Thursday, August 12, 2021

Political Comedy & Satire: Yes Minister and Yes Prime Minister

Thirty-five years ago on January 9th 1986 Michael Heseltine, British Defence Secretary, gathered his papers at a meeting of the Cabinet and stormed out of 10 Downing Street. He and Margaret Thatcher, the Prime Minister, had disagreed on the procurement of military helicopters.

The ministerial resignation dominated the BBC's Nine O'Clock News that evening while on BBC 2 at the same time the new fictional PM, Jim Hacker MP, was being briefed at the Ministry of  Defence on the nuclear deterrent and a possible response to a Russian attack. He is told he would only have 12 hours to decide whether or not to push the nuclear button. Back in Downing Street the Chief Scientific Adviser quizzes the befuddled Hacker on when he would launch nuclear missiles (see The Grand Design below).

There were also early echoes of Brexit, 30 years before the 2016 referendum on leaving the European Union (EU). In 1983 Labour's election manifesto 'New Hope for Britain' had a commitment on leaving what was then known as the European Economic Community (EEC), 8 years after Britain's first ever national referendum, on membership ─ Labour MP Sir Gerald Kaufman (1930-2017) called the left-oriented manifesto "the longest suicide note in history."

Yes Minister was broadcast in 1980-1984 and a one hour Christmas special in December 1985 revealed the victory of the surprise compromise candidate as Prime Minister, following his campaign among party members to save the British sausage. "I believe in the European ideal... but this does not mean that we have to bow the knee to every directive from every little bureaucratic Bonaparte in Brussels... They've turned our pints into litres and our yards into metres; we gave up the tanner and the threepenny bit, the two bob piece and the half crown. But they cannot and will not destroy the British sausage." 

Yes Prime Minister was broadcast in 1986-1988.  

The main cast was Paul Eddington (1927-1995) as Jim Hacker the Minister of Administrative Affairs 1980-1984 and Prime Minister in 1986-1988; Nigel Hawthorne (1929-2001) as Sir Humphrey Appleby Permanent Secretary of the Dept for Administrative Affairs and later Cabinet Secretary; Derek Fowlds (1937-2020) as Bernard Woolley Principal Private Secretary to Jim Hacker 1980-1984 and 1986-1988; Diana Hoddinott (b. 1945) as Annie Hacker and John Nettleton (b. 1929) as Sir Arnold Robinson, Cabinet Secretary and the head of the Civil Service in 1980-1984, then the improbable president of the Campaign for Freedom of Information in the follow-up Yes Prime Minister (1986–88).

Created and scripted by Sir Antony Jay (1930-2016) and Jonathan Linn (b. 1943), they consulted with Baroness Falkender (Marcia Williams), a longtime adviser to Harold Wilson (1916-1995) who was Labour PM in 1964-1970 and 1974-1976, and Lord Bernard Donoghue ((b. 1934) who was an adviser to premiers Harold Wilson 1974-1976 and James Callaghan (1912-2005)  1976-1979. 

Three series were made between 1980 and 1984, before Jim Hacker achieved real power in Yes Prime Minister.

In an early episode, "The Writing on the Wall" Sir Humphrey tells the minister that "Britain has had the same foreign policy objective for at least the last 500 years, to create a disunited Europe," for which they had "fought with the Dutch against the Spanish, with the Germans against the French (Napoleonic Wars), with the French and Italians against the Germans (World War I), and with the French against the Germans and Italians (World War II). Divide and rule, you see. Why should we change now, when it's worked so well?" Hacker dismisses it as "all ancient history", but Sir Humphrey responds "Now that we're inside we can make a complete pig's breakfast of the whole thing: set the Germans against the French, the French against the Italians, the Italians against the Dutch... The Foreign Office is terribly pleased, it's just like old times."

On the proposal of a European Identity Card, the Permanent Secretary notes "Germans will love it, the French will ignore it and the Italians and the Irish will be too chaotic to enforce it. Only the British will resent it."

Chaotic British Brexit negotiations with EU begin in 2017 

In 1981 when it's rumoured that Hacker may be appointed as the British European Commissioner, the minister and Appleby again discuss Europe.

Sir Humphrey Appleby : Well, Minister, I'm afraid that is the penalty we have to pay for trying to pretend that we're Europeans. Believe me, I fully understand your hostility to Europe.

Jim Hacker : I'm not like you, Humphrey. I'm pro-Europe, I'm just anti-Brussels. I sometimes think you're anti-Europe and pro-Brussels.

Jim Hacker : Europe is a community of nations, dedicated towards one goal.

Sir Humphrey Appleby : [laughs] 

Jim Hacker : May we share the joke, Humphrey?

Sir Humphrey Appleby : Minister, may I? [sits] 

Sir Humphrey Appleby : Let's look at this objectively. It is a game played for national interests and always was. Why do you suppose we went into it?

Jim Hacker : To strengthen the brotherhood of free Western nations.

Sir Humphrey Appleby : Oh, really. We went in to screw the French by splitting them off from the Germans.

Jim Hacker : Well, why did the French go into it, then?

Sir Humphrey Appleby : Well, to protect their inefficient farmers from commercial competition.

Jim Hacker : That certainly doesn't apply to the Germans!

Sir Humphrey Appleby : No, no. They went in to cleanse themselves of genocide and apply for readmission to the human race.

FUNNIEST MOMENTS of Yes Minister Series 1 | Yes, Minister | BBC Comedy Greats
 

INFURIATING GOVERNMENT: Best Bits of Series 2 | Yes Minister | BBC Comedy Greats
 

FUNNIEST MOMENTS of Yes, Minister Series 3 | Yes Minister | BBC Comedy Greats

Jim Hacker proposes that women be hired from outside the service to fill senior roles. Sir Humphrey doesn't agree. Sir Arnold Robinson, the Cabinet Secretary, calls a meeting of the all-male permanent secretaries to get their views! 
   

Becoming the Prime Minister and defending the British Sausage | Yes Minister: 1984 Christmas Special | BBC Comedy Greats
 

The BBC says on its series "The series follows Right Honorable James Hacker MP, Minister for Administrative Affairs, and his attempts to make officialdom and administration make sense. He does this whilst pushing his own self-serving agenda, and keeping his head above any nasty political waters. Throughout his career, he's up against Whitehall’s Sir Humphrey Appleby, unflappable symbol of a machine that has no gears, only brakes.

Jim's policies, whether cutting costs or trying to streamline red tape, are sabotaged by Appleby's Machiavellian skills, often accompanied by brain-wrenching sentences designed to confuse Hacker ─ Hacker's politics appear to be completely pragmatic and blown by the winds of chance, and are never dogmatic enough to be clearly labelled Labour or Conservative. By removing the trappings of a particular 'party' and allowing both sides to appear at their worst ─ venal and inconstant Hacker forever opposing the pompous and manipulative Appleby ─ Yes Minister maintained a timeless quality that means it has endured beyond the Thatcherite politics it satirised.

Issues were raised that are still timely now ─ identity papers and computer databases of the population, university funding, arms sales, oil politics being just a few.

Whilst the iconic figure of Sir Humphrey, as portrayed by Nigel Hawthorne, is the series' enduring legacy, the true star of the show is Hacker, as played by Paul Eddington. Though most of the verbal quips are Humphrey's, the comedy is Hacker's, mainly because Paul Eddington was probably the best comedy actor of his generation and his timing is miraculous.

Famously accurate in the spirit of the relationship between civil servant and politician, it was Mrs Thatcher's favourite show... make of that whatever you want. Yes Minister was proof that comedy could take on serious subjects and make real points with them."

Margaret Thatcher (1926-2013) the Prime Minister in 1979-1990 also liked the Spitting Image puppet show as she was portrayed as the dominant man in the Cabinet while the then leader of the Labour party, Neil Kinnock, was relentlessly lampooned as a clueless and heavily accented “Welsh windbag.”

Sir Humphrey's memorandum on how to side-step plans to reduce civil service numbers.

Interviews with Anthony Jay and Jonathan Linn, the surviving actors and partners along with clips:

"Britain's Best Sitcom" - Yes Minister (1/4)

"Britain's Best Sitcom" - Yes Minister (2/4)

"Britain's Best Sitcom" - Yes Minister (3/4)

"Britain's Best Sitcom" - Yes Minister (4/4)

The BBC launched a poll in August 2003 in the Radio Times, CEEFAX and on the BBC website asking people to vote for their favourite sitcom from a nominated list of 100 programmes.

The final order of the top ten in 2004 with the number of votes received for each is as follows:

1. Only Fools And Horses - 342,426 votes, 22.2%

2. Blackadder - 282,106, 18.3%

3. The Vicar Of Dibley - 212, 927, 13.8%

4. Dad's Army - 174, 138, 11.3%

5. Fawlty Towers - 172, 066, 11.2%

6. Yes Minister - 123, 502, 8.0%

7. Porridge - 93, 902, 6.1%

8. Open All Hours - 67, 237, 4.4%

9. The Good Life - 40,803, 2.6%

10. One Foot In The Grave - 31,410, 2.0%

Is Sir Humphrey a Soviet Spy? | Yes, Prime Minister | BBC Comedy Greats