Synopsis: When the Right Honorable Jim Hacker lands the job of Cabinet Minister he thinks he is, at last, in a position of power. However, he has not accounted for Sir Humphrey Appleby, his Permanent Under Secretary. Sir Humphrey has made a long career out of confusing and manipulating Ministers, and Jim Hacker is to be no exception. A classic satirical comedy starring Paul Eddington and Nigel Hawthorne.
eyelights: the sharpness of the dialogues.
eyesores: the inconsistency of the characters.
“Well, government doesn’t stop just because the country’s been destroyed! I mean, annihilation’s bad enough without anarchy to make things even worse!”
‘Yes, Minister’ is a BBC television programme that ran from 1980 to 1984. Over the course of three series, it followed the battle of wits between the Right Honourable Jim Hacker, MP, and his Permanent Secretary Sir Humphrey Appleby as the former attempts to bring his ideals to government while the latter tries to railroad his efforts. It is the only series to win the BAFTA for Best Comedy Series three years in a row.
The series was not only a critical success, it was extremely popular with the public, despite the fact that it demanded much of it: to appreciate the show, one has to have a general understanding of the British-style of government; ‘Yes, Minister’ doesn’t pander to the audience whatsoever. Its humour is largely rooted in its dialogues, which are rich with spin, irony and a cynical view of bureaucracy and diplomacy.
It’s a political junkie’s delight.
The first series sees the election of Jim Hacker as a Member of Parliament. His party elected the most MPs, and he (like many others) is hoping to get a Cabinet position. He gets his wish, but he is handed the post of Minister of Administrative Affairs – hardly a prestigious one, but it’s nonetheless better than being a backbencher. Thus he finds himself in direct confrontation with the department’s most manipulative civil servant: Sir Humphrey.
Whereas Hacker is a well-intentioned but hapless new recruit, Sir Humphrey is a seasoned self-serving bureaucrat; he couldn’t care less what other people want, so long as it doesn’t come in conflict with his own goals. Nigel Hawthorne injects him with a calculating and slippery quality that is in perfect contrast with the uncertainty of Paul Eddington’s Hacker. Hawthorne won four BAFTAs for his role as Sir Humphrey.
As is typical of British television, the series consists of only a few episodes; unlike American shows, whose full season used to be a slate of 22-26 episodes, ‘Yes, Minister’ is a mere seven episodes. But what it lacks in quantity it makes up for fully in quality. Although they are all dialogue-heavy, very much akin to short plays, even its weakest episode is terrific; they offer much to reflect upon, and even more to split one’s sides with.
“It used to be said there were two kinds of chairs to go with two kinds of Minister: one sort folds up instantly; the other sort goes round and round in circles.”
1. Open Government: The episode opens with Hacker having just been elected. he’s waiting around for a call from the new PM, hoping for a cabinet post. The phone keeps ringing and he eagerly answers only to find that it’s a relative or telemarketers. But he eventually gets his wish. After getting his post, the bureaucrats immediately separate him from his political advisor and he gets a crash course in government, as Sir Humphrey works behind the scenes to manipulate him. Hacker dreams of open government, but a bureaucrat dismisses it: “It’s one or the other”, he says. “Open or government”. 8.0
“Well, “under consideration” means “we’ve lost the file”; “under active consideration” means “we’re trying to find it”.”
2. The Official Visit: Hacker learns about the handling (or ignoring, as the case may be) of Ministerial correspondence. He also gets a crash course in the protocol for meeting heads of state. To further his own interests, hoping to impress the Queen, he decides to bring Burandan’s new President to Scotland to visit with her on the eve of a by-election – unaware that the President plans to promote separatism. Thankfully, Sir Humphrey is there to help him save his bacon – but many favours will be owed in the process. 7.75
“Politicians like to panic. They need activity; it’s their substitute for achievement!”
3. The Economy Drive: After being criticized in the press for running a bloated department, Hacker decides to do some cutbacks. Unfortunately for him, the ever self-serving Humphrey railroads his every effort – after all, the size of one’s department matches one’s importance. I found Hacker a bit too hapless for my taste here; I wasn’t convinced by how foolishly he took care of things. But it’s an amusing episode anyway. 7.5
“The Opposition aren’t the opposition. They’re only the opposition in exile. The Civil Service is the opposition in residence.”
4. Big Brother: Hacker is quizzed about a database that the government is putting together; critics are concerned about its lack of privacy. Consequently, he wants safeguards put in place, but Humphrey naturally tries to block his every move. So Hacker approaches his predecessor, who is now in Opposition, about the stalemate and the latter advises him on all the steps that Humphrey will go through to stall, effectively helping Hacker counter his moves. This was fun because Hacker finally outplayed Humphrey; that was fun to see. 7.75
“Well, I wouldn’t call civil service delays “tactics”, Minister. That would be to mistake lethargy for strategy.”
5. The Writing on the Wall: The tug of war between Hacker and Humphrey has taken its toll and the former is sick to death of all the stalling, the revisions of his draft – so he revises it himself and turns the table on Humphrey, using his own tactics against him. But then their department is about to be folded and they are forced to work together to prevent it. There are some hilariously cynical discussions in this episode. I liked that, although he’s not entirely clever, Hacker shone bright here, outsmarting his opponents – and, consequently, finally earning some respect from Humphrey. 8.0
“Lucy, darling, that’s not fair. Those Civil Servants may be always kowtowing to Daddy, but they never take any notice of him.”
6. The Right to Know: Hacker is tired of not being told key departmental information, but Humphrey feels that the less he knows the less he will want to bring in change. The plot revolves around a piece of land that is to be developed but that will consequently endanger some badgers: Hacker is convinced by Humphrey that it’s of little importance, but then Hacker’s daughter gets involved in a high profile protest to save the badgers, causing him great worry – especially since it’s a nude protest. 7.5
“Bernard, Ministers should never know more than they need to know. Then they can’t tell anyone. Like secret agents, they could be captured and tortured.”
7. Jobs for the Boys: Humphrey is trying to cover up a failed public-private partnership that the department got into years ago, and that he’s very involved in, preventing Hacker from knowing what’s going on. Humphrey is rather sloppy about it here; he’s not as cleverly underhanded as in other episodes. Or maybe he was playing it up to set up the Minister, knowing that Hacker would strongly contradict him. Not sure. In either case, the corruption shown here is a cynic’s delight. 8.0
It’s interesting to note that at no point is Hacker’s political party revealed; this is purposely left ambiguous because the show was intended as a satire of politics in general, not of one specific party. This no doubt helped it land a broader audience: politics can be deeply personal, and making fun of any particular affiliation could have driven many viewers away. ‘Yes, Minister’ was even Margaret Thatcher’s favourite show at the time.
This is no doubt entirely due to the writers’ deep understanding of politics, because they’ve injected the show with terrific discussions about the gears of government and political parties, about bureaucracy, democracy and internal politic dynamics. They also bring to light the use of language in politics (particularly stalling tactics, which they cover in relative depth) for getting one’s goals met while railroading one’s opponents’.
For all its light-heartedness and some tenuous plot development, ‘Yes, Minister’ is a rather clever sitcom, filled with all manners of well-crafted dialogues and superb performances. For political junkies, this is something to sink one’s teeth into and savour; there are/were very few shows of its caliber out there. It’s hardly surprising that it was as acclaimed as it was back then and that it’s considered as influential even to this day.
I very much look forward to watching the second series, to see which of Sir Humphrey’s subterfuges lie in wait for Hacker next.
Dates of viewings: Dec 15-20, 2014