In Praise of “Yes Minister”

I have been putting up a lot of serious posts, so I wanted to do something a little lighter: a TV show recommendation. In this case it’s a British political sitcom from the 1980s. (The minister in question is a government minister, not a pastor.) It’s Yes Minister, written by Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn, and it even had a sequel show Yes, Prime Minister when the title minister takes a role in government that I am presently forgetting. In any case, it is intelligent TV and you will laugh your way to a better understanding of the ins and outs of government.

Yes Minister follows the political career of the Right Honourable James Hacker, MP in his post as the Minister of Administrative Affairs. His shadow is Permanent Secretary Humphrey Appleby from the Civil Service, and between Hacker and Appleby is a never ending battle for ideals (and votes!) on the one side and administrative stability on the other. Hacker has all the good intentions, and Appleby has all the sneaky schemes. Between them floats Bernard Woolley, Hacker’s Principal Private Secretary. Bernard theoretically serves the minister, but Sir Humphrey is his Civil Service Boss, so Bernard has to play the loyalty game very carefully in order to keep his job. Occasionally you get to see Hacker’s wife, Annie, and she provides a necessary dose of common sense in the insane life of a government minister.

The humor is so dry that I have to run the humidifier after watching a single episode. The action is largely men in suits switching between various rooms in order to have conversations of varying degrees of awkwardness, and none of it at all happens in the House of Commons. You have to watch some episodes multiple times in order to catch every pun, and it helps to know a bit of late 1900s British political history to catch some of the references they make. In that, it’s not for everyone.

One of the prime features of every show is the speeches given by Sir Humphrey as he tries to bludgeon the minister or other government officials into taking his answers. An excellent example can be found here of a time when he and the minister actually team up to save the department from death at the hands of a public inquiry. One thing I read somewhere is that the show actually did a lot to help the public pick apart the verbal tricks used by the government, and it is always quite fun to see what bit of sophistry that they are going to use next. (Here is a clip from Yes, Prime Minister on how political surveys work.) Sir Humphrey regularly subverts or moderates the force of Hacker’s intended reforms: either the minister really does not yet know what he is doing, or the risk-averse bureaucracy just does not want to shake things up.

Occasionally Hacker gets the upper hand and achieves something that he wants, despite Sir Humphrey’s diligent politicking. You get to see definite character progression as you finish each episode, and Bernard definitely comes into his own by the end of Yes, Prime Minister when he saves the day as Hacker as Prime Minister is dealing with the fallout of a lie and Humphrey potentially shoots his own career down in an indiscreet comment at the end of an interview. Government is always about to fall apart, but each episode ends with a face saving, status quo extending agreement and a cordial with variable sincerity, “Yes, Minister.”

If you check out the Wikipedia article on the show, you can see how the writers researched the show and had extensive conversations with current or former government officials to see what government was really like on the inside. On one interview I saw, one of the writers said that the real stuff was always funnier than the stuff that they made up, and one of the factors giving the humor an edge is that the jokes are often uncomfortably close to the truth.

Although various friends of mine who have seen this show say that they feel very tired by the end and it put my mother to sleep when I tried to show her an episode, I love it. You can get it on iTunes or order it through Amazon, and you might very well find yourself plugging in episode after episode. It will teach you a lot about government and the realities of Cold War politics like no textbook ever will — just don’t try the verbal tricks at home.