Yes Minister: Anatomy of Another Classic

This Eighties BBC television satire about the conflicted but codependent relationship between politics and bureaucracy over a quarter century later bears all the markers of a classic. Its DVD and paperback versions continue to sell well, many clips are available on YouTube and elsewhere, and it ranked sixth in a 2004 poll to choose Britain’s best sitcom. My concern here is with how it was constructed.

Authors Tony Jay and Jonathan Lynn started with public choice theory, the notion that public sector agents are ultimately pursuing their own self-interest rather than any vision of the public good or public interest. This translates into hypocrisy, which always has humorous potential. Thus politicians are seemingly public-spirited but ultimately deeply cynical power-seekers. And public servants are industrious and seemingly deferential, but ultimately preservers of bureaucratic empires and opponents of change. Paul Eddington, as the Right Honourable James Hacker, and Nigel Hawthorne, as Sir Humphrey Appleby, both portrayed hypocrisy brilliantly.

The third member of the ensemble, Derek Fowlds, as Bernard Woolley, Hacker’s executive assistant who owed his ultimate loyalty to Sir Humphrey, played a strong supporter role as a sounding-board for both Hacker and Humphrey, and as an embodiment of the humour of insecurity stemming from divided loyalty.
Because a picture is worth a thousand words, and blog posts have a far smaller word count, I refer you to any of the YouTube clips to see what I mean about the brilliance of the acting.

There was another key to Yes Minister’s humour, which was its use of language. Here the authors are echoing, though less harshly, George Orwell’s concern about the debasement of language in politics. This is done in four different ways. First, in every episode, Humphrey gives a short speech in classic bureaucratese, using in its entirety the passive voice and abstract vocabulary; Hacker asks for a pr

5 comments

  1. For any aspiring political staffs and bureaucrats taking your course, and in the absence of popular books on the role of staffs, I’ll recommend Yes Minister. Past political staffs have confirmed its realism to working in a political environment and unless you are a senior bureaucrat, Yes Minister is as close as you

    • Lot of unfounded rumours surrounding BHR, so was reassured by response when I contacted Mr Mc#inn&M8217;s team. I had my resurfacing in 1999. I was in acute referred pain which felt as if someone was chopping off my toes with an axe. Within weeks I was playing tennis again and continue to enjoy my sports, skiing, golf and tennis although in my 70′s. I do feel that Pilates is essential to prevent further problems.

  2. Sandy, it always puzzles me that every moment of these series is meaningful, delightfully exciting and ever fresh – I can probably watch them daily; but the books are utterly boring and meaningless. More or less the same as with Woody Allen’s writings – second rate, nobody would read either save for the movies fame. Why’s that? The movie/books narratives are similar in both cases. It can’t be only due to the brilliant presentation.

    Also, how do you rate The Newsroom compared to Yes Minister?

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