15 years of CSW: Our quest to find Whitehall’s best fish and chips – plus an interview with Yes, Minister's creator Antony Jay

Written by Richard Johnstone on 28 February 2019 in Feature
Feature

As Civil Service World celebrates its 15th anniversary, Beckie Smith has trawled the archives for some of our most memorable moments. Here’s some of our lighter (battered) moments

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Cod do batter

Since its inception, CSW has served its readers with in-depth analysis and investigations into the issues that matter – not least of all, Whitehall catering. Our 2011 series compared the fish and chip offerings across departmental canteens.

It found the Cabinet Office serving “large, hot, but slightly claggy fish fillet [with] a thin coating of crispy batter” with Whitehall’s best tartar sauce – “thick, and with plenty of punch” – and “light and pleasingly plump” chips.

Our dedicated correspondent praised the Treasury for its “fresh, large, well-cooked portions” but “the batter was a point of debate. I liked its crunchiness, but underneath it had a spongiform layer that was disappointing”.

One department came out ahead of all the others. “The batter has been underwhelming in all the canteens so far but DWP got it right. I was starting to wonder whether all canteen batter was the same, yet now I know: if they want to make it crispy, they can. All it takes is a little effort. It wasn’t overly greasy, it wasn’t soft and squeezy, it was thin and tasty. Perfect.”

But it was the Department of Health (as it was then known) that provided by far the most memorable experience. “First mouthful: watery, flabby fish with a veneer of thin, soggy batter,” our correspondent wrote. “The mushy peas tasted old.”

Some credit went to canteen staff for being “cheery despite the challenges”. “But none of this made up for that afternoon throwing up in the office toilet.”


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Guess minister

One of our most enjoyable interviews was not, in fact, with a civil servant. Antony Jay, who co-wrote the hugely popular 1980s sitcom Yes Minister, spoke to us in 2006 about putting the behind-the-scenes of government centre-screen. A few of our readers would no doubt appreciate his description of reorganising departments as being like “drawing a knife through a bowl of marbles”. He told WWW: “You change the relationship of the constituent elements to each other but you don’t change the constituent parts themselves.”

He reflected on how input from Whitehall insiders had lent the show authenticity, helping Jay and his writing partner Jonathan Lynn understand the minutiae of how the bureaucracy worked and allowing them to borrow from real events. He revealed one episode, in which officials set up a clandestine, booze-stocked communications room during a reception in a fictional “dry” Arab country, was based on reality. “What I will tell you is that the moment one former cabinet minister saw it, he knew it was about him.”

About the author

Beckie Smith is a reporter for CSW who tweets Beckie__Smith.

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