Sunday Watch: Yes Minister – s01 e07-s02 – e02: Jobs for the Boys/The Compassionate Society/Doing the Honours


Dismissive though it sounds, it’s fair to describe the next trio of Yes Minister episodes, comprising the final episode of series 1 and the first two episodes of series 2 as ‘more of the same, only different’. This is because the standard of the show, both in terms of its tightly designed, clever and cynical set-ups and the extremely high quality of the actors involved, was immediately established at a very high standard, against which it was difficult to rise much higher. All episodes of Yes Minister are very good, and there three no less than those before it.

‘Jobs for the Boys’ ended series 1. It focusses on the Solihull Project, held up by Hacker as a ‘shining example’ of Governmemt and Private Industry collaboration. Which it might well have been if the Government hadn’t gotten into bed with a financial whizz-kid on the point of going bankrupt. Everyone knows that the brown stuff is about to hit the fan, everyone but two parties, that is, namely the Press, and Minister for Administrative Affairs, the Rt. Hon James Hacker, MP.

Now there’s a sure way out, which is to get the Bank to take over the financing, but that means the usual horse-trading and corruption, if you want to be so blunt. Sir Desmond Glazebrook (the always excellent Richard Vernon) can persuade the Bank to take the risk, if he has the right incentive, namely the Chair of a newly-created QUANGO (Quasi-Autonomous Non-Governmental Organisation, of which you don’t hear much these days). Glazebrook is ideal from Sir Humphrey’s point of view, whilst a total deadbeat from Hacker’s. Remarkably, both points of view are exactly right. Besides, Hacker is backing a plan by his Political Advisor, Frank Wiesel, to shut down these expensive and useless committees.

The beauty of the series is that you can almost always see the ending coming, but you get to admire the dovetailing of all the little elements, the cynicism and opportunism, the quid pro quos and compromises that get you there. Though in a way, it’s sad to see ideals being cast aside at the drop of a hat, however realistic this may be. Probably, it was realistic, which it shouldn’t have been. And probably it contributed a massive amount to the ever-increasing disillusion with politics that has marred this country so much.

This episode also saw the last appearance of Neil Fitzwilliam as Frank. Anthony Jay and Jonathan Lynn always went to great lengths to ensure that Hacker couldn’t be identified with either Conservative or Labour. The coincidence of the show’s debut on the heels of a new Tory Government tilted things one way, the presence of a Political Advisor shoved it the other. So Wiesel was dropped for series 2, and indeed was written out, effectively, by being corrupted himself. Such cynicism.

This apart, perhaps the only change to series 2 was a greater determination on Hacker’s part to stand up to Sir Humphrey and try harder – or at least more loudly – to get his aims through. Whenever I have seen it, I have always had difficulties with series-opener, ‘The Compassionate Society’. This is because the episode hinges on the discovery that there is a newly-built, fully-equipped North London hospital that has 500 staff, but no patients. Nor are any of the staff medical: no doctors, no nurses, haven’t got the budget for them.

What gives me an issue with this episode is that Hacker is outraged, and for this episode, I am Hacker, and he and I are the only ones who seem to regard this situation as incredible, and an affront. But everybody else, and I don’t just mean Sir Humphrey, I do mean everybody, seems to regard the situation as perfectly acceptable, and actually preferable, because everything is working so well. And that’s where I struggle, because Hacker and I cannot for one moment comprehend that anyone can be satisfied with a hospital standing idle, emplying all the staff and not even tackling an ingrowing toenail. It’s a black and white situation and the fact that the closest anyone else comes to understanding Hacker’s point is a Trade Unionist who can’t defend keeping the hospital open – until Humphrey arranges for a militant Shop Steward to be transferred there – leaves me struggling to accept so many people content with the set-up, without coming up with an explanation for why such a thing is alright.

There’s a second, low-level strand to the episode that peers round the edges but otherwise seems curiously redundant, but it turns out to be Jay and Lynn’s get-out clause, a solution that allows Hacker a win from a tangent, but which never actually ends the main story, one way or another. According to imdb, at the time the episode was written, and no doubt its inspiration, there were at least six London Hospitals in the same boat as this fictional one, so I suppose if real life couldn’t explain it, I shouldn’t carp too much about Jay and Lynn, but still…

Third of the bunch, ‘Doing the Honours’ concerned itself with the Honours system in Britain, and what a ripe, stinking, cesspit it was. Almost so much that I don’t want to even outline it. Hacker won’t approve the Departmental honours recommendations for anyone who doesn’t bring in at least 5% of economies, a step regarded by all as the destruction of the Civil Service, and which leads to Sir Humphrey being Not Reprimanded to his face. He also won’t approve an Exemption to Humphrey’s old College, Balliol at Oxford, over foreign student tuition fees. Then he’s turned around by Dinner at High Table at Balliol (at which Paul Eddngton produces one of those performances as a drunk Hacker that dances on a razor edge about embarrassing the audience). Hacker gets an Honorary Doctorate in Law, Balliol gets its Exemption, Hackets gets his – fictional – 5% economies and the Department its Honours.

All’s well that ends so corruptedly. After forty years, I am commencing to find myself finding such things a bit more dramatic than funny. Clever, intricate, professional, but just a bit too rotten to the core.

2 thoughts on “Sunday Watch: Yes Minister – s01 e07-s02 – e02: Jobs for the Boys/The Compassionate Society/Doing the Honours

  1. If you don’t hear so much about QUANGOs (which I had to figure out from context in those pre-Wikipedia days) anymore, I suspect that a contributing factor was Yes, Minister so comprehensively rubbishing them.

    1. Lovel;y thought! Actually, they lasted a lot longer than that, and I suspect it took the advent of New Labour to change the thrust of Government.

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