Book review: A Very Courageous Decision. The Inside Story of Yes Minister, by Graham McCann

Published by: Aurum Press.

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Two truly great British sitcoms appeared in the Eighties. Blackadder began in 1983, getting into its stride two years’ later. But the first, Yes, Minister, had began almost at the very start of the decade in February 1980, having been postponed for a year after industrial action had prevented its broadcast in early 1979. Yes, Minister would thus appear on screen under Margaret Thatcher but it had been conceived under her predecessor, Jim Callaghan.

It didn’t matter. The greatest political comedy of the Thatcher era was in fact non-partisan. Jim Hacker, though a “Jim” who eventually became Prime Minister was not supposed to be Callaghan. Indeed, he wasn’t originally even supposed to be a Jim. Creators Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn had planned the series around a Gerry Hacker who is elevated to the Ministry of Administrative Affairs. When Paul Eddington, best known for his recent role as the amiable but henpecked Jerry in The Good Life, the name was changed to remove any association being made between what would turn out to be the two most famous roles of his life.

The casting turned out to be a masterstroke but it was the writing that provided Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister with its backbone. Antony Jay (an older man and a Tory who died in 2016) and Jonathan Lynn (a left of centre figure still in his thirties when the show began) wisely decided to make their minister’s party affiliations unclear. There were occasional references to contemporary politics. For example, Sir Humphrey refers to a potential triumph for Hacker: “this could be your Falkland Islands,” although on a different occasion criticises another suggestion as “a Bennite solution.” In another episode, they also meet a London “loony left” councillor called Ben Stanley (“that odious troglodyte with the wispy moustache. The press hate him”).  In reality, the moustached left winger Ken Livingstone led the Greater London Council at the time. The name “Ben” does sound a lot like “Ken”. While the missionary David LIVINGSTONE famously met the explorer Henry STANLEY. So is Stanley, supposed to be Livingstone? I think we can presume so.

That said, such references (which McCann makes no reference to) are rare. The story was really about the battle between transient “here today, gone tomorrow” politicians in government and their battles with the mandarins of the civil servant personified by Sir Humphrey Appleby (Nigel Hawthorne) who basically seek to obstruct everything and prevent any real change occurring.

The series had surprisingly few teething problems other than the initial selection of an unsuitable director for the pilot episode. Eddington, a wartime conscientious objector and leftist political animal was initially keen on the role of Humphrey, recognising the part had the best lines. Thankfully, he was persuaded instead that he was perfect for the role of the initially well meaning but increasingly cynical Hacker.

Hawthorne, brilliant as Sir Humphrey, became famous for his part in exchanges like this one from the first episode:

Hacker: Who else is in this department?
Sir Humphrey: Well briefly, sir, I am the Permanent Under Secretary of State, known as the Permanent Secretary. Woolley here is your Principal Private Secretary. I too have a Principal Private Secretary and he is the Principal Private Secretary to the Permanent Secretary. Directly responsible to me are ten Deputy Secretaries, 87 Under Secretaries and 219 Assistant Secretaries. Directly responsible to the Principal Private Secretaries are plain Private Secretaries, and the Prime Minister will be appointing two Parliamentary Under-Secretaries and you will be appointing your own Parliamentary Private Secretary.
Hacker: Can they all type?
Sir Humphrey: None of us can type. Mrs Mackay types: she’s the secretary.

The South African born Hawthorne reportedly lacked confidence perhaps stemming from a fear of his homosexuality becoming public (as eventually happened, much to his annoyance, at the time of his Oscar nomination for The Madness of King George in 1995). A less political man than Eddington, he was reportedly occasionally irritated by the latter’s supreme confidence.

The trio was completed by Derek Fowlds as Sir Bernard. A man until then, best known for co-starring with Basil Brush, Fowlds, the only one of the three still alive, comes across as a man refreshingly lacking in vanity.

Veteran comedy writer Graham McCann does a good job of detailing the history of the two series here. He goes too far in rating the series’ wider significance however : “Government in those days (1980), was rather like a tree falling in a forest with no one there to witness it,” he says. This is largely still true. Great as Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister, they didn’t change the world that much.

There are unfortunately constraints on just how much sitcoms can really do. Just as there are with ministers.

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Six of the best fictional UK TV politicians

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Jim Hacker

In: Yes Minister and Yes Prime Minister (sitcom 1980-1984, 1986-1988)

Played by: Paul Eddington

Written by: Antony Jay, Jonathan Lynn

Indecisive, bumbling but ultimately well intentioned. Hacker is generally thwarted at every turn as Minister of Administrative Affairs by civil servant Sir Humphrey (Nigel Hawthorne) who sees his role as to block any attempt at change or reform. Despite this, Hacker (who unusually is never given any party affiliation by the show’s creators) succeeds in becoming Prime Minister, largely on the back of a plan to save the British sausage from European interference.

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Michael Murray

In: GBH (drama, 1991)

Played by: Robert Lindsay

Written by: Alan Bleasdale

The charismatic far left Labour leader of a far left unnamed northern city council (Derek Hatton suggested the show was about him, something creator Alan Bleasdale denied), Murray leads an unholy war of terror against Jim Nelson (Michael Palin) a special needs teacher who refuses to take part in Murray’s headline-grabbing “Day of Action”.  Although totally corrupt, a womaniser and prone to a nervous twitch, Murray grows more sympathetic as a character as we learn he is both the victim of a traumatic childhood prank and a modern day plot by the security services to brand him as a racist.

PIcture shows: Francis Urquhart (IAN RICHARDSON) WARNING: This image may only be used for publicity purposes in connection with the broadcast of the programme as licensed by BBC Worldwide Ltd & must carry the shown copyright legend. It may not be used for any commercial purpose without a licence from the BBC. © BBC 1990

Sir Francis Urquhart

In: House of Cards, To Play The King, The Final Cut (dramas 1990, 1993, 1995)

Played by: Ian Richardson

Written by: Andrew Davies (based on Michael Dobbs’ books)

A very different kettle of fish to Kevin Spacey’s Frank Underwood of the recent US House of Cards remake, Urquhart is an apparently charming old fashioned upper class Tory chief whip, who begins plotting a bloody path to Downing Street after moderate new post-Thatcherite Prime Minister Henry Collingridge (David Lyon) fails to honour a promise to promote him to cabinet. As PM himself, Urquhart continues to occasionally murder his opponents and overthrows the Prince Charles like new king after he gets left wing ideas.

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Harry Perkins

In: A Very British Coup (drama, 1988)

Played by: Ray McAnally

Written by: Alan Plater and Mick Jackson (based on Chris Mullin’s book)

When former Sheffield steelworker turned Labour leader Perkins leads his party to a dramatic surprise election victory, the establishment are thrown into a state of panic. Perkins is committed to re-nationalisation, nuclear disarmament and probable withdraw from NATO. The press barons, CIA and MI5 thus soon decide to ignore the people’s verdict and get rid of the new boy in Number 10.

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Alan B’Stard

In: The New Statesman (sitcom, 1987-1994)

Played by: Rik Mayall

Written by: Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran

A true Thatcherite to the core, Mayall’s flamboyant occasionally murderous backbench Tory MP easily lives up to his name whether engaged in blackmail, adultery or tormenting fellow backbencher Sir Piers Fletcher Dervish (Michael Troughton).

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Nicky Hutchinson

In: Our Friends In The North (drama, 1996)

Played by: Christopher Eccleston

Written by: Peter Flannery

Nicky encounters numerous politicians in this drama spanning the years 1964 to 1995 but his own bid for parliament on behalf of Labour in 1979 proves a woeful failure. Having initially been led astray in his youth by corrupt civic leader Austin Donohue (Alun Armstrong), a character based on the real life T Dan Smith, Nicky’s campaign is sunk by press hostility, internal divisions, a right wing smear campaign and an attractive female Tory opponent. The son of a disillusioned Jarrow marcher (Peter Vaughan), Nicky rejects politics in favour of a career in photography soon after.