Synopsis: Eight episodes from the popular TV series which takes a satirical look at life behind the scenes at Westminster. Starring Paul Eddington as the careworn PM and Nigel Hawthorne as his long-suffering under-secretary. The episodes included are: ‘Man Overboard’; ‘Official Secrets’; ‘A Diplomatic Incident’; ‘A Conflict of Interest’; ‘Power to the People’; ‘The Patron of the Arts’; ‘The National Education Service’; and ‘The Tangled Web’.
eyelights: the evolution of the characters.
eyesores: the devolution of Hacker’s ethics.
“He’s too stupid to know whether he’s honest or not.”
I was rather impressed with ‘Yes, Prime Minister‘. While it didn’t have the sharpness of the third series of ‘Yes, Minister’, the fresh new setting and the addition of a through line certainly added dimensions I found quite refreshing. I also enjoyed seeing Hacker see through Humphrey’s BS more – which made total sense since he was now PM; he should have the upper hand.
Sadly, some of that fell to the wayside in the second series: gone was the continuous (if loose) thread, with each episode being self-contained, and again Hacker tends to fall prey to Humphrey’s manipulations – which are so blatant at times that one has to wonder just how imperceptive Hacker is. Even Bernard’s shtick of incessantly clearing up bad metaphors gets old.
The second series of ‘Yes, Prime Minister’ seems to want to fall back on the easy laughs and convolutions that made its predecessor a hit, instead of challenging its audiences further and forgoing any growth. The result is that, while ‘Yes, Minister’ improved over time, ending on a high, ‘Yes, Prime Minister’ seems to be losing steam slightly. Ever so slightly.
Perhaps the writers were having a difficult time coming up with new situations for Hacker, Humphrey and Bernard to muddle their way out of, or perhaps they were trapped by a formula that was so popular that they couldn’t easily break out of it. They made the leap from the Department of Administrative Affairs to Number 10, but perhaps couldn’t push it further.
It’s a sad state of affairs when one is outdone by one’s self, but that is typical of any show that lives past its (unofficial) expiration date. Even the greatest shows eventually faltered; they rarely end on a peak. In any event, the resulting eight episodes are of a quality that surpasses that of most sitcoms, even as it fails to measure up to the standard that it had already set.
“You know what loyalty in a cabinet minister means? It means that his fear of losing his own job is slightly greater than his hope of pinching mine.”
1. Man Overboard: The series begins with the Employment Secretary thinking of moving the Defense staff up North, leaving Sir Humphrey and the Defense Secretary conspiring to change the PM’s mind. So Humphrey suggests to Hacker that the Employment Secretary is planning to take his place, predictably leading the latter to push back. The performances are good but Humphrey’s manipulations are too obvious for my taste. Is Hacker such an idiot? I think that he should know better – especially by now. But the episode has a nice twist at the end, which compensates to some degree. 7.75
“Bernard, just because people ask you questions, what makes you think you have to answer them?”
2. Official Secrets: The former Prime Minister is planning to publish a memoir and Hacker wants certain parts to remain unpublished because it makes him look bad. This gets leaked to the press ,causing quite a ruckus, so Hacker asks Humphrey to investigate. Compounding the problem, Bernard talks to the press on his way to number 10 and unknowingly makes insinuations that paint Hacker in a bad light. Now Hacker has to find a way to fix all of that, and we’re discovering that he’s become less and less ethical; he’ll do anything to save face. And that’s a bit unpleasant to see. 7.75
“No, we can’t have alphabetical seating in the Abbey. You’d have Iraq and Iran next to each other. Plus Israel and Jordan all sitting in the same pew. We’d be in danger of starting World War III. I know Ireland begins with an ‘I’ but no! Ireland doesn’t make it any better; Ireland doesn’t make anything any better.”
3. A Diplomatic Incident: The former Prime Minister dies suddenly before he can finish his memoir – making Hacker happy, as he wasn’t portrayed in a nice light. But he hypocritically uses the funeral to increase his visibility and for political gain. Peppering the pot are diplomatic issues with France about the use of the English Channel. This episode was noticeably sharper than the previous two and there’s even a classic scene that finds Bernard fielding calls about and organising the former PM’s funeral. Very funny stuff. 8.25
“You don’t want to go on record as saying somebody is no good. You must be seen to be their friend. After all, it is necessary to get behind someone before you can stab them in the back.”
4. A Conflict of Interest: In this episode, Hacker is growing concerned about the press’ criticisms of his administration, resulting in a talk between the Press Secretary and the PM about spinning news for his speech. In a separate conversation, Humphrey explains to Bernard how to set up a clean person for a fall, how to subtly slander him. Strangely, though, in practice he’s not at all subtle – which is a great disappointment. The episode has terrific material but there was something about a scandal that was a bit over my head, so I probably missed some of the finer points. 7.75
Agnes Moorhouse: “Animals have rights too, you know. A battery chicken’s life isn’t worth living. Would you want to spend your life packed in with six hundred other desperate, squawking, smelly creatures, unable to breathe fresh air, unable to move, unable to stretch, unable to think?”
Sir Humphrey: “Certainly not, that is why I never stood for Parliament.”
5. Power to the People: They’re having a problem with the head of the Houndsworth Council in the inner city, so Humphrey is charged with taking care of her – except that he’s intimidated by her reputation as a ball-breaker and has to be coaxed into it. Sadly, he’s played far too nervous, out of control, which is out of character. There’s a lot of talk about local government and bringing real democracy to the people, which leads Humphrey to realizing that this would dismantle the current system – so he conspires to scare everyone so that it may be stopped. This is probably the most cynical episode in an already darkly comic show. 8.0
“Yes, I must say it’s a rather undignified posture. But it is what artists always do: crawling towards the government on their knees, shaking their fists.”
6. The Patron of the Arts: Hacker is scheduled to speak at an Arts Council soirée which is to be broadcast to 12 million viewers, but realizes he’ll have a hostile audience due to upcoming cuts. He can’t back down without looking like a coward, so he doesn’t know what to do. Meanwhile, Humphrey is feeding info to a critic who will introduce the PM, with the intention of embarrassing him. For once, Hacker finds a way to turn the tables on Humphrey, but the episode seems a bit simplistic compared to past ones. 7.75
“If he can’t ignore the facts, what business does he have to be a politician?”
7. The National Education Service: Hacker is pressured to do something about education even if it’s not a federal matter. There’s a lot of cynical talk about the purpose of education in modern society, with a discussion of qualifications for teaching but not for parenting – something I’ve long wondered about. Hacker’s all about ensuring votes at the next election, so he considers abolishing the Department of Education. But Humphrey soon fixes that – with the convenient arrival of some embarrassing data. 7.5
“Honesty always gives you the advantage of surprise in the House of Commons.”
8. The Tangled Web: In the Commons, Hacker denies allegations that he got an MP’s phone bugged only to find out later that it actually had happened. Meanwhile, Humphrey is called upon a committee reviewing the matter and is also interviewed on BBC 3, but makes politically damaging comments off the record, not knowing that the mics were still on. So Hacker blackmails him into getting his support at the committee hearings. It’s one of the rare instances when Hacker outplays Humphrey, which is always satisfying – even if it seems unlikely. It was a nice way to end the series. 8.25
I’ve scoured the usual sources for information shedding some light on the decision to pull the plug on the series. It’s not so much that I’m surprised than that I want to understand the actual reasons why (as opposed to speculating). Were ratings falling? Were the writers out of ideas? Did one of the main actors tire of his part? I can’t seem to find any mention of what led to that decision.
Whatever the reason may be, they did right to end then instead of letting it peter out further. And with an excellent episode, to boot. The ideal scenario would have been to be able to muster a third and final series to match the previous one and finish the set with a bang, but perhaps this was simply impossible. However, its legacy as one of the greatest British comedy series lives to this day.
In fact, hyperbolic as this may sound, it is considered in some quarters as a piece of fiction as influential as ‘1984’ is and it is credited for having utterly changed the public’s perceptions of politics – particularly with respect to its verbiage and the lingo used in political messaging. The series has carefully picked apart the sleight-of-hand and the public, while more cynical, is all the better for it.
Interestingly, although ‘Yes, (Prime) Minister’ looks dated given the fashions and the production quality inherent in a ’80s BBC programme, the content remains wholly contemporary and potent. At least, from a Canadian perspective. Our systems are so similar that much of what is discussed and many of the turns of events aren’t at all removed from what’s going on here.
Thus it remains not only fresh, but funny.
Post scriptum: Strangely enough, a 6-episode revival of the series was produced in 2013, not just with a different cast (Eddington and Hawthorne had passed away in 1995 and 2001, respectively), but on Gold instead of BBC. It was lambasted by the critics, being unfavourably compared to, not only its predecessor, but also to ‘The Thick of It‘. It only lasted one series.
Dates of viewings: April-June, 2015