Synopsis: The Right Honourable James Hacker MP (Paul Eddington of The Good Life fame) is the newly-appointed Minister of Administrative Affairs, who soon finds many of his ideas for reform openly opposed by the civil servants whose job it is to implement them — in particular by his Permanent Secretary, Sir Humphrey Appleby (Nigel Hawthorne). Their respective battle of wits to gain and maintain the levers of power forms the basis of the series.
eyelights: its incisive political satire. its sharp dialogues. its performances.
eyesores: its less subtle touches.
“The three articles of civil service faith: it takes longer to do things quickly; it’s more expensive to do them cheaply; it’s more democratic to do them in secret.”
By 1982, ‘Yes, Minister‘ was pretty much an institution. It was a smash hit, had been winning at the BAFTAS and it was well-known to be then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s favourite television programme. It returned for a third series that year, to even greater success.
The main cast was on hand for the series and brought their A-game to the show, finally delivering nearly-perfect performances, by subduing the more cartoony aspects that cheapened their characters in the past – especially during Series 2. By Series 3 they fulfilled their potential.
With one exception, Nigel Hawthorne is in complete control of Sir Humphrey, giving him additional weight; he was always best when he had his mask on and it rarely leaves his face here. Meanwhile, Paul Eddington has finally made Minister Hacker seem more ministerial, even competent.
The most interesting aspect is that, while Bernard regularly corrected language or expressions that were non sequiturs in the beginning of the series, he becomes much sharper by the end. For my money, I think that he’s the best character of the lot by the last two episodes.
Or, at least, the most-improved character.
Interestingly, the Press Secretary who seemed to gain importance at the end of Series 2 is nowhere to be found here. It’s too bad, because there’s only so much that the writer can do with only three characters, so additional side characters could have peppered the pot. And plot.
The setting has not changed either; Hacker still works from the same office and generally meets with Humphrey and Bernard there. However, no doubt due to its continued success, there are more sets involved, taking the character out of Hacker’s office more – to great effect.
Having said this, it’s not done so frequently or to such a degree that it dilutes the effect of the show. Unlike some of the past episodes, it doesn’t feel contrived and the sets mostly look the part (there’s one notable exception during episode 4); it looks and feels organic.
As per the past shows, the dialogues are the strongest part of the show – hence why it was essential for the performers to allow the humour to pour from the script instead of performing it to death. The writers had obviously researched their subjects extensively; the satire is biting.
I take issue with some of Humphrey’s verbosity, however. Likely because it was funny in past shows, the writers had him ramble on endlessly to the point of excess – thereby making it less credible. Still, some of the show’s funniest exchanges and most significant discussions can be found in Series 3.
“That is the last interview I give for a school magazine; she asked some very difficult questions.”
1. Equal Opportunity: Hacker, after discussion with a student reporter, and then his spouse, and concerned about his legacy, decides to impose a minimum staffing level of 25% for women over the next four years so that there can be more gender balance in the upper echelons. Humphrey is against the idea, naturally, thinking that the bureaucracy needs to be nurtured, grown gradually. He and a colleague later have an ironic discussion on the matter. When the Permanent Secretaries meet, Humphrey poses the question to them: they all agree in principle but find reasons why it wouldn’t work in their own departments, thereby scuttling Hacker’s plan. There are great discussions about the value of women in the workforce and with respect to prejudice. Based on the excellent discussions and performances, it’s probably my favourite episode. 8.75
“Well, it is not in my interest. And I represent the public, so it is not in the public interest.”
2. The Challenge: Hacker’s department is given more responsibilities and he decides to take up the challenge of reducing the public service, finally making it more efficient after all these years. He decides to take on civil defense at Humphrey’s suggestion – which the latter knows is a total waste of time. In fact, he and his colleague have lengthy behind-the-scenes discussions to that effect – very droll stuff. In the process, Hacker ends up doing an embarrassing interview. I love the meeting he and Humphrey have with the BBC head to quell the airing of the interview; they use all sorts of dirty tactics. And I liked that Hacker appeared to pick up that he had been played, even if his foolishness then comes to the fore. 8.0
“Let me make one thing perfectly clear: Humphrey is not God, OK?” “Will you tell him or shall I?”
3. The Skeleton in the Cupboard: A story comes out that a contract was written by a public servant three decades prior and that is now seeing the loss of 40 million pounds for the British government. It is discovered that the sloppy public servant was Humphrey, when he was much younger. Since a newspaper is doing a feature on the blunder, Humphrey is terribly embarrassed and concerned about his name being tied to the scandal. But, instead of manipulating the situation, he confesses to Hacker, who then helps him bury the data so that the press won’t find out he was involved. There’s terrific ambiguity here: it’s hard to say if Hacker knows from the start but is playing the fool. I quite like the episode, but it would have been better if Humphrey wasn’t so out of character, as he really loses his $#!t here. It’s too much. 8.0
“No, no, Minister. It could never be government policy. That is unthinkable. Only government practice.”
4. The Moral Dimension: Realizing that he won’t be able to have a “drinkee” while in Qumran, a Muslim country, Hacker decides to have alcohol smuggled in. Hacker later gets wind that the treaty was ratified with a bribe, which he’s appalled by. But his drinking is used against him and he lies to the press to cover everything up. Even though I don’t find alcoholics funny, and was skeptical that the Muslims couldn’t smell the alcohol on the delegation’s breaths and glasses, I enjoyed the episode; it didn’t cross the line, somehow. Plus which, it’s apparently based on a true incident (the writers have done extensive interviews with many civil servants and diplomats for the show). 8.0
“The ship of state, Bernard, is the only ship that leaks from the top.”
5. The Bed of Nails: The Prime Minister wants an Integrated Transport Policy, but no one wants to handle that hot potato. Naturally, they think of Hacker. Soon, Hacker realizes how much of a loser gig it is, and he and Humphrey conspire to get him out. While Eddington is too cartoonish at the beginning, I liked this episode because Bernard gets to shine here: he has a terrific speech on the Trojan horse and also explains the relationships in the civil service to Hacker. He’s usually just given cheap one-liners, but he’s excellent here. 8.0
“Well done, Bernard. You’ll be a moral vacuum yet!”
6. The Whiskey Priest: Hacker receives word from a whistleblower that British weaponry is being sold to Italian terrorists. Hacker decides he will request an investigation into the matter, but he gets opposition from all quarters, not just from Humphrey. I loved the many discussions on the morality of selling arms, the purpose of government as well as the loyalties of civil servants. I enjoyed this one because it was the closest Hacker came to having principles and actually fighting for them. At the end, he gets drunk with his spouse, struggling with his conscience – having chosen to support his government instead of doing the right thing. But excellent moral questions were discussed here. 8.25
“Bernard, subsidy is for art…for culture. It is not to be given to what the people want, it is for what the people don’t want but ought to have.”
7. The Middle Class Project: While in his constituency, Hacker is told by the local football club that they need financial assistance or they will fold. Since he can’t be seen to intervene, being the Minister, he suggests to them that the sale of a local art gallery could pay for their shortfall. When he gets back, Humphrey gets wind of this visit. Being an art lover, he is aghast at the notion of selling a gallery to fund a football team. So he does all he can to prevent Hacker from approving the sale. Although it’s not as memorable as some of the other ones, there are excellent debates about the value of culture versus the public good. And there are some very funny exchanges and the performances are superb. 8.0
Series 3 of ‘Yes, Minister’ is by far my favourite of the lot. It could be better, sharper, tighter, but it’s a superb series, with most of its past flaws ironed out. If I were to sit down to watch an episode, it’s very likely I would pick from this series; there are such great ones here.
The writers and performers really hit their stride on this one (after finally getting their act together at the end of Series 2)
It would be the last of the ‘Yes, Minister’ series, however: the show would return for a special holiday programme, called ‘Party Games’ in 1984 before for wrapping up. But it wasn’t quite the end: the cast and characters would return in a follow-up show that lasted two more series.
There was still more to explore in the dynamic between Hacker, Humphrey and Bernard.
Dates of viewings: January 21-24, 2015