Synopsis: Following his stout stand against the Eurosausage, James Hacker MP has hit the big-time and ascended to the highest political office in the land. Now installed in Downing Street, he must quickly find his feet as Prime Minister. Fortunately for the country, his scheming adversary Sir Humphrey Appleby — now Cabinet Secretary — is more than willing to help him steer the unsteady ship of State through the perilous waters of government. A classic satirical comedy starring Paul Eddington and Nigel Hawthorne.
Yes, Prime Minister: Series 1 8.0
eyelights: the thread connecting all the episodes. Hacker is sharper.
eyesores: Humphrey is less devilishly clever.
“You know, Humphrey, I’ve been thinking.”
Even before I started going through the whole ‘Yes, Minister‘, I was well aware that there was a follow-up series. I tried my hardest to avoid discovering if Hacker (whose name I didn’t know then) would become the Prime Minister, or if the characters changed.
It was very difficult. And, sadly, I somewhat failed.
I say “somewhat” because, in putting together my blurbs for the original series, I stumbled upon pictures of ‘Yes, Prime Minister’. Hacker was in them. I suspected he was the PM in this series, but I purposely remained oblivious, avoiding all confirmations to this effect.
Only the TV special ruined it; I stumbled upon the summary at some point and the plot revolves around him becoming PM. I hoped that this wouldn’t affect my enjoyment of the new series, spoil any of the surprises that the show’s writers and producers had in store.
It really didn’t (although it did ruin my enjoyment of the special).
‘Yes, Prime Minister’ is a stand-alone series in many ways. Yes, it’s built on the history and character dynamics of ‘Yes, Minister’, but it can be watched on its own much like the previous series can be enjoyed without it. What it is is a mirror show with a different context.
In fact, right from the start we get a sense of this with the opening credits, which feature a new, but familiar intro featuring the same music, but different -yet similar- cartoons. It serves to distinguish the series from its predecessor all the while reassuring audiences.
Naturally, this time around, Hacker is now at Number 10. He has a new job, a new office, new responsibilities and new concerns. However, he has the same help on his hands: Sir Humphrey was promoted in ‘Party Games’ and Hacker brought Bernard along with him.
This doesn’t bode well for the new Prime Minister.
Of course, this is good news for fans of ‘Yes, Minister’: without Humphrey and Bernard, the character dynamics in ‘Yes, Prime Minister’ would be lacking. What matters now is how they will converge in this new environment, with new stakes and trip-wires to address.
Surely, this was the main reason why the writers and/or producers of ‘Yes, Minister’ bumped Hacker up to Prime Minster; there were only so many episodes they could write before they repeated themselves. Putting him in a new context permitted them to explore new avenues.
And they did this with quite well: not only were the issues slightly different, but they gave the series a continuing thread throughout the episodes. Naturally, as one might expect in politics, there are a few twists and turns along the way – but there is a vision here.
In “Yes, Minister’, Hacker has what he calls his “Grand Design”: he plans to change the country’s defense policy, much to the consternation of the civil service. In one swift, radical move, he hopes to fix Great Britain’s defense, education and unemployment issues.
Naturally, he will face some opposition.
“Stuff the affairs of the nation. I want a cook!”
1. The Grand Design: Hacker, as the new Prime Minister, is briefed on Britain’s nuclear arsenal and fail-safe mechanism. He’s deeply troubled by the notion of having to make the big decision of launching their warheads; the responsibility weighs on him. To shake him up some more, he’s quizzed about his response to various types of attacks by the USSR, to gauge at which point he’d make the decision (i.e. Where is the line drawn? What constitutes a last resort, in his mind?). But he has other, more pressing, concerns: why doesn’t he, as PM, have a chef to cook his meals? Interestingly, this episode is mostly about Hacker; Humphrey doesn’t figure as much. The wrap-up is a bit facile, contrived, but it’s good fun anyway. 8.0
“Things don’t happen just because Prime Ministers are very keen on them! Neville Chamberlain was very keen on peace.”
2. The Ministerial Broadcast: Hacker discovers that he has less backlogged work than he’d anticipated. Consequently, Bernard briefs him on his obligations as PM, explaining to him just how little he actually has to do. There are hilariously cynical observations on the job of being PM between Hacker and Bernard and, later, Bernard and Humphrey. There’s also a terrific exchange between Humphrey and Bernard about how polls can be skewed, manipulated. At the core of the show is Hacker’s plans to unveil his “Grand Design” on TV, making Humphrey freak out. Hacker then has a terribly funny practice run for the broadcast: it puts the spotlight on the crafting of his image. It’s a superb episode, helped along by a great performance from Eddington. 8.5
“Cigarette taxes pay for a third of the cost of the National Health Service. We are saving many more lives than we otherwise could because of those smokers who voluntary lay down their lives for their friends. Smokers are national benefactors.”
3. The Smoke Screen: In order to get his tax cuts approved by Cabinet, Hacker decides to support his Health Minister’s campaign to reduce smoking through draconian measures. This would reduce the wealth of taxes being collected on cigarettes, and he figures that the Treasury will prefer his meagre cuts over losing the taxes from cigarettes. There are some good exchanges on the Treasury’s interests vs. public health. Humphrey has more of a part here, but Hawthorne’s lines and performance are over the top. I relish the notion that Hacker is becoming more capable, devious, even, but he looks dumbfounded far too much for him to be credible. 7.75
“I used to be in the office next door to this room, didn’t I? You had me moved to the front of the building, up three floors, along the corridor, down two steps, round the corner and four doors along to the right. Next to the photocopier.”
4. The Key: After being moved by Humphrey while she was away, Hacker’s political advisor asks for her office back. Naturally, Humphrey tries to prevent it. In retaliation, Hacker has him moved out and reduces his responsibilities. Hacker truly savours his new freedom while Humphrey squirms. Unfortunately, Humphrey loses his $#!t way too much, trying to coerce himself back into #10. But it’s nonetheless a terrific episode – particularly because I love seeing Hacker win, hold his own. 8.25
“The Civil Service generally hopes there will be no movement on any subject!”
5. A Real Partnership: In order to increase their own pays, Humphrey and the Head of the Treasury conspire to increase public service pays. Hacker naturally doesn’t want pay increases, due to cutbacks, and vows to railroad it. For inexplicable reasons, Bernard suddenly warned Humphrey of this, thereby helping him; it seems out of character, given their relationship. In any case, Humphrey works it all out to backstab the Treasurer and consolidate his position. 7.75
“Diplomacy is about surviving until the next century – politics is about surviving until Friday afternoon.”
6. A Victory for Democracy: Hacker is trying to appease the Americans. To do this, he wants to do something about a communist rebel group in St. George Island and he is planning to abstain on voting against Israel at the UN. Alarmed that he is interfering with policy, the Foreign office wants him to lay off, to be more ceremonial – as is tradition. There are meaty discussions about politics vs policy between Humphrey, the Head of the Foreign Office and Bernard, who quizzes them on the ethics of it, scenarios, …etc. It’s rather lengthy and detailed, but deliciously cynical. Ultimately, Hacker outwits his opponents and even subtly punishes them. Brilliant. 8.25
“The PM never thinks it is silly to appoint people who are vain and incompetent. Look at the Cabinet.”
7. The Bishop’s Gambit: This episode has something to do with Hacker having to name a new Bishop. I didn’t really get everything here, as I don’t understand the relationship between government and the Church in Great Britain. There are great discussions about the role of the Church in state affairs, but it was a bit obscure for me. In any case, Hacker doesn’t shine here, and Humphrey isn’t that clever either. It’s a fairly middling episode for the series. 7.5
“So much wool in his head, it is child’s play to pull it over his eyes. Isn’t that wonderful! You must be a very happy man.”
8. One of Us: A huge scandal breaks out in the press: the former head of MI5 was a Russian informant. Internally, they discover that he had been exonerated years ago when rumours to that effect emerged. The public servant who rubber-stamped him? None other than Humphrey. Now there’s a huge question: was he colluding, or merely incompetent? With his reputation on the line, and likely his job, Humphrey must try to become indispensable to the PM. I liked this one better because it wasn’t as exaggerated and Humphrey doesn’t completely lose it. 8.0
While the first series of ‘Yes, Prime Minister’ isn’t as consistently strong as the last series of ‘Yes, Minister’, I’d say that it ties together better than the first two, in part due to the continuing thread and the fact that Hacker seems clueless far less often, balancing the dynamics more.
I’m a big fan of Nigel Hawthorne’s Humphrey, but he can be one-note at times and the gags are predictable. His character is far too wily in comparison to Hacker, leaving one wondering how the latter could possibly be as successful as he is. I like that, by this series, Hacker shows some smarts.
‘Yes, Prime Minister’ would return for one final season in 1988. Considering its continued critical acclaim, it’s a wonder why it didn’t last any longer. Perhaps Hacker won’t stay Prime Minister for long; with Sir Humphrey watching his back, he may very well end up with a knife in it.
I look forward to finding out.
Dates of viewings: Jan 29-Feb 8, 2015