Tuesday, 2 August 2016
455 Yes Minister / Yes Prime Minister
First viewed : 4 September 1980
We didn't watch this universally recognised comedy classic when it was first broadcast on BBC2 at the beginning of the year, only catching up when it followed Blankety Blank on BBC1.
The brainchild of comic writers Anthony Jay and Jonathan Lynn, the series set out to both illuminate and satirise the processes of government behind the yah-boo of political discourse. As such the minister in question, Jim Hacker, was kept as apolitical as possible ; his party was never specified and after the first series his political adviser Frank Wiesel was ditched for being too obviously a Labour man. Hacker ran the fictional and deliberately vague Department of Administrative Affairs which allowed the writers to range across the spectrum of governmental affairs.
Hacker , a well-meaning , not over-intelligent man whose first priority is his own survival. has to contend with the smug, conceited Permanent Secretary Sir Humphrey Appleby who opposes any proposal likely to rock the status quo. Holding the ring is Hacker's private secretary Bernard Woolley whose instinct is to be helpful but not at the expense of his own career.
Hacker was played brilliantly by Paul Eddington who had been thought the least likely of The Good Life's quartet to flourish after that series finished but he certainly fell on his feet here. He was matched by Nigel Hawthorne a character actor catapulted to fame by Sir Humphrey. Former Basil Brush sideman Derek Fowlds was somewhat overshadowed as Bernard but was given some great one liners.
The series turned over conventional wisdom by achieving high viewing figures without compromising the intellectual demands it made of its audience. Sir Humphrey's "impartial advice" speeches were always masterpieces of Byzantine sophistry with wordplay to rival Ronnie Barker. It was light years away from Terry and June or On The Buses but people got it. Yes Minister changed the way people thought about the establishment ; "Sir Humphrey" became a common noun to describe an obstructive bureaucrat and people still understand what it means today. The series' most notable fan was a certain Margaret Thatcher, Prime Minister throughout its run, who detected some of her own iconoclastic approach to government in the scripts.
There were three original 7-episode seasons of Yes Minister and then a couple of Christmas specials . In the second of these, Humphrey and his cynical boss played by John Nettleton decide that Hacker is the least worst choice to succeed the departing PM and contrive to secure his succession. Hacker seals the deal by making a Eurosceptic speech about preserving the Great British Sausage.
This presaged a further two series under the title Yes Prime Minister which moved the core trio into Downing Street. However the relationship had changed somewhat. Hacker was now an experienced political operator and could take Humphrey on at his own game as evidenced in the episode "The Key" where Hacker clips his wings by the simple expedient of confiscating an important key from him.
The series was rested in 1988. Eddington, who had been privately suffering from a rare form of skin cancer for most of his adult life , died in 1995, the same year Hawthorne was nominated for an Oscar for The Madness of King George. These two factors should have ended the prospect of a revival but there was an ill-advised attempt on a satellite channel in 2013. Post - The Thick Of It ,it seemed quaint and out of touch.