Yes Minister

Yes Minister is a political satire British sitcom written by Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn. Split over three seven-episode series, it was first transmitted on BBC2 from 1980 to 1984. A sequel, Yes, Prime Minister, lasted 17 episodes and ran from 1986 to 1988. All but one of the episodes lasted half an hour, and almost all ended with a variation of the title of the series spoken as the answer to a question posed by Minister (later, Prime Minister) Jim Hacker. Several episodes were adapted for BBC Radio; the series also spawned a 2010 stage play that led to a new television series on Gold in 2013.

Set principally in the private office of a British Cabinet minister in the fictional Department of Administrative Affairs in Whitehall, Yes Minister follows the ministerial career of Jim Hacker, played by Paul Eddington. His various struggles to formulate and enact policy or effect departmental changes are opposed by the British Civil Service, in particular his Permanent Secretary, Sir Humphrey Appleby, played by Sir Nigel Hawthorne. His Principal Private Secretary Bernard Woolley, played by Derek Fowlds, is usually caught between the two. The sequel, Yes, Prime Minister, continued with the same cast and followed Jim Hacker after his unexpected elevation to Number 10 upon the resignation of the previous Prime Minister.

The series received several BAFTAs and in 2004 was voted sixth in the Britain’s Best Sitcom poll. It was the favourite television programme of the then Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Margaret Thatcher.

The series opens in the wake of a general election in which the incumbent government has been defeated by the opposition party, to which Jim Hacker MP belongs. His party affiliation is never stated, and his party emblem is clearly neither Conservative nor Labour. The Prime Minister offers Hacker the position of Minister of Administrative Affairs, which he accepts. Hacker goes to his department and meets his Permanent Secretary, Sir Humphrey Appleby, and his Principal Private Secretary, Bernard Woolley.

While Appleby is outwardly deferential towards the new minister, he is prepared to defend the status quo at all costs. Woolley is sympathetic towards Hacker but as Appleby reminds him, Woolley’s civil service superiors, including Appleby, will have much to say about the course of his future career (i.e., assessments, promotions, pay increases), while ministers do not usually stay long in one department and have no say in civil service staffing recommendations.

Many of the episodes revolve around proposals backed by Hacker but frustrated by Appleby, who uses a range of clever stratagems to defeat ministerial proposals while seeming to support them. Other episodes revolve around proposals promoted by Appleby but rejected by Hacker, which Appleby attempts by all means necessary to persuade Hacker to accept. They do occasionally join forces in order to achieve a common goal, such as preventing the closure of their department or dealing with a diplomatic incident.

As the series revolves around the inner workings of central government, most of the scenes take place in private locations, such as offices and exclusive members’ clubs. Lynn said that “there was not a single scene set in the House of Commons because government does not take place in the House of Commons. Some politics and much theatre takes place there. Government happens in private. As in all public performances, the real work is done in rehearsal, behind closed doors. Then the public and the House are shown what the government wishes them to see.” However, the episode “The Compassionate Society” does feature an audio recording of Yesterday in Parliament in which Hacker speaks in the House of Commons, and other episodes include scenes in the Foreign Secretary’s House of Commons office (“The Writing on the Wall”) and a Committee room (“A Question of Loyalty”). At the time of the making of the series, television cameras were not allowed in the House of Commons and had only recently been introduced into the House of Lords, so it was not unusual to a British audience to have no scenes from there.

The Right Honourable Jim Hacker MP (Paul Eddington), eventually elevated to the House of Lords as Lord Hacker of Islington, was the editor of a newspaper called Reform before going into politics. He spent a good deal of time in Parliament on the Opposition benches before his party won a general election. In Yes Minister, he is the Minister for Administrative Affairs (a fictitious ministry of the British government) and a cabinet minister, and in Yes, Prime Minister he becomes the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. Hacker received his degree from the London School of Economics (graduating with a Third), for which he is often derided by the Oxford-educated Sir Humphrey (who attended the fictitious Baillie College graduating with a First in Classics). His early character is that of a gung-ho, but naïve, politician, bringing sweeping changes to his department. Before long, Hacker begins to notice that Civil Service tactics are preventing his planned changes being put into practice. As he learns, he becomes more sly and cynical, using some of the Civil Service ruses himself. While Sir Humphrey initially held all the aces, Hacker now and again plays a trump card of his own.

Throughout Yes Minister, Hacker, at his worst, is portrayed as a publicity-seeking bungler who is incapable of making a firm decision. He is prone to potentially embarrassing blunders, and is a frequent target of criticism from the press and stern lectures from the Chief Whip. However, he is also shown to be relatively politically savvy, and he slowly becomes more aware of Sir Humphrey’s real agenda. In Yes, Prime Minister, Hacker becomes more statesmanlike. He practises more grandiose speeches, dreams up his “Grand Design” and hones his diplomatic skills. Nearly all of these efforts land him in trouble. In a Radio Times interview to promote Yes, Prime Minister, Paul Eddington stated, “He’s beginning to find his feet as a man of power, and he’s begun to confound those who thought they’d be able to manipulate him out of hand.”

Sir Humphrey Appleby (Nigel Hawthorne) serves throughout the series as permanent secretary under his minister, Jim Hacker at the Department of Administrative Affairs. He is appointed Cabinet Secretary just as Hacker’s party enters a leadership crisis, and is instrumental in Hacker’s elevation to Prime Minister. He is committed to maintaining the status quo for the country in general and for the Civil Service in particular. Sir Humphrey is a master of obfuscation and manipulation, baffling his opponents with long-winded technical jargon and circumlocutions, strategically appointing allies to supposedly impartial boards, and setting up interdepartmental committees to smother his minister’s proposals in red tape.

However, although presenting an outward appearance of supreme confidence and competence, Sir Humphrey is not immune to making miscalculations or outright blunders. When such blunders occur, he relies on the Civil Service bureaucracy to save him.

In Britain’s Best Sitcom, Stephen Fry comments that “we love the idea of the coherence and articulacy of Sir Humphrey … it’s one of the things you look forward to in an episode of Yes Minister … when’s the big speech going to happen? And can I see if he’s reading it from an idiot board … he’s really learned it, and it’s superb.” Derek Fowlds posited to a concerned Eddington that these speeches were the reason why Hawthorne won a BAFTA for Best Comedy Performance four times in a row, while Eddington, though nominated, did not win at all.

Loquacious and verbose, he frequently uses both his mastery of the English language and his grasp of Latin and Greek grammar both to perplex his political master and to obscure the relevant issues. In a Radio Times interview to promote the second series of Yes, Prime Minister, producer Sydney Lotterby stated that he always tried to give Eddington and Hawthorne extra time to rehearse as their scenes invariably featured lengthy dialogue exchanges.

Sir Bernard Woolley, GCB, MA (Oxon) (Derek Fowlds) is Jim Hacker’s Principal Private Secretary. His loyalties are often split between his Minister and his Civil Service boss, Sir Humphrey. While he is theoretically responsible to Hacker personally, it is Sir Humphrey who writes his performance reviews and influences his Civil Service career. He usually handles these situations well, and maintains his reputation in the Civil Service as a “high flier” as opposed to a “low flier supported by occasional gusts of wind.”

Woolley is always quick to point out the physical impossibilities of Sir Humphrey’s or Hacker’s mixed metaphors, with almost obsessive pedantry. He can occasionally appear rather childlike, by making animal noises and gestures or by acting out how such an analogy cannot work, which sometimes annoys his Minister. Woolley tends to side with Hacker when new policies are announced, because they seem radical or democratic, only for Sir Humphrey to point out the disadvantages to the status quo and the civil service in particular. To sway Bernard, Sir Humphrey uses phrases such as “barbarism” and “the beginning of the end”. At times when Sir Humphrey fails to get his way, Woolley can be seen smiling smugly at him over his defeat.

In a 2004 retrospective, Armando Iannucci commented that Fowlds had a difficult task because he had to “spend most of his time saying nothing but looking interested in everyone else’s total and utter guff” but “his one line frequently had to be the funniest of the lot.” Iannucci suggests that Woolley is essential to the structure of the show because both Hacker and Appleby confide in him, “which means we get to find out what they’re plotting next.”

The editor’s note to The Complete Yes Prime Minister (supposedly published in 2024 after Hacker’s death but actually published by the BBC in 1989), thanks “Sir Bernard Woolley GCB” for his help and confirms that he did indeed make it to the position of Head of the Civil Service.

The series featured a cast of recurring characters.

  • Frank Weisel (often deprecatingly pronounced weasel), played by Neil Fitzwiliam, was Hacker’s crusading, idealistic political adviser in the first series. The less scrupulous Hacker found him rather tiresome after a time, while Sir Humphrey found him positively loathsome from the outset. Hacker eventually sent Weisel on a deliberately lengthy worldwide fact-finding assignment, from which he did not return.
  • It was not until Yes, Prime Minister that another such character appeared regularly: Dorothy Wainwright, special adviser to the Prime Minister, who was played by Deborah Norton. Wainwright was rather more down-to-earth than Weisel, and tended to give more practical advice. She knows all of Humphrey’s tricks and is able to give the Prime Minister instant advice how to get past his manipulations, and Humphrey knows it and sees her as a threat, though always refers to her as “Dear Lady”. Earlier Prime Ministerial advisers had appeared from time to time in episodes of Yes Minister, including Daniel Moynihan as Daniel Hughes in “The Writing on the Wall” (1980) and Nigel Stock as Sir Mark Spencer in “Bed of Nails” (1982). In the later stage play and 2013 television revival, Hacker’s young advisor, Claire Sutton, had a larger role than any of her predecessors.
  • Hacker also had a Press Secretary, Bill Pritchard, played by Antony Carrick.

Meanwhile, Sir Humphrey’s civil service colleagues were also regularly featured. They included:

  • Sir Arnold Robinson (played by John Nettleton), Cabinet Secretary in Yes Minister and later President of the Campaign for Freedom of Information. The reserved, dignified Sir Arnold is a master manipulator, to whom Sir Humphrey often turns for counsel.
  • Sir Frederick Stewart (played by John Savident), Permanent Secretary of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, known as “Jumbo” to his friends;
  • Sir Ian Whitchurch (played by John Barron), Permanent Secretary to the Department of Health and Social Security
  • Sir Richard Wharton (played by Donald Pickering), Permanent Secretary to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
  • Sir Frank Gordon, who appeared in both series of Yes, Prime Minister as Permanent Secretary to the Treasury (played by Peter Cellier).
  • Sir Humphrey also had an old acquaintance: Sir Desmond Glazebrook (played by Richard Vernon), who was Board member, then Chairman, of Bartlett’s Bank. Glazebrook is an amiably vague “chap” (a word he uses frequently to describe banking colleagues), of impeccable respectability, very little actual financial knowledge, and no fixed opinions on anything. He became Governor of the Bank of England in the Yes, Prime Minister episode “A Conflict of Interest”, to avoid, as one possibility, Britain’s expulsion from the Commonwealth.

The writers were inspired by a variety of sources, including sources inside government, published material and contemporary news stories. The writers also met several leading senior civil servants under the auspices of the Royal Institute of Public Administration, a think-tank for the public service sector, which led to the development of some plot lines. Some situations were conceived as fiction, but were later revealed to have real-life counterparts. The episode “The Compassionate Society” depicts a hospital with five hundred administrative staff but no doctors, nurses or patients. Lynn recalls that “after inventing this absurdity, we discovered there were six such hospitals (or very large empty wings of hospitals) exactly as we had described them in our episode.”

The opening titles were drawn by artist and cartoonist Gerald Scarfe, who provided distinctive caricatures of Eddington, Hawthorne and Fowlds in their respective roles to represent distortion. He animated them as ‘self-drawing’ by positioning the camera above his paper, adding parts of lines, and then photographing two frames at a time. The sequence ended with the title of the episode superimposed on a facsimile of an edition of the House of Commons Weekly Information Bulletin. Curiously, the legend Compiled in the Public Information Office of the House of Commons Library was left in the sequence. Scarfe created a second set of graphics for Yes, Prime Minister, including a different title card for each episode. Derek Fowlds wanted to buy an original drawing but was unable to afford it. The series’ performance credits typically only featured those of the actors who appeared in the particular episode, not the names of characters. The typeface used in the credits is Plantin, a common typeface used in the British press at the time. The show title is set in bold condensed and the credits are in bold.

The theme music was composed by Ronnie Hazlehurst and is largely based on the Westminster Quarters: the chimes of Big Ben. When asked in an interview about its Westminster influence, Hazlehurst replied, “That’s all it is. It’s the easiest thing I’ve ever done.” Scarfe’s and Hazlehurst’s work was not used for the first episode, “Open Government”. The final version of the titles and music had yet to be agreed, and both differ substantially from those used for subsequent instalments. The opening and closing title caption cards feature drawings of most of the cast, but are less exaggerated than those of Scarfe, while the unaccredited music is a more up-tempo piece for brass band. The Scarfe and Hazlehurst credits were used for some repeat broadcasts of the first episode, but the original pilot credits were retained for the DVD release.

Nigel Hawthorne had worked with Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn before, and he and Paul Eddington claimed they immediately recognized the quality of writing of the series, but Jay and Lynn state that both actors asked for a second episode script (and a third script), after having read the pilot script, before committing to the series. When casting the role of Bernard, Jonathan Lynn met Derek Fowlds at a dinner, and subsequently offered him the role.

The series gained high audience figures, and 90+ on the audience Appreciation Index. Critics, such as Andrew Davies in the Times Educational Supplement and Armando Iannucci, have noted that the show had high expectations of its audience. Lynn posits that the public are more intelligent than most situation comedies, often patronizingly, give them credit for. Jay believes that the viewers were just as intelligent as the writers, but that there were some things that they needed to know but didn’t.

Yes Minister won the BAFTA award for Best Comedy Series for 1980, 1981 and 1982, and the “Party Games” special was nominated in the Best Light Entertainment Programme category for 1984Yes, Prime Minister was short-listed for Best Comedy Series for both 1986 and 1987. Nigel Hawthorne’s portrayal of Sir Humphrey Appleby won the BAFTA Award for Best Light Entertainment Performance four times (in 1981, 1982, 1986 and 1987). Eddington was also nominated on all four occasions. Nigel Hawthorne was awarded Best Actor in Light Entertainment Programme at the 1981 Broadcasting Press Guild Awards.

Comments are welcome on your 80s memories...