Recently a video clip became very popular post the shocking Brexit vote. It purported to explain why the British wanted to join the EU in the first place – to break it up and apply their classic policy of ‘divide and rule’. We have the irrepressible Sir Humphrey Appleby elucidate with a straight poker face a diabolic scheme full of intrigue.
Utterly cynical and possibly trying to appear as realpolitik it still brought back memories of a popular British comedy series ‘ Yes Minister’ (and its subsequent sequel ‘Yes Prime Minister’) starring Paul Eddington (Minister Jim Hacker), Nigel Hawthorne (Sir Humphrey Appleby) and Derek Fowlds (Bernard Woolley).
Much before the advent of the internet and the power of social media, ‘Yes Minister’ gave us a humourous take on the happenings in the corridors of power. Much of what happens reflects man’s ego and vanity in so many ways – vested interests are up to their usual machinations, a lot of silly moves and countermoves happen, statistics are just a more artful way to hide than disclose material facts and at the end of it much of life @ Whitehall remains inconsequential.
Jim Hacker, an economist and an editor to boot, with the typical vanity of a politician and a burning desire to be popular with his voters, comes determined to change politics and leave his mark on administration.
He is apparently welcomed by a career bureaucrat, Sir Humphrey Appleby, who regards Ministers as a necessary encumbrance of democracy and has no plans to allow his Minister any independence in running and shaping the way the government and department functions. He has a unique manner of functioning – the more he speaks, the less he reveals, the more promises action, the less things happen and the more he seems to cooperate, the less are the results on the ground.
Stuck between the two is Jim Hacker’s personal secretary Bernard Woolley whose immediate loyalties to Hacker are frequently put under strain by the long-term loyalty of the civil service. Apart from his pedantism and verbal quibbling, Woolley gets to mouth the best ‘1-liners’ summarizing the convoluted plots that evolve in the series.
Hacker starts like poor babe-in-the-woods but eventually gets a hang of how the system works. In the constant battle of wits with Humphrey, there are quite a few episodes when he finally has the upper hand.
The humour is cerebral and it takes a while for you to find the moorings. Yet a few episodes down the line, you have understood the underlying themes and can fairly predict what would happen in the situations that evolve themselves. Over a period of time the humour becomes so well-established that trademark signature steps keep coming up with the final denouement at the end of every episode wherein either Sir Humphrey or Bernard end up saying, ‘Yes Minister’.
My Top 5 Episodes include –
Equal Opportunities –
A rather innocent question during an interview for a school magazine sets Hacker to wonder on whether he has really managed to achieve even a single,significant reform of the Civil Service in his stint as a Minister. Stung at having achieved next to nothing as a personal cause, he decides to promote competent women in the Civil Service and inevitably crosses swords with Sir Humphrey.
Frustrated in being unable to achieve anything tangible at a policy level (All his cabinet colleagues agree that it is a great idea as a matter of principle but cannot be implemented in their department in the foreseeable future), he finally roots to ensure promotion of a competent female candidate but bites dusts again all over. Sir Humphrey employs a variety of intrigue including setting up Mrs Hacker against the move. The ultimate denouement is still classic – the lady resents being patronized even if it is by a benign patriarchal Minister and explains that she has planned to join the ‘private sector’ to be part of a more meritocratic system.
The Right To Know –
Hacker and Sir Humphrey are fighting on access to information to enable the Minister to take independent decisions. Sir Humphrey insists that the traditions of civil service ensure efficiency and continuity. Indeed it is advisable sometimes to avoid telling the Minister certain inconvenient facts of life.
Hacker is not in a mood to cede ground till Sir Humphrey rescues him from an imminent crisis by convincing Hacker’s daughter from holding a ‘nude’ protest sit-in with her boy-friend in her quest to save Badgers. It turns out that Sir Humphrey was rather economical with truth while arguing his case and Hacker – wanting a clear conscience – doesn’t want to know the truth of it. The episode ends up accentuating the stand taken by Sir Humphrey.
Doing The Honours –
The Annual exercise of giving honours to civil servants is evoking a lot of interest in the bureaucracy. Bernard jokingly explains the pecking order : CMG – Call Me God, KCMG – Kindly Call Me God and the ultimate GCMG – God Calls Me God.
Hacker finds this vainful and is irritated that no one is supporting his ‘cost-cutting’ initiatives. Bernard suggests, in private, a devilish plan of linking Honours to cost cuts setting Cat among the Pigeons in the civil service. (Bernard is so appalled by its appeal and efficacy that he pleads to Hacker to state that it was he who thought of the idea). For once Hacker achieves his objective though formally he is required to dissociate the idea of linking Honours to Economy.
The Compassionate Society –
The ultimate joke – a state of art hospital with the latest equipment and support staff but of course no doctors and so no patients. And the hospital is up and running to win a prestigious Florence Nightingale award as well. Can’t sound more Orwellian than that and of course it is a PR disaster waiting to unfold for Hacker.
Hacker decides to change things and ends up clashing with Sir Humphrey. Finally they are both caught in a crisis regarding management of refugees. Hacker shows his winning streak as a politician and comes up with a unique solution. Sir Humphrey is none too pleased but nevertheless has to acknowledge it as ‘fait accompli’.
The Bed Of Nails –
The ultimate challenger episode – after round of bouts between Hacker and Sir Humphrey, they are now active collaborators from the word go against the Prime Minister, the Chief Whip and the Cabinet Secretary (Sir Arnold). (A similar collaboration happened towards the end in the episode The Writing On The Wall).
Hacker has been elevated to be a Transport Supremo along with his existing role. It is a crown of thorns as no sane policy is possible but the role has the potential of annoying a lot of people. The Chief Whip and Sir Arnold conspired behind Sir Humphrey’s back to get Hacker to accept the role. This in part motivated Sir Humphrey to rescue Hacker from his troubles. He does this in trademark style and its a treat to watch him match his wits against Sir Arnold.
The series remains a landmark satire on British democratic set-up and can easily be related to by other democracies like the US and India for example. The content is priceless and barely dated even 25 years after it rolled out initially. Truly a great tribute to the democracy – an imperfect system for sure but the best that we have.