In 1977 the BBC commissioned a new satirical sitcom set in Whitehall. Production was delayed because of the death throes of the Labour government and the show didn’t come on to the screens of BBC 2 until after 1979. It was worth the wait; Yes Minister ran for over three series and then two more as Yes Prime Minister until 1988. After a slow start, it soon became cult viewing well beyond Whitehall and the Palace of Westminster. The series was sold worldwide and in many countries there were copycat programmes. Although Yes Minister has dated, and seems more subtle and less brutal than the more recent The Thick of It, which reflects the era of spin and the Blair government, it still resonates with new audiences. The question is, why?
Graham McCann is a historian of entertainment and has written about comedy series such as Dad’s Army and Fawlty Towers and actors from Frankie Howerd to Morecombe and Wise. The delight of this book is that he places Yes Minister in the context of both politics and satire – something that has its roots back in the 17th and 18th centuries, and shows that the genius behind the show’s writing was a combination of new insider sources, such as The Crossman Diaries, and the way in which the two writers Anthony Jay and Jonathan Lynn complemented each other’s talents.
Crucially, Jay and Lynn moved beyond one-dimensional accounts of either politicians or civil servants to the close relationship and conflicts between the two through the vehicle of a ministry, and the minister and his permanent secretary. The writers used insiders like Maria Williams and Bernard Donoughue to get a feel for the realities of ministerial and office life and to use plots based upon real issues, such as government waste, freedom of information and power and privilege, which still resonate today.
The three central, carefully chosen actors, Paul Eddington as minister Jim Hacker, Nigel Hawthorne as Sir Humphrey Appleby the permanent secretary and Derek Fowlds as private secretary Bernard Woolley, brilliantly played their separate characters and interacted often in a ludicrous way. Politicians and civil servants alike became devoted admirers of the series, and increasingly life imitated the art that had imitated life. Your reviewer, as a SpAd at the MoD in the late 1980s, well remembers the secretary of state’s PS observing to his master (who had just decided to ignore civil service advice) that it was “a very courageous decision”.