"Red Tape - Holding The Nation Together" - Looking Back On Yes, Minister
Margaret Thatcher died last month, and one thing she was never known for was a good sense of humour. Certainly her attempts at humour were excruciating (her stiff appropriation of the Dead Parrot sketch in the House is excruciating to watch). She came across as a deeply serious person, scarily so – a true believer on a mission. That was surely one of the most disconcerting things about her. I find it hard to imagine her laughing, and certainly not having the humility to laugh at herself.
But Thatcher’s favourite television programme was Yes, Minister, one of the funniest programmes the BBC ever made. It seems odd, somehow, that Thatcher’s favourite programme was a comedy. It seems so unsuited to what her character was. I mean, yes the programme is ‘about’ the world of politics, but only to the extent that Fawlty Towers is ‘about’ hotels.
However, it’s hard not to agree with her when re-watching the programme (and that must be the first and hopefully last time I’ll ever come close to agreeing with Thatcher). Yes, Minister is a show that is riddled with clever dialogue and brilliant acting. It is noticeably not Party Political, with no actual parties or real people mentioned. The joy lies in watching the characters in their situations. Normally what happens is Jim Hacker MP has an idea of something he wants to change, and his Permanent Secretary, Sir Humphrey, tries to block him (and usually succeeds). The fun lies in seeing how it plays out.
Sir Humphrey is a brilliant villain. He is a brilliant villain because in a way he sees himself as a hero, defending the status quo and keeping everything running the way it should be. He is unctuous and verbose, but probably sees himself as suave and witty. Some of the most memorable lines in the series are when he launches into a minute long sentence in order to answer a yes or no question. In moments like this he sounds like a human document, an actual embodiment of bureaucracy – and he would take that as a compliment. He is deeply cynical, and is fully aware of the fact – “A cynic is what an idealist calls a realist” he says at one point.
However, I think the reason the show was popular with everyone is that although Sir Humphrey and the Civil Service are, generally speaking ‘the bad guys’, Hacker is hardly a paragon of virtue himself – though idealistic and normally well-meaning, when the chips are down he is totally hypocritical and just as self-serving as Sir Humphrey. So the show doesn’t come across as being an attack on politicians or an attack on the Civil Service; it comes across as making fun of people for being stupid, which everyone likes, don’t they?
I think the reason why Thatcher enjoyed it was that she probably thought it was an attack on the Civil Service, with Hacker as a heroic crusader against them. Probably there were just as many people working in government who thought that it was mocking politicians for being incompetent in the face of their much cleverer so-called servants. But I suspect the majority of viewers realised, and still realise, that it was both these things and more.
Yes Minister’s legacy in a broad context was bringing the mockery of politicians to a mass audience for the first time really since That Was The Week That Was in the 1960s. In its comedy context though, it brought my generation The Thick Of It. Armando Iannucci is a very public fan of the series, and made a case for it being Britain’s Best Sitcom in the noughties – around the same time as the first series of The Thick Of It started in fact. Malcolm Tucker is New Labour’s Sir Humphrey; the main thing that has changed is that politicians are no longer being manipulated by their civil servants but by their media representatives. The only real main characters in The Thick Of It who are Civil Servants are Terri and Robin who, far from being the powerful figures in Yes, Minister, are absolutely useless. But in actual comedic terms, there’s very little difference. Some of the set-pieces are taken wholesale from Yes, Minister (such as when Hugh Abbot faces a select committee against an intimidating female inquisitor). I think one thing that the link between Yes, Minister and The Thick Of It proves is that whatever happens in the world of Politics with a capital letter, it is still office politics that ends up ruling the country…
Possibly, this article ignores the fact that Yes, Minister is genuinely laugh out loud funny. It’s witty and clever but is completely accessible and fun. It has great moments of farce, such as the scene where a ‘Emergency Room’ stocked full of booze is set up in a Middle Eastern embassy so the British can get drinks; and moments of great absurdity, when it transpires that a hospital has no patients or medical staff but is fully staffed by 500 administrators. There are also the rare but joyous occasions where Hacker gets one over on Sir Humphrey, which happens so rarely it’s almost a shock ending. It’s an absolutely marvellous programme, and so I say again – whatever else I thought about Margaret Thatcher, she had excellent taste in sitcoms.