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 précis, which requires but a short sentence. Hawthorne recognized these as the modern-day equivalent of Gilbert and Sullivan’s patter songs, and so delivered them in a single breath with appropriate aplomb.
Second, Bernard would in most episodes engage in verbal pedantry, such as providing a long-winded deconstruction of a mixed metaphor.
Third, there were many instances where words were used to mean their opposite. So, when Humphrey says to Hacker, “with respect, minister,” he means “without respect, minister,” and when he says an idea of Hacker’s is courageous, he means it is misguided to the point of political suicide. These inversions are made clear through repetition in many episodes and/or facial expression, such as a smirk.
There is a fourth use of language for humorous effect, namely the Freudian slip. The slips reveal political or bureaucratic self-interest underneath the veneer of concern about the public interest. For example Hacker would say that a policy initiative would be a real-vote getter and immediately correct himself to assert its intended policy role.
Much more could be said about Yes Minister, and in my book I will, but this post should convey why it is a classic. To introduce a new generation to it, I suggest starting with clips on YouTube, then going to its Wikipedia entry, and then if you want to see more purchasing DVDs of the program or its print counterpart, the diaries of cabinet minister and then Prime Minister James Hacker. The program is a rare combination of humour and insight than continues to instruct and entertain, which is why it deserves to be regarded as a classic.