The decision to return to Yes Minister today was based not only on the length of time it is since I first dipped into the programme but also the need for something clear, confident and clever – it isn’t easy following Sir Humphrey’s monologues, you know, even when you’ve grown up on Danny Ross as Alfie Hall in The Clitheroe Kid – to persuade my brain into some sort of operational function.
The three episodes today, two of which did not end on the closing line, “Yes, Minister” re-demonstrated various things about the series. Firstly, it’s obvious intelligence, a heady and nostalgic appeal given the state of Government we now endure forty years later. The intelligence applies to the leading three actors, Paul Eddington, Nigel Hawthorne (of course) and Derek Fowlds, who play their parts to perfection but most of all to the writers, Anthony Jay and Jonathan Lynn. Making fun of Government and the Civil Service is always fun and is also very easy – look at the skill with which the current lot do it – but drawing it together into coherent, well-thought out plots that make their political points without any overt partisanship is not. Jim Hacker is a gruesome foreshadowing of nowadays, but even he is a sympathetic character, out to make the country better in his own weak-willed manner.
‘Big Brother’ was ostensibly about the creation of a National Integrated Database on all the country’s citizens. In a totally different fashion, it’s a counterpart to Patrick McGoohan’s concerns in The Prisoner, and I’m sure Jay and Lynn chose it deliberately, but it’s the McGuffin to the episode’s central element, namely the ongoing clash between the Minister and the Civil Service, Hacker and Humphrey (interesting that in shorthand we automatically think of the Minister by his surname and the Permanent Secretary by his first name, which is usually a sign of closer affection – for the ‘villain’).
The suspicion of such things being far greater then, there’s an overwhelming concern for safeguards. Hacker wants them, Humphrey is delaying things. Hacker believes they’re a genuine need, and not just because he’s booby-trapped on the BBC by real-life Political Interviewer Bob McKenzie over them, Humphrey is opposed. No specific reason is given, other than the traditional Civil Service inertia, based on a complete refusal to accept Innovations, but I can see Sir Humphrey opposing out of conviction the idea of anything limiting or restricting the Civil Service’s powers.
The deeper issue of the episode is that, after only three episodes, Hacker is ‘house-trained’. He’s the Department’s mouthpiece, presenting its policies to Parliament, arguing them through and securing their budget. He may have policies and ideas of his own but part of Bernard Woolley’s duties (to the Civil Service) is to keep him so busy that he hasn’t got time to think, let alone formulate policies.
Appropriately, it’s a wholly innocent remark by Bernard that enables Hacker to score his first victory over Humphrey. Hacker’s already obtained detailed safeguards as developed under the previous Minister, now in Opposition (the Opposition-in-exile as opposed to the Opposition-in-residence, i.e., the Civil Service) from the ex-Minister along with a crash course in Humphrey’s stalling tactics. But it’s when Bernard tells him he can’t get out of an ITV interview about the Database because it’s already been announced, it’s in the programme, Hacker gets a brilliant idea. On the show, he confidently announces a complete safeguards package and that the Civil Service are so efficint, they will have everything worked out in time.
Of course, it’s the one they developed under the previous Minister and the one he’s let Hacker have. The tables are turned and Hacker’s position is strengthened. But we know it’s only temporary.
Nevertheless, it spills over to some extent into ‘The Writing on the Wall’. Hacker believes the Civil Service is overmanned and must be reduced by 200,000 jobs. For some reason, no matter how clearly he explains it to his advisors, the draft Committee evidence they produce always comes back saying the opposite. Humphrey is of no assistance, suggesting another redraft (Bernard, pedantically, challenges the notion that there have been three redrafts so far on the grounds that the first was a draft so only the other two are redrafts: thank you, Bernard).
So Hacker decides to redraft the evidence himself and only present it to Humphrey, using a wonderful reverse of his locquacious and accumulative stalling phrases, when it’s too late to be redrafted. This forces Humphrey into direct opposition of the policy and even into direct language, in one of those many aphorisms Jay and Lynn produced that echo in the mind forever: “If you must do this damn silly thing, don’t do it in this damn silly way.”
The effect is obvious. Not only do Hacker’s proposals at Cabinet (which he’s not read before Cabinet) include shutting down the Land Registry, but the outcome is that the Prime Minister’s Principal Political Advisor delightedly explains that administrative overmanning will be addressed boldly – by abolishing the Department for Admoinistrative Affairs.
Cue mouch mournful anticipation of future fates – Hacker to the House of Lords, Humphrey to Ag & Fish and Cod Quotas and Bernard to the DVLA in Swansea – and overuse of the word appalled, but salvation comes Hacker’s way, not from the genuine alliance with his Permanent Secretary that Humphrey, in desperation, proposes, but from the chance dropping of a secret proposal from the Foreign Secretary.
It’s that entirely anti-British notion of an Identity Card, the Europass (interesting to see the EEC, as it then was, being used as the villains less than ten years after Britain joined, though it’s allied to the chilling but accurate explanation that Foreign Policy has always been to ensure a disunited Europe so we had to join the EEC in order to wreck it from within: we’re still trying to do that from without now). The public won’t have it for one second (bet they will, if not now then very soon) but the PM’s up for the Napoleon Prize and won’t drop the policy until he;s secured that. It would put the PM in an awkward position if a hypothetical back-bencher were to be fed a premature Parliamentary Question by a hypothetical Minister…
But of course, if that same hypothetical back-bencher should raise a Question asking the PM to squash rumours about the Department of Administrative Affairs being abolished…
I can’t help thinking that in many ways Yes Minister played a big part in our cynicism about Government and governing.
The last of these three episodes, ‘The Right to Know’, shows Hacker unwittingly giving Humphrey the ability to reverse the slide. Hacker’s getting bold enough now to consult with Assistant Secretaries and the like, direct, by-passing Sir Humphrey. This is outrageous: if Hacker does this he might hear facts that would lead him to see options over and above the two or three the Department officially offers to him, in the grand old three card trick manner of clearly forcing one on him. That would never do.
Bernard’s doing better at filling Hacker’s diary with trivia, such as an Animal Rights Committee badgering him on his proposal to unify management and proection of natural resources countrywide that involves removing formal protection from certain very small and uneconomic places such as a Warwickshire spinney supposedly home to a badger colony.
Hacker is again appalled by being booby-trapped like this. Why was he not informed? It must not happen again. He rejects utterly Humphrey’s argument that sometimes there are things which it is better not to know. In future he must be told everything. As a result, he gets buried in Departmental information all the way down to stationery requisitions. It’s playing into Humphrey’s hands like a dreaam.
Unfortunately the spinney won’t go away. Enter Hacker and Annie’s daughter, Lucy, played by Gerry Cowper, not long since co-star of a six part ITV serial about two teenagers going on the run to avoid being separated, which I watched avidly then. I don’t remember anything but the barest details of her performance in that but frankly, Cowper’s acting here is appalling. She comes over as amateur dramatics leval at best, weak, unconvincing, not a naturally delivered line. In her defence, she’s given some of the worst material in the entire programme, horribly thin characterisation, the cliched rebellious daughter, a sociology student going out with a Trotskyite, leading to sterotypical comments that are absolutely unworthy of Jay and Lynn.
Lucy finds out about the spinney issue and makes a meal of it, planning a 24 hour vigil to be announced to the Press at 5.00pm. Oh, by the way, it’s to be a nude vigil. The Press will love it.
At the last minute, Humphrey saves the day, advising Lucy that there has been no evidence of badger presence for eleven years, that the Council want to build a Further Education College on the land but if it stays protected they’ll spend the money on something else than, in twelve months time a local Property Developer will reveal about the badgers, get the Protection lifted and build office blocks and luxury apartments instead, and besides everyone’s using it as a rubbish dump and so the place is infested with rats.
It’s a beautifully designed bit of overkill, drawn from the files, and it kills off the vigil to Hacker’s great relief. He’s so happy he wants to read the file himself but Humphrey suggests it’s better for him not to. Was any of that true, Hacker asks, the light dawning on him several minures after the audience. Do you really wish me to answer that question, Humphrey posits, mildly. And as you don’t, perhaps you’d agree that sometimes there are things it is better for a Minister not to know?
The beauty of Yes Minister even this far on is not merely the intelligence with which it is written, and not merely that it is making revelatory comedy out of a very serious and weighty subject but also that, despite the passing of forty years and the consequent shifts in political interests, attitudes and requirements, it is still absolutely up to date.
To our utter despair and misery.