Synopsis: In Series 2, a newly built hospital has a full administration staff but no patients due to the government-influenced reduction of medical staff. For some reason, Sir Humphrey does not want this particular boat rocked. Meanwhile, the Minister is shocked to find that his Department is responsible for supplying all the government’s electronic surveillance gear, yet his campaign was based in part on his opposition to bugging and phone tapping. A classic satirical comedy starring Paul Eddington and Nigel Hawthorne.
eyelight: its cynical dissection of politics.
eyesores: the less subtle performances.
“Ministers are not experts. They are chosen expressedly because they know nothing.”
Following the tremendous success of the first series of ‘Yes, Minister’, the BBC commissioned a second one, airing a year later, in 1981. It returned to the same setting and brought back the main characters, with Paul Eddington, Nigel Hawthorne and Derek Fowlds all reprising their roles.
The most significant difference with this series is that the writers and performers try much harder to be funny, stripping away some of the subtlety that graced the first series. The dialogues remain rich with political non sequiturs, but they frequently approach Pythonesque levels of absurdity.
Meanwhile, Eddington and Hawthorne turn in more cartoony performances as Minister Hacker and Sir Humphrey, leaving one feeling that Hacker is an incompetent buffoon with no credibility whatsoever and that Humphrey isn’t nearly as clever and slimy as we’d first imagined.
A more minor change from series one is that Hacker’s political advisor, Frank Weisel, did not make his return. But since he was a very secondary character, it didn’t matter much. And it made sense contextually. In his stead is the introduction of a Press Secretary in the last two episodes.
By this point in the show’s run, Minister Hacker has been in the department of Administrative Affairs long enough that he’s become corrupted by Humphrey to some degree: he has largely forgotten his principles, regularly tries to obfuscate, and is more concerned with appearances than results.
This means that Hacker and Humphrey more frequently wind up in the same camp, albeit for different reasons, working together instead of in opposition. Still, their tugs-of-war continue: the two men have largely conflicting visions and goals – and sometimes Hacker’s principles re-emerge.
As with the first series, series two features only seven episodes in total.
“Fortunately, Bernard, most of our journalists are so incompetent they’d have the gravest difficulty in finding out that today is Wednesday.” “It’s actually Thursday.”
1. The Compassionate Society: In this absurdist take on bureaucracy and unions, Hacker discovers that a local hospital is fully staffed but has no patients. To save face, he not only distorts the truth, he also attempts to cut into the hundreds of staff to make room for patients, but finds opposition from all sides. It’s a funny episode but the jokes are so unsubtle and the characters’ proposals so silly that it makes the situations unrealistic and behaviours out of character. 7.75
“Actually, Minister, Baillie College does have an outstanding record: it’s filled the jails of the British Empire for many years.”
2. Doing the Honours: Under constant pressure to reduce costs, Hacker decides to make each civil servants’ honours dependent on their making a 5% budget cut. But Humphrey conspires with a local University to offer Hacker an honorary Doctorate of Law, using his vanity to get him to reverse his policies. Technically, the plot make sense, but Humphrey wasn’t as quick on his feet as he used to be and was visibly shaken in a few instances – whereas in the past he’d easily keep his composure. This was done for comic effect but it felt out of character for this seasoned veteran sleazeball. 7.75
“It’s quite a joke really, isn’t it? Describing someone as informed when his Permanent Secretary is Sir Humphrey Appleby.”
3. The Death List: Hacker discovers that he was placed under surveillance before his election, because he was being considered as Defence Secretary. In light of the secrecy under which this has taken place he decides that there will be safeguards in the future. Coincidentally, he finds himself on a terrorist death list. Naturally, when he hears about it, his principles go out the window. I enjoyed this episode much more than the first two because the characters are less buffoonish here. The plot is also topical, given the intrusions to our privacy that we hear about these days. 8.0
“Suppression is the instrument of totalitarian dictatorship, we don’t talk of that sort of thing in a free country. We simply take a democratic decision not to publish it.”
4. The Greasy Pole: The British Chemical Corp is opening a new factory that will produce a controversial chemical. Hacker is under political pressure to prevent the factory from opening for that reason, but is also under internal pressure to let it go ahead. He seems like a poor politician for a Minister, frequently saying foolish things, looking incompetent. But he gets through it nicely. Meanwhile, Humphrey isn’t as slick: he’s played less subtly and his dialogues are a bit weak. There’s even this moment when he responds to queries for the Minister, essentially interrupting each time. I thought this was a bit much. However, his briefing (to Hacker) on the best techniques to suppress information was excellent – if cynical. 8.0
“Elbows: the most important weapon in a politician’s armoury.”
5. The Devil You Know: The episode begins with all sorts of dismissive comments on the European Union – on which Hacker and Humphrey naturally disagree. Then Hacker hears about a rumoured cabinet shuffle and panics. Consequently, when he is offered a post on the EEC Commission in Brussels, Hacker considers it – it’s a downgrade, but he would get lavish treatment. Humphrey is quite pleased with this turn of events until he finds out who will replace Hacker – and now wants him back. And so the pair take positions contrary to their previous ones just to justify their respective changes of heart. It’s a good idea, but it’s a bit sloppy and Eddington’s performance is far too heavy-handed. 7.75
“Surely a decision is a decision.” “Only if it is the decision you want. If not it’s just a temporary setback.”
6. The Quality of Life: A banker friend of Humphrey is asking for an extra six stories for his new bank, but Hacker doesn’t agree due to environmental concerns. Before the banker meets with Hacker for a briefing, Humphrey tells him how he’ll manipulate the situation in his favour. Meanwhile, Hacker is looking for a public appearance to bolster his image, showing how contrived media coverage can be and how much of a narcissist Hacker is. Um… like many politicians, really. 8.25
“That’s the only way the country works! Concentrate all the power at Number 10 then send the PM away to EEC summits, NATO summits, Commonwealth summits, anywhere! Then the Cabinet Secretary can run the country properly.”
7. A Question of Loyalty: For some reason, this is probably the episode I’ve enjoyed the most of the whole series thus far. Hacker is brought in front of a House committee for a grilling on the department’s wasteful expenses. He passes the buck to Humphrey, who is then summoned before the same committee. He returns the favour, and then they’re both called before the committee. The discussions that the pair have to strategize and stall are delicious, and their use of language to conceal the truth was clever. 8.5
When the second series started, I felt that it was going downhill, what with its dumbing down of the characters and its lack of subtlety. I was also taken aback by the jarringly poor quality of the location shooting, which contrasts greatly with the studio stuff; you can barely see any detail.
My impression was that the show’s producers were likely getting too ambitious, trying to render the show more accessible by making the humour and the setting more relatable to larger audiences – but, in so doing, picking apart what made ‘Yes, Minister’ so much fun in the first place.
By the end of the second series, I’d have to say that they finally got the balance right: the dialogues are sharper, the satire more spot-on, and the performances are reigned in enough to be credible. It turns out that the best episode so far are in this second series.
If the third series continues where this one left off, it’ll be unforgettable.
Dates of viewings: January 15-19, 2015