Satire fans have rejoiced at the news that Yes Prime Minister – the famous and groundbreaking BBC comedy about life at No 10 that first ran from 1986 to 1988 – is poised for a return to our screens this year. A sequel to the equally sharp Yes Minister (1980 to 1984), Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn’s series chronicled the rivalry between the bumbling-but-witty Prime Minister Jim Hacker (Paul Eddington) and his Machiavellian Cabinet secretary Sir Humphrey Appleby (Sir Nigel Hawthorne).
Mediating between them was principal private secretary Sir Bernard Woolley (Derek Fowlds), who – for career-related reasons – was often caught in the position of having to please two masters: while Sir Humphrey was theoretically Woolley’s line manager in the Civil Service, it was Hacker who completed his employee evaluations. So ensuring that both of them were happy with him sometimes overrode his imperative to ensure that they were happy with each other. In other words, the show connected with viewers because it was a perfect, and painfully acute, study of office politics. For that reason, it could quite easily have been transferred to an industrial estate, a bank or a department store.
That’s not to say its political content was unimportant. While the party to which Hacker belongs was never specified in the entire run of the series, or its predecessor, Yes Prime Minister still managed to poke entirely accurate fun at the banalities and insanities of political life. Indeed, the show was critiqued for deepening public cynicism about the political classes by pointing out that a new breed of “managerial” politician was taking hold of the nation’s infrastructure, and that decisions were no longer being made in the public interest – but as a result of competitive tension between special interests. One only has to cast a glance back over the past week, with its storms over the fuel crisis, pastygate and Cam Dine With Me, to see how ahead of its time the show was – and why its revival this year is so timely.
Even Prime Minister Hacker was frustrated by his perceptions of who ran the show – often forgetting his not inconsiderable role in that process. In the excellent episode “A Conflict of Interest”, he takes a well-aimed potshot at the newspapers’ collective role in dictating his country’s leadership. “Don’t tell me about the press,” he says. “I know exactly who reads the papers: the Daily Mirror is read by people who think they run the country; The Guardian is read by people who think they ought to run the country; The Times is read by people who actually do run the country; the Daily Mail is read by the wives of the people who run the country; the Financial Times is read by people who own the country; The Morning Star is read by people who think the country ought to be run by another country; and The Daily Telegraph is read by people who think it is.”
Ever considered appearing before the Leveson Inquiry, Prime Minister?
Although the cast is being revamped for the comeback (Eddington and Hawthorne are no longer with us), Jay and Lynn are still manning the typewriters, indicating that we can expect more of the same, shrewd observations. They couldn’t have come soon enough.
Now: about those Spitting Image puppets that ITV has in storage…