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.

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