
In this episode, prior to the usual opening credits we get a shot of Jim Hacker being re-elected to his seat in Parliament. Nervously awaiting the call, he finally gets contacted by the PM to become Minister for Administrative Affairs, a bit of a political graveyard, we are informed. There is his introduced to Bernard Wooley, his Principal Private Secretary, and Sir Humphrey Appleby, the mandarin of the department. They spar, with Sir Humphrey easily manipulating the inexperienced Hacker through near political-suicide in pursuit of his name in the paper. It ends with the words, 'Yes, Minister' -- which is one of the hallmarks of the series.
--The Official Visit--
In this episode, Hacker engineers an unknown African leader's visit to Britain to help the struggling party's by-elections in Scotland, much to the dismay of Sir Humphrey, who would much rather have the visit take place in London (much greater chance to wear medals at a state function). In the end, the African leader turns out to be Hacker's friend from the LSE, who was sharp as a tack then, and turns out to be still a formidible adversary. In the end, Hacker and Sir Humphrey agree to an interest-free loan of 50 million pounds, to keep egg (or, at least imperialist yolk) off their faces.
--The Economy Drive--
Frustrated at every turn with trying to cut expenses, Hacker is persuaded by the manipulative Sir Humphrey that 'economy begins at home' -- so he gives up his fancy office, staff car, and all the perks to get his name highlighted in the paper. When his own car breaks down and he is found face-down in the gutter after a champagne reception at the French embassy, he thinks better of it all, acquiesing to Sir Humphrey's juggling the figures to make it seem as if all is being cut after all.
Hacker, as the minister responsible for wiretaps, has been dubbed 'Britain's chief bugger' by the press. Anxious at first to limit the scope of government to eavesdrop, Sir Humphrey informs Hacker that his name is on a death list, and this was discovered by the methods Hacker wants to prevent. After several agonising days of police escorts and protective custody, his security is removed when the terrorists had rearranged their priorities, or, in Sir Humphrey's analysis, 'they don't think you're important enough to kill.' Hacker then welcomes the petition to limit government involvement in wiretaps, saying that, after all, 'ministers are expendable, but liberty is indivisible.'
--The Writing on the Wall--
In this episode, the department is under attack, and not just in the usual political fashion. Sir Humphrey must engineer a way to save both Hacker and the department from becoming the easy budget cut the Prime Minister is in search of; playing on the fear of National Identity Cards inland and Euro-phobic identity abroad, Sir Humphrey and Hacker team up (a rare occasion) when the enemy without seems greater than the enemy within. It ends with the words, 'Yes, Minister' -- which is one of the hallmarks of the series.
--The Right to Know--
In this episode, Hacker has finally had enough of the double-speak and silences Sir Humphrey uses to keep the him in the dark. Ironically, Sir Humphrey floods Hacker with so much information, it is worse than ever. However, when Hacker's political career hangs in the balance over his daughter's protest over a badger colony (the operative phrase would be 'nude protest' at a badger colony), Hacker concedes, once Sir Humphrey defuses the issue, that perhaps there are some things better left unknown.
--Jobs for the Boys--
Sir Humphrey's cronies are looking for Government top-up consultancies; Hacker is looking for sainthood a la St. Francis. When the animal farm he used for a photo opportunity is about to become a carpark on his order, Sir Humphrey uses the opportunity to get his friend a Quango, Hacker's name on the new zoo, and Hacker's political advisor (and Humphrey's greatest pain) a well-deserved and well-removed Quango of his own, in Tahiti.
Sir Paul Eddington and Sir Nigel Hawthorne
Both stars of this incredible, lesser-known series have passed away, Sir Paul several years ago, and Sir Nigel just days prior to this writing. Both were ubiquitous in the London stage, screen, and television during the 80s and 90s. Both were very talented Shakespeareans who had no trouble with comedy subtle and gross. Sir Paul was honoured with a television tribute a very short time ago which gave insight into his true wit and character. Sir Nigel, best known in his later years with the success of 'The Madness of King George', was a modest and unassuming actor, capable of remarkable bits of genius.
This is up there with the best TV comedy of all time. Fawlty Towers, Dads Army, Seinfeld, Black Adder and The Office - it merits comparison with all of these, its that good.
Paul Eddington is brilliant as Jim Hacker, the Minister of the title. A decent man who is destined to become Prime Minister, but who is greatly hindered by his Permanent Secretary Sir Humphrey Appleby. Appleby, as played by Sir Nigel Hawthorne IS one of the greatest TV comedy characters ever created. A man with only one interest; protecting the Civil Service and its staff. He also ensures that if anything is done by the Minister it is done exactly as the Civil Service wish it to be done, regardless of cost and damage to the Government.
Apart from the casts brilliance and the marvellous scripts, the reason this show is so successful is that it is very close to the truth, as was admitted by the writers many years after the series finished. The writers met and got inside information on the running of Government departments. So whilst there is some dramatic licence the essence of each episode probably has some basis in truth.
Derek Fowlds plays the lesser role of Bernard Woolley, a slightly innocent Private Secretary, but given some wonderful lines by writers Jay and Lynn. Bernards petty observations contrast wonderfully with the Machiavellian plotting going on between Hacker and Sir Humphrey.
This boxed set has no extras, which is a shame. However the quality of the writing and acting is such that it must get 5 stars.
on 31 March 2009
What a delightful comedy series this is even after almost 30 years. The financial calamity engulfing the world at present has exposed much of the machinery of government as countries around the world seek to attribute blame for the credit crunch.
All of which makes this series ever the more timely. As a great fan of Parliamentary knockabout (Questions to the Prime Minister, Spitting Image), I recall this show on a weekly basis even while watching Gordon brown take questions for the House of Commons. For all the talk of permanent revolution which has pervaded the Home Civil Service for well over the 12 years of Labour governments, this show reminds one of how little has changed.
That is not to say that many of the issues raised in the show, such as the number of women in senior positions, have not been dealt with, but to what extent has the establishment, in the form of the Old Boy's Network, been disempowered? How many of the jobs of the top echelons of the Civil Service been given to non-Oxbridge graduates.? The opening up of the London Financial Community to non-graduate traders gave the political system a jolt which encouraged the employment of non-traditional graduates into many fields. What was intended as a bourgeousie expansion became little more than an affectation of upper middle and upper class behaviours and airs as well as aspirations. Private schools attracted many candidates from lower income families who scrimped and saved so that their offspring cound advance up the social and economic ladders.
The relevance of this is clear. Imagine an updated version of this show again written from an insider's perspective. I think it would be very similar although the furnishings and offices would be more expensive as well as expansive.
Yes, Minister continues to have relevance and many of the jokes still find a response from viewers. My son, about to embark on a year long civics course at high school, found it quite funny despite some of the very British comments and with some background explanation.
Perhaps it could be reissued with a special features disc including clips of Westminster Model of government as well as views from interested observers, like unions, think tanks, journalists and MPs. One wonders if the reception in the House of Commons which led to police officers arresting one participant was to discuss this item?
on 3 October 2008
What can you say? The BBC's finest moment? Yes Minister and Yes Prime Minister are political comedy that do not grow old. You can ignore the brown suits and the interiors, and still feel that the themes and issues are as relevant today as ever. You cannot feel anything but fondness for this brilliantly scripted, witty, sharp and gloriously acted classic.
Jim Hacker is a minister of the crown in a newly elected government. Reliant on his private secretary, Bernard Wooley, for help navigating the complexities of government. Hacker grows into the role, developing the occassional Churchillian conceit, but always remains an affectionate character, even in the depths of his pollitical paranoia. Wooley evolves through these series from a lamb, barely able to help himself never mind his minister, to a wolf cub: still young but growing teeth. The master is of course the cabinet secretary, Sir Humphrey Appleby, one of the greatest characters ever to appear on TV. Sir Humphrey is machiavellian and delights in the exercise of power. Slowly though the unthinkable evolves, Hacker, with tacit aid from Wooley (who has dual allegiances), begins to exert some measure of authority. The man who studied Classics at Oxford gradually realises that the minister, who studied at London School of Economics, which is almost as bad as Essex University, is worthy of respect.