TV: YES MINISTER

by Paul Balsillie (reprinted from LAUGH MAGAZINE #22, 2001)

In 1972 writer Antony Jay attended a Civil Service College lecture given by Barbara Castle. During the proceedings he was introduced to the idea that there is a ‘ministry policy’ as opposed to a ‘minister’s policy’. Thus sprang the idea for a sitcom about a minister and a civil servant. Several years earlier Jay had recognized the comic potential of verbose ministerial speeches while contributing to The Frost Report (in fact some of this material actually resurfaced as dialogue for Sir Humphrey).

Many years later Jonathan Lynn, Cambridge Footlights alumnus and by now a sitcom writer, was introduced to Jay by John Cleese. The two agreed to collaborate on a script – Jay bringing his knowledge of politics and civil servants and Lynn his comic brain and experience in sitcoms. The pair wrote a pilot called Open Government, which concerned the election of a new Minister For Administrative Affairs, who soon begins to wonder who is really in charge – the elected representative or the civil servant. As Lynn put it, it was a Jeeves and Wooster concept in which ‘the servant is cleverer than his master’.

The script broke new sitcom ground, especially for the late 1970’s, in that the plot was not centred around domestic relationships and the audience was invited to think, not just watch. From the beginning, Jay and Lynn had Paul Eddington, then famous as Jerry Leadbetter in The Good Life, in mind for the role of Jim Hacker MP and he was sent the script by producer John Howard Davies. Eddington liked what he read, but feared the political setting lacked the potential for success of his earlier series, and could be detrimental to his career.

His concern led to two more scripts being written, after which Eddington expressed interest in playing Sir Humphrey Appleby, the Jeeves-like civil servant who really runs the ministry and who always has the last line, ‘Yes, Minister.’ Jay and Lynn objected since they had written the ministerial part especially for him and pointed out that the Hacker character had a chance to grow, while Sir Humphrey would always remain the same.

Eddington eventually conceded and it turned out to be one of the best decisions of his career. In his autobiography So Far, So Good, he says, ‘When I think now how nearly I came to rejecting Yes Minister, my blood runs cold. I had not yet learnt the golden rule that no considerations, especially financial ones, should be placed above the quality of the work.’

Character actors Nigel Hawthorne and Derek Fowlds were signed as Sir Humphrey Appleby, the Permanent Secretary and Bernard Woolley, the Principal Private Secretary. Also cast was Diana Hoddinott in the role of Annie Hacker, Jim’s wife.

The pilot was recorded on 4 February 1979 and went very well, but Eddington and Hawthorne were not impressed with the director Stuart Allen’s broad visual approach, acquired during four years of On the Buses. They felt close-ups of Diana Hoddinott’s behind while she scrambled around on the floor looking for a cigarette, out of place in this sort of show.

The BBC decided that they would commission a series, with the pilot as the first episode, but when the Labour government collapsed and Conservative Party leader Margaret Thatcher was elected as Britain’s Prime Minister on 3 May, the project was put on hold lest it be accused of party bias.

On 6 January 1980 filming resumed for a further six episodes, this time with director Sidney Lotterby. During rehearsals Eddington and Hawthorne fought to rid the script of gags. According to Eddington, “We both felt that it was a genuine situation comedy – the comedy lying in the situation rather than the jokes, verbal or visual, which could tend, we thought, to be a distraction.” A compromise was reached.

The first viewing figures for Yes Minister were not encouraging. Expecting at least six million viewers, it only managed a third of that figure, but by the second episode word of mouth had pushed it to the top of the ratings.

In 1981, the programme won the British Academy Award (BAFTA) for Best Comedy Series and Nigel Hawthorne won the award for best actor. In fact, Yes Minister won BAFTAs in1982 and 1983 as well, making it the first ever show to win three years in a row, with Nigel Hawthorne winning four times out of five seasons, only missing out in 1983.

In 1983 BBC Radio recorded the first of two eight-episode audio adaptations, featuring the original cast reprising their roles. Lynn and Jay’s scripts were reworked for radio by the producer Pete Atkin, though he was not ideally suited to the job. In the episode The Quality of Life Hacker is being interviewed by Selina Scott and is asked if the children can get autographs. He happily agrees, but is surprised when they all run to get her autograph. In order to describe this visual joke Atkin gave Bernard the line, ‘Couldn’t you get at least one of them to ask Jim for his autograph?” At no time throughout the series has Bernard referred to him as ‘Jim’. It was always as ‘Minister’ or ‘Prime Minister’.

After three seasons Yes Minister ended in 1982, with real life P.M. Margaret Thatcher being a devoted fan of the series. In fact, when Mary Whitehouse’s National Viewers And Listener’s Association presented an award to Eddington, Hawthorne, Jay and Lynn on January 20 1984, Mrs. Thatcher was not only present, but decided to contribute and perform a specially-written script for the occasion. The five minute offering saw the P.M. apparently summoning Hacker and Sir Humphrey to Downing Street for discussion on the merits of economics and economists.

Later that year the real scriptwriters had a surprise for Mrs. Thatcher in return, when the B.B.C. screened a 60-minute Christmas special called Party Games, in which Hacker himself is miraculously elevated to the position of Prime Minister.

It wasn’t until January 1986 when the series proper returned, this time with a new title, Yes, Prime Minister. Sir Humphrey and Bernard have also moved to Number 10 and a new character, Dorothy Wainwright, threatens Sir Humphrey’s position of power. Though just as successful as the first series, only two seasons of eight episodes apiece were made before the characters retreated into television folklore.

Since the series ended Jonathan Lynn has moved to Hollywood and in 1992 directed Eddie Murphy in The Distinguished Gentleman, which looked at the American government and its bureaucracy, in much the same way as Yes Minister looked at the English government.

In 1997 Antony Jay wrote the book How to Beat Sir Humphrey: Every Citizen’s Guide to Fighting Officialdom and Derek Fowlds returned to his Bernard Woolley persona to narrate the book on BBC Radio 4.

Interestingly, after years of being known as Sir Humphrey Appleby, Nigel Hawthorne became Sir Nigel Hawthorne when he was knighted in the 1999 New Year’s Honours List’.

YES MINISTER

Starring Paul Eddington (Jim Hacker), Nigel Hawthorne (Sir Humphrey Appleby), Derek Fowlds (Bernard Woolley), Diana Hoddinott (Annie Hacker), John Nettleton (Sir Arnold Robinson), Neil Fitzwilliam (Frank Weisel) (series 1), John Savident (Sir Frederick ‘Jumbo’) (series 1)

Series 1
BBC2 25 February to 7 April 1980
1  Open Government
Jim Hacker’s party wins the General Election and he is appointed Minister for Administrative Affairs. He meets his Permanent Secretary Sir Humphrey Appleby and soon begins to wonder who is really in charge of the ministry.
2  The Official Visit
Jim tries to negotiate a tricky oil-rig deal with a corrupt African President.
3  The Economy Drive
In order to satisfy the press who have discovered shocking government waste, Jim implements an economy drive.
4  Big Brother
Sir Humphrey tries to block Jim at every tum when he attempts to introduce privacy safeguards in the government’s national computer database.
The Writing on the Wall
Jim and Sir Humphrey are forced to cooperate in order to save the Ministry of Administrative Affairs from abolition.
6  The Right to Know
Jim tries to stop Sir Humphrey keeping things from him, while daughter Lucy prepares for a protest against the government’
Jobs for the Boys
Jim publicly supports a building project which later appears to be in financial difficulties.

Series 2
BBC2 23 February to 6 April 1981
The Compassionate Society
Jim learns that a hospital has 500 administrators and no doctors or nurses. His solution of sacking 300 administrators and hiring some medical staff causes a London-wide hospital strike.
2  Doing the Honours
Bernard suggests holding back civil servants’ honours until they achieve budget cuts.
3  The Death List
Jim’s name has been found on a terrorist group’s death list.
4  The Greasy Pole
Sir Humphrey tries to manipulate Jim into supporting the building of a chemical plant which would be unpopular with voters.
5  The Devil You Know
Learning that a cabinet reshuffle is imminent, Sir Humphrey tries to help Jim keep his position.
The Quality of Life
Sir Humphrey gets Jim to sign an Administrative Order to convert a city farm he has publicly promised to save into a tax inspectors’ car Park.
7  A Question of Loyalty
Jim and Sir Humphrey appear before a committee investigating charges of waste in the ministry. 

Series 3
BBC2 11 November to 23 December 1982
Equal Opportunities
Jim decides to promote more women in the civil service despite Sir Humphrey’s opposition.
The Challenge
Jim looks into local civil defence and runs foul of a BBC interviewer.
3  The Skeleton in the Cupboard
When Sir Humphrey insists on disciplining an efficient local council, Jim resorts to blackmail to ensure his co-operation.
The Moral Dimension
When Jim learns that bribery was used to win a foreign contract, he wants to expose the scandal.
The Bed of Nails
Jim accepts the responsibility for a transportation bill desired by Number 10 but opposed by everyone else.
6  The Whisky Priest
Jim learns of British arms being sold to terrorists and tries to start an enquiry only to be stalled by Sir Humphrey.
The Middle-Class Rip-Off
Sir Humphrey is horrified to learn that Jim wants to sell an art museum in his district to support a local soccer club.

The Funny Side of Christmas
BBC1 27 December 1982 (60 mins)
c
ontains a short specially scripted scene. 

Christmas Special BBC2 17 December 1984 (60 mins)
Party Games
When the Prime Minister announces that he intends to step down Jim finds himself in the running for the job.

YES, PRIME MINISTER

Starring Paul Eddington (Jim Hacker), Nigel Hawthorne (Sir Humphrey Appleby), Derek Fowlds (Bernard Woolley), Diana Hoddinott (Annie Hacker), Deborah Norton (Dorothy Wainwright), John Nettleton (Sir Arnold Robinson), Peter Cellier (Sir Frank Gordon)

Series 1
BBC2 9 January to 27 February 1986
1  The Grand Design
When Jim learns how weak Britain’s defences are, he plans to reintroduce conscription.
2  The Ministerial Broadcast
Jim prepares for his first television broadcast as P. M.
3  The Smokescreen
While Jim and Sir Humphrey are battling over tax cuts, the Minister of Health submits a report condemning smoking.
4  The Key
Jim tries to restrict Sir Humphrey’s access to Number 10
5  A Real Partnership
The Civil Service pushes for a pay rise.
A Victory for Democracy
Jim battles with the Foreign Office to avert a communist takeover on St.George’s Island.
7  The Bishop’s Gambit
Jim has to appoint the Bishop of Bury St. Edmonds, but doesn’t like the candidates he is being given.
8  One of Us
Sir Humphrey’s reputation is on the line when it is learned that he cleared a confessed Soviet spy many years earlier. 

Comic Relief  BBC1 25 April 1986
Paul Eddington appears as Jim Hacker in a short specially-recorded sketch explaining that the government enthusiastically supports Comic Relief but can’t actually give it any money.

Series 2
BBC2 3 December 1987 to 28 January 1988 (not 31 Dec)
1  Man Overboard
Jim plans to move troops to the north of England in order to reduce unemployment there.
2  Official Secrets
Jim tries to suppress an embarrassing chapter of his predecessor’s memoirs.
3  A Diplomatic Incident
Jim negotiates with the French over channel tunnel concerns.
4  A Conflict of Interest
There is another banking scandal in the city and Jim has to appoint a new governor of the Bank of England
5  Power to the People
Jim plans to make local government more democratic.
6  The Patron of the Arts
The government cuts funding for the arts just before Jim is due to give a speech at an arts event.
7  The National Education Service
Jim plans to improve educational standards by abolishing the Department of Education and Science.
8  The Tangled Web
Jim denies knowledge of a wiretap authorized by his office.

 

Radio version

Adapted by Pete Atkin

Series 1
BBC Radio 4 18 October to 6 December 1983
Open Government
2  Big Brother
3  The Economy Dive
The Writing on the Wall
5  Jobs For the Boys
The Right to Know
7  Doing the Honours
8  The Devil You Know

Series 2
BBC Radio 4 9 October to 27 November 1984
1  The Compassionate Society
2  The Greasy Pole
3  The Skeleton in the Cupboard
4  A Question of Loyalty
The Quality of Life
The Whisky Priest
7  The Death List
8  The Moral Dimension

How to Beat Sir Humphrey: Every Citizen’s Guide to Fighting Officialdom
BBC Radio 4 29 September to 1 October 1997 (3 x 15 min)
Derek Fowlds reads an abridgement of Antony Jay’s book

 

Video

YES MINISTER

Open Government
BBC Video BBCV 5364 (1994)
Open Government
The Official Visit
The Economy Drive
Big Brother

The Writing on the Wall
BBC Video BBCV 5365 (1994)
The Writing on the Wall
The Right to Know
Jobs For the Boys

The Compassionate Society
BBC Video BBCV 5863 (1996)
The Compassionate Society
Doing the Honours
Thz Death List

The Greasy Pole
BBC Video BBCV 5864 (1996)
The Greasy Pole
The Devil You Know
The Quality of Life
A Question of Loyalty

Equal Opportunities
BBC Video BBCV 6445 (1998)
Equal Opportunities
The Challenge
The Skeleton in the Cupboard

The Moral Dimension
BBC Video BBCV 6589 (1998)
The Moral Dimension
The Bed of Nails
The Whisky Priest
The Middle-Class Rip-off

The Complete Yes Minister Series 1
BBC Video BBCV 6505 two video set (1998)
contains all 7 episodes

Party Games
BBC Video BBCV 7198 (2001)
Party Games

 

YES, PRIME MINISTER

The Grand Design
BBC Video BBCV 4410 (1990)
The Grand Design
The Ministerial Broadcast
The Smokescreen

The Key
BBC Video BBCV 4411 (1990)
The Key
A Real Partnership
A Victory For Democracy

The Bishop’s Gambit
BBC Video BBCV 4472 (1991)
The Bishop’s Gambit
One of Us
Man Overboard

Official Secrets
BBC Video BBCV 4473 (1991)
Official Secrets
A Diplomatic Incident
A Conflict of Interest

Power to the People
BBC Video BBCV 4647 (1991)
Power to the People
The Patron of the Arts
The National Education Service
The Tangled Web

The Complete Yes, Prime Minister 1
BBC Video double video BBCV 4790 (1996)
contains all 8 episodes

The Complete Yes, Prime Minister 2
BBC Video double video BBCV 4791(1996)
contains all 8 episodes

 

DVDs

The Complete Yes Minister – Series 1
BBC DVD 1047 (2001)
contains all 7 episodes

The Complete Yes Minister – Series 2
BBC DVD B00613-9 (2001)
contains all 7 episodes

The Complete Yes Minister – Series 3
BBC 2DVD B00686-9 (2001)
contains all 7 episodes, plus Party Games

Yes Minister – The Complete Series 1 to 3
BBC 4DVD set B00859-9 (2004)
contains all 3 series plus Party Games

The Complete Yes, Prime Minister – Series 1
BBC DVD B00879-9 (2004)
contains all 8 episodes

The Complete Yes, Prime Minister – Series 2
BBC DVD B00919-9 (2004)
contains all 8 episodes

Yes, Prime Minister – The Complete Series 1 and 2
BBC 2DVD set (2004)

 

Recordings

Yes Minister
BBC LP REB 432 (1981)
features the television soundtracks:
The Devil You Know
Doing The Honours 

Yes Minister – volume 1
BBC Radio Collection double cassette ZBBC 1147 (1990)
features the radio adaptations:
Open Government
Big Brother
The Economy Drive
The Writing on the Wall

Yes Minister – volume 2
BBC Radio Collection double cassette ZBBC 1177 (1990)
features the radio adaptations:
Jobs For the Boys
The Right to Know
Doing the Honours
The Devil You Know

Yes Minister – volume 3
BBC Radio Collection double cassette ZBBC 1269 (1991)
features the radio adaptations:
The Compassionate Society
The Greasy Pole
The Skeleton in the Cupboard
A Question of Loyalty

Yes Minister – volume 4
BBC Radio Collection double cassette ZBBC 1277 (1991)
features the radio adaptations:
The Quality of Life
The Whisky Priest
The Death List
The Moral Dimension

Yes Minister – volume 5
BBC 2CD ISBN 978-1-408-42707-1 (2010)
features the television soundtracks:
The Official Visit
Equal Opportunities
The Challenge
The Bed of Nails

Yes Minister – volume 6
BBC 2CD ISBN 978-1-408-42708-8 (2010)
features the television soundtracks:
The Middle Class Rip-Off
Party Games
The PM’s Plan (Margaret Thatcher’s sketch)
The Funny Side of Christmas sketch

The Complete Yes Minister
BBC Radio Collection (2000),
BBC 8CD set ISBN 0-563-52854-0 (2002)
features all the radio adaptations

Yes, Prime Minister
BBC Radio Collection double cassette ZBBC 1670 (1995)
features the television soundtracks:
The Ministerial Broadcast
The Smokescreen
Official Secrets
A Conflict of Interest
 

Yes, Prime Minister 2
BBC Radio Collection double cassette ZBBC 1894 (1996)
features the television soundtracks:
The Grand Design
The Bishop’s Gambit
One of Us
Power to the People

Yes, Prime Minister 3
BBC Radio Collection double cassette ZBBC 2182 (1998)
features the television soundtracks:
A Real Partnership
A Victory For Democracy
The Patron of the Arts
The National Education Service

The Complete Yes, Prime Minister
BBC Radio Collection (2000)
features the three volumes of Yes, Prime Minister

The Best of BBC Comedy: The Eighties
BBC Radio Collection (1999)
features the Yes Minister radio episode Big Brother 

The Best of BBC Comedy: The Eighties: Volume 2
BBC Radio Collection (2000)
features one Yes Minister radio episode and one Yes, Prime Minister television soundtrack

 

How to Beat Sir Humphrey: Every Citizen’s Guide to Fighting Officialdom
BBC Radio Collection double cassette ZBBC 2120 (1997)
2 hour reading of Antony Jay’s book narrated by Derek Fowlds 

Books

Yes Minister Vol. I: The Diaries of a Cabinet Minister by the Right Hon. James Hacker MP
edited by Jonathan Lynn and Antony Jay (BBC Books, 1981)

Yes Minister Vol. II: The Diaries of a Cabinet Minister by the Right Hon. James Hacker MP
edited by Jonathan Lynn and Antony Jay (BBC Books, 1982)

Yes Minister Vol. III: The Diaries of a Cabinet Minister by the Right Hon. James Hacker MP
edited by Jonathan Lynn and Antony Jay (BBC Books, 1983)

The Complete Yes Minister: The Diaries of a Cabinet Minister by the Right Hon. James Hacker MP
edited by Jonathan Lynn and Antony Jay (BBC Books, 1984, revised 1989)

Son of Curried Eggs
compiled by Roger Wilmut (Methuen, 1984)
contains the script of The Moral Dimersion

Yes, Prime Minister I: The Diaries of the Right Hon. James Hacker
edited by Jonathan Lynn and Antony Jay (BBC Books, 1986)

Yes, Prime Minister II: The Diaries of the Right Hon. James Hacker
edited by Jonathan Lynn and Antony Jay (BBC Books, 1987)

The Complete Yes Prime Minister: The Diaries of the Right Hon. James Hacker
edited by Jonathan Lynn and Antony Jay (BBC Books, 1989)

Yes, Prime Minister Diary 1988
text by Jonathan Lynn and Antony Jay (Doubleday, 1987)

Yes, Prime Minister Diary 1989
text by Jonathan Lynn and Antony Jay (Doubleday, 1988)

How to Beat Sir Humphrey: Every Citizen’s Guide to Fighting Officialdom
by Antony Jay (Long Barn Books, 1997)

The Yes Minister Miscellany
by Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn (Biteback, 2010)

Comedy Rules – from the Cambridge Footlights to Yes Prime Minister
by Jonathan Lynn (Faber & Faber, London. 2011)

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