RADIO: THE MEN FROM THE MINISTRY

by Mark McKay (copyright 2012)

For nearly two decades British radio listeners laughed at the bungling antics of two absurd Whitehall civil servants in the fictitious General Assistance Department. When the series was picked up by the BBC World and Transcription Services, the show became a firm favourite round the globe, sometimes in the most unlikely nations. Although set in a very British world of brollies and bowlers, The Times crossword, the test match score and lunch in St. James’s Park, foreign audiences could still relate to the bureaucracy and comic situations, observing parallels with embarrassing gaffes made by their own governments.

The Men From The Ministry was devised and written by Cambridge Footlights alumnus and BBC Light Entertainment producer, Edward Taylor. In 1960 he was asked by fellow Footlighter Richard Murdoch, now at a loose end since his old comedy partner Kenneth Horne was tied up with Beyond Our Ken, to “write something funny for him”.

Ted Taylor thought Murdoch worked best in a double act, and had the idea that veteran movie star Wilfrid Hyde White would make an excellent foil. Although he had never acted on radio before and continued to enjoy a busy filming schedule, Hyde White agreed.

Drawing on his mother’s experience working in the civil service and his own frustrations with BBC red tape, Taylor penned a script and a pilot episode was recorded. Later he complained that the planners took four months to listen to it, and another four months to give the go ahead for a series. By this stage the pilot recording had gone missing, apparently replaced in the tape library by a talk on Chinese poetry.

The Light Programme broadcast the first series of thirteen half-hours towards the end of 1962. Unusually, the programme hit the airwaves fully formed from the inaugural episode. The show was a charming inoffensive farce centred around the Whitehall office responsible for helping other departments which are overloaded. This premise encouraged storylines concerning defence, agriculture, the arts, the environment, the diplomatic corps — in fact any area of government begging to be sent up.

Murdoch played Richard Lamb, a fussy dithering bachelor whose idea of the dolce vita stretched no further than occasional late night games of ludo with his landlady, Mrs. Bratby. His superior was Roland Hamilton-Jones, a lazy, self-important, pompous old-Etonian. When she wasn’t busy filing her nails, phoning her boyfriend or inserting embarrassing typing errors in documents, their secretary Mildred Murfin (Norma Ronald) kept her bosses supplied with copious quantities of tea.

“One” and “Two”, as they bizarrely referred to one another, spent their office hours feeding the pigeons, playing indoor games, partaking of long lunches and generally attempting to avoid work. Any tasks they eventually got round to tackling were invariably and hilariously botched. These were optimistically assigned to them by their feared head of department, Sir Gregory Pitkin, a terrifying bullying ogre — cruel to his male staff and lecherous towards dizzy Miss Daphne Bentwater of the typing pool. “Bunny”, as she incongruously called him, was initially portrayed by Shakespearean actor Roy Dotrice, before Ronald Baddiley took over and truly made the part his own.

Being permanent staff, Sir Gregory is unable to sack our heroes, but they still live in fear of being transferred to archives in the remote outpost of Ballymuckie. However, happily they usually land on their feet when by pure chance their blunders turn out to be strangely beneficial to the country.

Behind the scenes, although they seemed to get on well, Murdoch was finding Hyde White’s unpredictable acting style (which incorporated a lot of muttering during other players’ lines) a strain. It was no doubt a relief then, when he was lured away to Hollywood after the second series, and Taylor was informed that he would be unable to make the upcoming recording dates. Radio Times explained the situation by reporting that Hamilton-Jones had “gone to a better place. In fact, to the Ministry of Expansion, where they get two biscuits with their tea”.

With a recast required at very short notice, the ubiquitous radio veteran, Deryck Guyler (currently starring in Inspector Scott Investigates and also heard in series like Spare A Copper, Emery At Large and The Clitheroe Kid) agreed to fill in. He delivered a wonderful performance as the new department head, Deryck Lennox-Brown — an amusing blend of bluff, cowardice and pomposity. The “dream team” was now in place.

After the first series, Ted Taylor had also recruited two new writers, Johnnie Mortimer and Brian Cooke, to assist with the scripts. They remained until 1968, when they moved on to television fame with Father, Dear Father (and subsequently Man About The House and George And Mildred) for Thames.

Many of the hallmarks of classic farce found their way into the scripts — misinterpretation of overheard phone calls or hastily scribbled messages, cross-purpose conversations, jumping to conclusions and unlikely coincidences. In the course of their duties, the protagonists were left stranded on top of a skyscraper, marooned on an island in Regent’s ParkLake and dangling precariously from the hands of Big Ben (anticipating Robert Powell’s antics in The Thirty-Nine Steps the following year). They even suffered the indignity of loss of trousers (the archetypal farce stand-by), when they had to escort a Chinese trade delegate across London.

The action wasn’t restricted to the capital either — visits to farms, military installations, remote British colonies and the USA made for many comical fish out of water scenarios. On a trip to Rome to stir up trade, they even meet up with their Italian counterparts (“Aha, the men from the minestrone!”).

One of the very best episodes saw Lamb and Lennox-Brown stripping to the buff (but retaining their bowler hats to preserve dignity) at an exclusive girls’ school, under the impression they were visiting a nudist colony. On another occasion, they accidentally ordered the demolition of Sir Gregory’s new country estate and the erection of a toilet block in its place.

Sometimes guest stars were brought in to augment the cast. Patricia Hayes often appeared as a belligerent ministry charlady and from time to time, Clive Dunn would trot out one of his stock-in-trade old duffers. Fellow Dad’s Army platoon member, John Laurie, replaced an indisposed Deryck Guyler for a couple of weeks, just as Eric Barker had stood in for Wilfrid Hyde White towards the end of the first series.

The 1968 episode, Four Men In A Wellington, furnished a classic comedy reunion when Richard Murdoch met up with his old Much-Binding-In-The-Marsh chums, Kenneth Horne and Sam Costa. Edward Taylor had been instrumental in launching Kenneth’s show Round The Horne, which at this stage was being co-written by Mortimer and Cooke. Sadly, early the following year, Horne collapsed and died at a awards presentation ceremony.

Voice man John Graham provided some other memorable characters, including ‘Whizzer’ Wilkins (an imitation of Robb Wilton), Forth Robertson (based on Scottish reporter Fyfe Robertson, and usually beginning his bulletins with “well viewers, as you’ve probably gathered…”) and an Al Read-type repetitive halfwit. Announcer John Curle was also recruited to read mock news bulletins describing the havoc which was the aftermath of the ministry men’s bungling.

The Men From The Ministry has been criticised, with some justification, for a formulaic repetition of ideas and jokes. Storylines involving an inevitable mix-up of different jobs recurred with some frequency, and the Take It From Here gag “if you’ve got that in your head, you’ve got in a nutshell” was heard so often it almost became a catchphrase. Consequently the programme became an easy target for a Burkiss Way parody.

After four series, Radio 2 (formerly the Light Programme) had lost interest in the show, so Taylor moved instead to the World Service, who were eager for more. A little later these were picked up by Radio 4, which became its new home until 1977. Around this time, Transcription Services started issuing selected episodes (edited to 27 minutes to allow for adverts) for transmission on overseas radio stations. These proved so popular, Transcription regretted having rejected the early editions, and arranged their own series of fourteen remakes in 1980 (recorded for the first time in stereo). Most of these shows had not be heard in Britain before Radio 4 Extra included them as part of a substantial re-run which commenced in January 2011 .

Taylor also sold scripts to Sweden, Denmark, and then Finland, where these were translated and adapted for their own local productions. In South Africa, their version for Springbok Radio went down so well (and with no competition from television, which didn’t start until 1976), the stars were soon churning out their own scripts, which featured additional regular characters such as the sibilant Humbert Snethersthwaite and his wife Lolita. By the 1990s, when it had transferred to Radio South Africa, nearly a thousand episodes had been recorded.

Sadly The Men From The Ministry never transferred to British TV, where it might have reached a wider audience. Although it has been compared with Yes Minister, it lacked the sharp satire and political edge of that famous series. There was also a dearth of merchandising until the BBC Radio Collection released a couple of double cassette packs in the 1990s. These proved favourite early morning listening with insomniac pop star Cliff Richard (who had himself been name-checked in an early episode). A strange convergence of two very disparate worlds — “rock and roll” meets “rules and regulations”.

Episode guide

Starring Richard Murdoch, Wilfrid Hyde White (series 1 & 2), Deryck Guyler (from series 3)
Scripts by Edward Taylor and John Graham unless otherwise specified.
All editions approx. 30 mins.

Series 1: Light Programme Tuesdays 8.00pm
Scripts by Edward Taylor
1/1       30-10-62          The Great Footwear Scandal
1/2       6-11-62            The Big Rocket
1/3       13-11-62          Strictly For The Birds
1/4       20-11-62          French Cricket (with Betty Marsden)
1/5       27-11-62          The War With The Isle Of Wight
1/6       4-12-62            Moderately Important Person
1/7       11-12-62          The Rhubarb Pirates
1/8       18-12-62          A Matter Of Form
1/9       25-12-62          The Magic Carpet
1/10     1-1-63              The Spy In Black Pin-Stripe (with June Whitfield)
1/11     8-1-63              Island In The Sun
1/12     15-1-63            Problem In The Park
1/13     22-1-63            The End Of The Road *
                  (*with Eric Barker replacing Wilfrid Hyde White)

Calling The Antarctic: GOS (5 minute segment)
SP        25-12-62

Christmas Special:  Home Service Thursday 7.30pm
SP        24-12-64          A Present For Norman *
(*with Eric Barker replacing Wilfrid Hyde White)

Series 2: Light Programme Sundays 9.00pm (Rpt Tue 8.00pm)
Scripts by Johnnie Mortimer, Brian Cooke and Edward Taylor
2/1       25-7-65            Pirates Of Lakeview Reservoir
2/2       1-8-65              Something About A Soldier
2/3       8-8-65              The Trouble With Cecil
2/4       15-8-65            Mahboni Lies Over The Ocean
2/5       22-8-65            The Man Who Made It Rain
2/6       29-8-65            Train Of Events
2/7       5-9-65              A Degrading Business
2/8       12-9-65            The Butcher Of Glensporran
2/9       19-9-65            Counter Spies
2/10     26-9-65            A Question Of Dundancy
2/11     3-10-65            A Back-Dated Problem
2/12     10-10-65          The Hole
2/13     17-10-65          The Day The Martians Came

Series 3: Light Programme Sundays 9.30pm (9.00pm from 3/4)
Scripts by Brian Cooke, Johnnie Mortimer and Edward Taylor
3/1       11-12-66          Rebel In Regent’s Park (Deryck Guyler replaces Wilfrid Hyde White from this point on)
3/2       18-12-66          A Terrifying Weapon
3/3       25-12-66          The Post Office Pantomime
3/4       1-1-67              All At Sea
3/5       8-1-67              Bowler Hats And Sub-Machine Guns
3/6       15-1-67            On The Run
3/7       22-1-67            A Gift For Sir Gregory
3/8       29-1-67            The Whitehall Circus
3/9       5-2-67              Customs Of The Country
3/10     12-2-67            Getting The Bird
3/11     19-2-67            The Girl In The Case
3/12     26-2-67            The Thing On The Beach
3/13     5-3-67              A Slight Case Of Demolition
3/14     12-3-67            The Fastest Ship In The World

Series 4: Radio 2 Sundays 2.31pm (Rpt Mon 8.45pm for 4/1, Wed 7.45pm for rest)
Scripts by Johnnie Mortimer, Brian Cooke and Edward Taylor
4/1       18-2-68            The Battle Of The River Thames
4/2       25-2-68            The Tubby Submarine
4/3       3-3-68              A Matter Of Breeding
4/4       10-3-68            The Great Showbiz Fiasco
4/5       17-3-68            Up The Poll
4/6       24-3-68            Waterway To Go
4/7       31-3-68            Dam Nuisance
4/8       7-4-68              The Fastest Brolly In The West
4/9       14-4-68            Lamb Takes A Gambol
4/10     21-4-68            Four Men In A Wellington (with Kenneth Horne & Sam Costa)
4/11     28-4-68            Out Of This World
4/12     5-5-68              Muddlers-In-Law
4/13     12-5-68            What Has Four Wheels And Flies?

Series 5: Radio 4 Tuesday 7.00pm
(first broadcast on World Service 15-2-69, 8-3-69, 15-3-69, 22-3-69, 22-2-69, 1-3-69)
5/1       25-3-69            A Rotten System
5/2       1-4-69              A Brush With An Old Master
5/3       8-4-69              All Play And No Work
5/4       15-4-69            A Sticky Business
5/5       22-4-69            The Home-Brewed Non-Vintage Bomb
5/6       29-4-69            The Ship That Wagged Its Tail

Series 6: Radio 4 Tuesdays 7.30pm
(6/1 to 6/9 first broadcast on World Service from 8-3-70)
6/1       30-6-70            Bye-Bye Mildred
6/2       7-7-70              Bare Necessities
6/3       14-7-70            Storm In A Tea-Urn
6/4       21-7-70            The Moving Target
6/5       28-7-70            Oil Well That Ends Well
6/6       4-8-70              The Bigger The Better (with Clive Dunn)
6/7       11-8-70            Trouble In The Air
6/8       18-8-70            Miss Chatterley’s Lover *
6/9       25-8-70            The Pudding From Outer Space *
6/10     1-9-70              A Little Of What You Fancy
6/11     8-9-70              A Bird In The Hand
6/12     15-9-70            Bringing The House Down
6/13     22-9-70            Fair Exchange
6/14     29-9-70            Bill Stickers Is Innocent
(* with John Laurie replacing Deryck Guyler)

Series 7: Radio 4 Thursdays 12.25pm (except 7/10 Monday 6.15pm)
7/1       29-7-71            Rolling In It
7/2       5-8-71              Up, Up And Away
7/3       12-8-71            Thoroughly Modern Ministry
7/4       19-8-71            We All Make Mistakes
7/5       26-8-71            The Foolproof Fool
7/6       2-9-71              Rotten To The Corps
7/7       9-9-71              Transatlantic Trouble
7/8       16-9-71            The Finger Of Suspicion
7/9       23-9-71            Just The Ticket
7/10     29-11-71          Gone To Pot

Series 8: Radio 4 Tuesdays 12.25pm (Rpt Thu 6.15pm)
8/1       11-7-72            The Conference Trick
8/2       18-7-72            The Night We Crept Into The Crypt
8/3       25-7-72            How Now, Brown Cow?
8/4       1-8-72              Sorry, Wrong Number
8/5       8-8-72              The Desk Job
8/6       15-8-72            Fowl Play
8/7       22-8-72            Something Of Value
8/8       29-8-72            Taking Leave Of Their Census

Series 9: Radio 4 Tuesdays 12.25pm (Rpt Thu 6.15pm)
9/1       6-3-73              That’s My Pigeon
9/2       13-3-73            Don’t Let Them Needle You
9/3       20-3-73            Find The Lady
9/4       27-3-73            Bridge Under Troubled Waters
9/5       3-4-73              A Private Affair (with Clive Dunn)
9/6       10-4-73            Food For Thought
9/7       17-4-73            Getting It Taped
9/8       24-4-73            Safe And Unsound
9/9       1-5-73              The Export Caper
9/10     8-5-73              Flushed With Success
9/11     15-5-73            Under The Weather
9/12     22-5-73            Monkey Business
9/13     29-5-73            Cheesed Off

Series 10: Radio 4 Mondays 6.15pm (Rpt Wed 12.27pm)
10/1     17-6-74            Plane Madness
10/2     24-6-74            Vipers In The Bosom
10/3     1-7-74              Great Guns
10/4     8-7-74              I Want My Mummy
10/5     15-7-74            One Man’s Meat
10/6     22-7-74            Ballet Nuisance
10/7     29-7-74            Sky High
10/8     5-8-74              A Break For Sir Gregory
10/9     12-8-74            Health And Deficiency
10/10   19-8-74            Big Deal
10/11   26-8-74            They Fry By Night
10/12   2-9-74              In The Picture
10/13   9-9-74              She’ll Have To Go

Series 11: Radio 4 Mondays 6.15pm
11/1     26-5-75            Nothing But The Vest
11/2     2-6-75              That’s My Baby
11/3     9-6-75              All That Glitters
11/4     16-6-75            Torn To Shreds
11/5     23-6-75            Wool Over Their Eyes
11/6     30-6-75            This, VAT And The Other
11/7     7-7-75              The Great Trouser Troubles
11/8     14-7-75            The Cabinet Crisis
11/9     21-7-75            Chain Reaction
11/10   28-7-75            All Change
11/11   4-8-75              A Merry Dance
11/12   11-8-75            A Sense Of Power
11/13   18-8-75            Postal Disorder

Series 12: Radio 4 Tuesdays 6.15pm (Rpt Thu 12.27pm)
12/1     6-7-76              All Cisterns Go
12/2     13-7-76            A Problem Shared
12/3     20-7-76            The Whitehall Castaways
12/4     27-7-76            Off The Rails
12/5     3-8-76              Penny Wise
12/6     10-8-76            A Turn For The Nurse
12/7     17-8-76            Seal Of Office
12/8     24-8-76            Birmingham Is Revolting

Series 13: Radio 4 Mondays 6.30pm (Rpt Wed 12.27pm)
13/1     4-7-77              Mission Inedible
13/2     11-7-77            Horse Play
13/3     18-7-77            The Big Big Big Ben Bungle
13/4     25-7-77            A Motley Crew
13/5     1-8-77              Not On Your Telly
13/6     8-8-77              One Way Only
13/7     15-8-77            Take Your Pick
13/8     22-8-77            Claws

Transcription Service Remakes
TS/1     r. 13-4-80        Boots (remake of 1/1)
TS/2     r. 13-4-80        Pardon My French (remake of 1/4)
TS/3     r. 15-4-80        Traffic Diversions (remake of 1/13)
TS/4     r. 20-4-80        Watch This Space (remake of 1/2)
TS/5     r. 20-4-80        Birds Of A Feather (remake of 1/3)
TS/6     r. 22-4-80        Where There’s A Will (remake of 1/12)
TS/7     r. 22-4-80        The Country Caper (remake of 1/7)
TS/8     r. 27-4-80        Ban The Wotsit (remake of 3/2)
TS/9     r. 27-4-80        A Testing Time (remake of 2/7)
TS/10   r. 29-4-80        Pushing The Vote Out (remake of 4/5)
TS/11   r. 29-4-80        Gone To Earth (remake of 2/12)
TS/12   r. 6-5-80          Computaclanger (remake of 2/3)
TS/13   r. 6-5-80          A Great Convenience (remake of 3/13)
TS/14   r. 15-4-80        The Christmas Spirit (remake of 1/9)

Recordings

The Men From The Ministry
BBC Double cassette ZBBC 1338
Contains episodes 1/2, 2/2, 3/13, 6/1

The Men From The Ministry 2
BBC Double cassette ZBBC 1720
Contains episodes 6/2, 7/1, 8/1, 9/5

also
The Navy Lark – Series 4 Volume 2
BBC CD box set
contains Calling The Antarctic (GOS 25.12.62)

 

 

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