In the days when British viewers had only three channels from which to choose their evening’s entertainment, broadcasters could take considerably more risks than their contemporary counterparts. Lord John Reith famously outlined the role of the BBC as to educate, inform and entertain. Rarely more so has his founding philosophy been borne than in Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn’s landmark satirical comedies, Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister.
Running originally from 1980-84 and the sequel from 1986-88, the premise follows the career of Jim Hacker – a former backbench MP who rises to the top job in UK politics. He is aided by his Principal Private Secretary, Bernard Woolley and generally opposed by his Permanent Secretary, Sir Humphrey Appleby. These roles each came in turn to define the careers of the actors who played them.
Originally famed for his role in The Good Life, Paul Eddington is perfect as Hacker, a man whose self-importance and malleable morals make an ideal candidate for public office. Indeed, these qualities are amply exploited by the man who was born to the challenge the whims of politicians, ministers and PMs alike, Sir Humphrey. Latterly, he would go on to be knighted himself and nominated for an Academy Award for this titular role in The Madness of King George, but Nigel Hawthorne will forever be fondly remembered as the scheming scoundrel at the head of the Civil Service. Indeed, Hawthorne won four Baftas at the expense of Eddington, which ultimately indicates the level of reverence given to both players and the show itself.
As fans of shows like Frasier and The West Wing will attest to, joy stems from the strength of the writing and its lack of fear in using complicated language in a realistic setting. The real highlights are the battles between Hacker and Sir Humphrey, when as a viewer, you have many levels on which to appreciate the humour. One can revel in Sir Humphrey’s deliberately dense diatribes aimed at discouraging Hackers’ attempts at direct policy making, or side with bafflement on behalf of Hacker at not understanding such oratory onslaughts, or even enjoy the fireworks and wait for Derek Fowlds’ Bernard to deliver pin-sharp one-line underscores to the arguments.
Hidden in plain sight during the verbal jousting however, is an eloquent explanation of British governmental policy, past, present and forty years hence. Watching today, all the current keystones of political debate are covered over the course of Hacker’s journey: Domestic issues such as the power of unions, spending cuts against MP and Civil Service pay increases, banking scandals and the influence of newspapers; To international affairs such as how Trident is intrinsic to our relationship with America, Britain’s role in the European community and our involvement in conflicts that affect countries such as Israel, Russia, Libya and Syria.
Special mention also goes to the opening title sequences, featuring beautifully grotesque caricatures by cartoonist Gerald Scarfe and a majestic theme tune by the legendary Ronnie Hazlehurst.
In more recent years, The Thick Of It sought to satirise the political landscape under New Labour, and how everything became about spin and controlling the narratives of public opinion and in the last decade,Yes, Prime Minister was revived by creators Jay and Lynn for stage and small screen.
Modern incarnations aside, anyone with the slightest interest in politics, genuinely witty comedy or what it takes to be the sixth Best British Sitcom of all time, should cast a vote towards Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister on UK Netflix. Watching all 38 episodes in the run-up to the 2017 General Election, has told me more about British politics than any televised debate seen to date, and more importantly, reveals just how the Establishment seeks to maintain control of the system, regardless of which party is in power. I can’t help but feel the quality of today’s political discourse would be improved vastly by a collective binge watch.