Looking back at Yes Minister/Yes, Prime Minister

As the nation goes to the polls, we revisit two political comedy classics, now available on Netflix UK...

Yes Minister/Yes, Prime Minister was a BBC sitcom that ran for five series and one special between 1980 and 1988. It starred Paul Eddington as the Right Honourable James Hacker MP (later Prime Minister), Nigel Hawthorne as Sir Humphrey Appleby, Permanent Secretary to the Minister for Administrative Affairs (later Cabinet Secretary) and Derek Fowlds as Bernard Woolley, Principal Private Secretary to the Minister for Administrative Affairs (later Principal Private Secretary to the Prime Minister). It was written by Sir Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn, and was a favourite show of then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

Technically, it was two shows: the original Yes Minister and a sequel series called Yes, Prime Minister. However, while there are some obvious differences between the two incarnations occasioned by MP Jim Hacker’s promotion to leader of the country (and, perhaps more importantly, Permanent Secretary Sir Humphrey Appleby’s promotion to Cabinet Secretary), there is far more of a feeling of unity across the three series of Yes Minister and two series of Yes, Prime Minister than across separate seasons of many long-running shows, so they can really be considered as one long series divided into two parts.

If you’ve never seen Yes Minister, you might be wondering how an old sitcom about politics made in the 1980s, at the height of Thatcherism, the Cold War and arguments about milk in primary schools, could possibly have any relevance to anyone today. It’s certainly true that, in the grand tradition of old BBC sitcoms, the show featured a low budget, almost static cameras, very little exterior filming and a tiny group of core characters with a few guest stars where needed. However, Yes Minister is a pure joy from start to finish because it is one of the finest and most intelligent sitcoms ever made.

You can’t fall asleep during an episode of Yes Minister. The show knew how to do farce, slapstick and physical comedy when the occasion called for it – Bernard’s impression of a vulture is memorable, Jim’s thankfully very slow drunk driving followed by a stately black-out down the side of the car at Christmas is a warning to us all, and one of the series’ absolute highlights is Humphrey’s desperate drive to get into Number 10 after his key is revoked during Jim’s Prime Ministerial years. However, the lifeblood of the show was dialogue – lots and lots of dialogue. In scene after scene, Hawthorne, Eddington and Fowlds would stand around a desk and simply throw words at one another – words on complex concepts, on peace treaties and butter mountains and Civil Service bureaucracy, words thrown at the viewer at the speed of light, with the hapless audience, like Jim himself, left to try to keep up. The standard was set early on, with Sir Humphrey’s famous explanation of the functions of various secretaries in the Civil Service:

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Delivered at a breakneck pace and with a smarmy confidence so characteristic of the British Establishment, the dialogue in Yes Minister was a joy to listen to, even if it was occasionally (deliberately) impossible to follow.

Sparkling dialogue by itself does not make a successful show, however, and it was the perfectly balanced three main characters who made the series such a joy to watch as it tackled such potentially dull topics as Civil Service budget cuts or government Arts funding.

Jim Hacker MP was the closest the show got to an Everyman; new to government in the first episode, genuinely well-intentioned (if often ineffective) and constantly mocked by his Oxbridge-educated, elitist officials for having gone to the London School of Economics (giving him, it is implied, a somewhat more practical understanding of economics – Bernard and Sir Humphrey are more particularly skilled in Latin and Ancient Greek).

Sir Humphrey represents a more cynical view of politics, which is ironic, since he is not, in fact, a politician. He is, like Hacker, largely self-serving though in a slightly different way. In one episode, for example, he organises the repatriation of a nurse sentenced to 10 years in prison and 40 lashes for possession of a bottle of whisky, purely in order to put himself in line for Master of his Oxford college a few years down the line. However, he also represents the interests of the Civil Service; where Hacker wants to run the country according to whatever will make him most popular, in order to get re-elected at the next general election, Sir Humphrey wants to run the country in the most efficient manner possible, regardless of what might make anyone popular or not (and, sometimes, regardless of who might get hurt in the process).

Caught directly between the two is Bernard, loyal to Hacker as his Private Secretary, but also to Sir Humphrey, who is his boss in the Civil Service. Bernard is young, idealistic (fulfilling the Everyman function when Hacker does not) and cursed with an inability to let a bad metaphor go by, which is what leads to the aforementioned vulture impression.

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Both Hacker and Sir Humphrey are sympathetic in their own ways; neither are monsters, and neither are without flaws either. However, because Hacker is usually trying to work for the interests of the voters (in order to get himself re-elected) and Sir Humphrey is very good at standing in his way, there is a tendency for the audience to side more often with Hacker as the two lock horns in nearly every episode. This makes Hacker’s rare victories over Sir Humphrey (usually helped by Bernard) all the sweeter and more special.

Some of the politics of Yes Minister is, of course, a bit out of date by now. Aside from being set during the Cold War, we’re glad to say that the political situations in Northern Ireland and South Africa are somewhat different now than they were in the 1980s, and the Channel Tunnel has long been finished and its signage sorted out. The episode in which everyone laughs at the ridiculous and impossible-to-implement idea of banning the advertising of cigarettes, even at the point of sale, suddenly gives what was then a contemporary show the feel of a period drama (compare the characters in Blackadder The Third laughing at the idea of abolishing slavery in their politically-inspired episode). And even though Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister throughout the show’s run, there are clearly fewer women (and people of colour) operating in Hacker’s governmental world than in the current one.

Some of the politics, however, can seem rather relevant. When the series tackles subjects such as the British nuclear deterrent programme Trident, wastage and bureaucracy in government departments (Hacker was Minister for the fictional Department of Administrative Affairs), controversies over who should or should not receive Honours, the unsuitability of experts for high office, environmental concerns, Arts funding, local versus international business deals and so on and so forth, it can sometimes feel as if it was written yesterday.

One area in which the show is at one and the same time quite relevant and hopelessly out of date is, of course, its commentary on Britain’s membership in what was then the EEC (the European Economic Community, now the European Union). The narratives spun by politicians and the press around the EEC and Britain’s relationship to it play a central a role in one of the show’s greatest episodes, the Christmas special in which Hacker is made the new Prime Minister, Party Games.

The whole episode is a comic masterpiece, involving Hacker’s drunk antics at the Christmas party, a misunderstanding that leads Hacker briefly to believe that Sir Humphrey is dying, the general incredulity followed by interest that greets any suggestion that Hacker would be a good choice for Prime Minister and plenty of political shenanigans, some involving a shady lady from Argentina.

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Rumbling away in the background is a political issue over the Euro-sausage. The EEC want to standardise the sausage, and anything calling itself a sausage must contain a certain minimum amount of meat. British sausages, which contain too much offal and mechanically recovered meat steamed from the carcass, can still be sold, but must be sold under another name. The version of this problem told to the public by the press, encouraged by Hacker, is that the EEC wants to ban the British sausage. Hacker then negotiates a compromise with the EEC (British sausages can still be called sausages as long as the word ‘British’ is put in front of them) and claims to the public that he has saved the British sausage. As time marches on, this story becomes increasingly out of date, and yet at the same time rather relevant, since it touches on issues that, having bubbled along for another thirty years, brought us to where we are now.

More important than any political issues, though, the show is simply funny – really, really funny. Part of the joy of the series is the juxtaposition of reams of dense political dialogue interspersed with the occasional perfectly-calibrated outburst, such as the time when Hacker, having been informed that the French President and his wife are feeling most insulted, insists “He can’t bring that bitch with him!” (referring to a puppy they want to give to the Queen, which cannot be allowed into Britain due to British quarantine laws). It also boasts a wonderful and beautifully hand-animated opening title sequence with cartoons by Gerald Scarfe.

Yes Minister has spawned books, a stage play and a 2013 revival series, but none quite so beloved as the original, a perfect mix of chemistry, writing and pointed satire. Tonight, on Election Night, in that twilight zone in between the end of voting at 10pm and the first counts starting to come in a little after midnight, the BBC would do well to show either Blackadder The Third’s Dish And Dishonesty (which is also excellent), an episode of Yes Minister/Yes, Prime Minister (probably the first one), or both. If they do, watch – you won’t regret it!