Yes Prime Minister
Anthony Jay, one of the co-authors of Yes Minister died a couple of days ago. Which got me thinking.
Structurally, the series owed a lot to “Jeeves and Wooster”, as Jim Hacker’s ill thought out schemes are continually revised to the point of reversal by someone who is supposed to be his “servant”. A “civil” servant, Appleby is outwardly deferential, someone who is not supposed to have any policy of their own and who is only supposed to advise on implementation, but who exhibits a rigid opposition to any break of precedent or disruption of the status quo.
The series was co-authored by a right wing and left wing writer. Jay was the right wing writer. As a consequence of this rather developed and self conscious sense of “balance” it was never made clear where on a political spectrum Jim Hacker belonged. The series scrupulously avoided ever mentioning the names of political parties. Even Hacker’s ministry was deliciously tautological. The Ministry for Administrative Affairs. The Ministry for Being a Ministry. I generally preferred Yes Minister to Yes Prime Minister for the fairly simple reason that Yes Minister was not required to make as much stuff up. The ministerial shenanigans dramatised were rarely the stuff of earthshaking international significance. You could sort of believe that Jim Hacker actually existed, that he was one of those duller cabinet members whose name nobody could really remember.
With Yes Prime Minister on the other hand, you knew you were part of an alternate reality – one in which major political events had worked out differently from the world we actually lived in. As a stand alone episode, however, the very first Yes Prime Minister still resonates, because it treats the illogic of nuclear deterrence with such unsparing rigour. The detailed insanity of making an actual threat to push the button is worked out until it is revealed that it is not national defence but a habit of national prestige which supposedly necessitates the purchase of Trident – “the nuclear missile that Harrods would sell you” – according to Sir Humphrey.
But it was always troubling quite how much Thatcher liked the show – to the point of pretty much forcing Paul Eddington and Nigel Hawthorne to perform a sketch in character to her own design. From Thatcher’s point of view, as someone who regarded the “statusquoism” of the civil service mandarism as supportive of pre-existing mixed economy welfarism, the show stood as a satire on the sort of people she felt were standing in her way. When someone as humourless as Thatcher liked Yes Minister, someone who lacked the kind of sociability that forms the preconditioning grammar that makes any viable comedy possible – liked Yes Minister – you always wondered what it meant when you yourself liked it. I suppose she must have made a political decision that the programme was “on her side” – at which point it must be funny, because anything that was on her side must be successful – just as anyone who disagreed with her was placed beyond the pale of human sympathy.
Yet Yes Minister will survive. The best shows survive their more unsavoury fans because they are well timed and make sense on their own terms. The dialogue that built the relationship between the consummate talents of Paul Eddington and Nigel Hawthorn retains a paradoxical political authority not because (like traditionally righteous satire) it speaks truth to power – but because it tells the truth about the lies that power speaks to itself.