“The devil… that proud spirit… cannot endure to be mocked.” – Thomas More
“Artists lie in order to tell the truth. Politicians lie in order to disguise the truth.” – V for Vendetta
What can I say about a television series that largely consists of three men talking to each other and features no sex, no violence, and no rap music? It wouldn’t sell at all. It wouldn’t get on the air, let alone thrive. It certainly wouldn’t last 22 episodes. Nor would it lead to an equally successful sequel.
Not if it’s the British Broadcasting Company’s delightful TV series Yes Minister. The title character is Jim Hacker (Paul Eddington), the Minister of Administrative Affairs, a fictional department of the British government. (At least your reviewer believes it’s fictional.) His Permanent Secretary is Sir Humphrey Appleby (Nigel Hawthorne), and his Principle Private Secretary is Bernard Woolley (Derek Fowlds).
The first episode sees Hacker awaiting a job in a newly elected government. The new PM appoints him, and he meets his staff. Much of the conflict and comedy comes as Hacker tries to implement some reform or other and his civil servants plot to stop him without letting him know that’s what they’re doing.
Bernard is caught between Sir Humphrey and Hacker. He is Watson to Sir Humphrey’s Holmes. By explaining things to Bernard, Sir Humphrey explains things to the audience. For example, Sir Humphrey explains to Bernard that “the Minister should not run the department, the Permanent Secretary should. If we allowed the Minister to run the Department, there would be chaos. Far more seriously, there would be innovation. Change. Public debate. Outside scrutiny. Is that what you want?”
In the process, we get an inside look at Whitehall and the British civil service. The writers, Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn, talked (off the record, of course) to many politicians and civil servants, and based episodes or situations on actual events. Some situations were conceived as fiction, but later found to be real. Many commentators noted the realism of the show, not least then PM Margaret Thatcher.
In one episode, Sir Humphrey gives us what is probably the best short summary available of the last 900 years of British European policy, and the real reason (all right, the Foreign Office’s real reason) why Britain joined the European Economic Community. What’s frightening is that for a comedy throwaway written in the 1980s, it has proved remarkably accurate twenty years on.
There are many books on the art of government, many serious treatises, from Polybius to Gibbon to Machiavelli to Bagehot. Many are on specific forms of government. Yes Minister teaches many of the same lessons. It teaches them with humor and truth. Anyone involved in politics would do well to arm himself by watching the series.
The writing is very sharp. You can’t laugh for very long, as you risk missing the next line, which may be even funnier than the one that got you laughing.
Sir Humphrey: You came up with all the questions I hoped nobody would ask.
Jim Hacker: Ah, opposition is about asking awkward questions.
SH: And government is about not answering them.
JH: Well, you answered all mine anyway.
SH: I’m glad you thought so, Minister.
Watch out for the pithy zinger. “No, let him panic. Politicians like to panic. They need activity. It’s their substitute for achievement.” Now, have you ever heard a better description of, say, Charles Schumer? Or the average anti-gunner?
The show was produced by the BBC, and of course it skewers many peculiarities of British government (with which it is well supplied: did you know that the cat at Number Ten Downing Street has the title “Chief Mouser to the Cabinet Office”?). But it is also universal. Many of the episodes of Yes Minister could just as well take place in Washington. Or Cheyenne. Or in a government school near you.
And, of course, it takes off on the English language as well. “That’s one of those irregular verbs, isn’t it? I give confidential security briefings. You leak. He has been charged under section 2a of the Official Secrets Act.” In fact, it’s amazing just how many different meanings Sir Humphrey can pack into the seemingly simple, innocuous phrase, “Yes, Minister.”