Magazine article The Spectator

Authentic Brilliance

Magazine article The Spectator

Authentic Brilliance

Article excerpt

Looking back over the radio and television comedy of the past 25 years, my own feeling is that Yes, Minister on BBC television was by far the most brilliant, almost a work of comic genius, particularly when you compare it with the feebleness of much of the genre today. These things are subjective, of course, and others will have their own view but at its peak Yes, Minister attracted an audience of nine million, remarkable for such clever and erudite comedy. Someone at Radio Four had the inspired idea of marking the 25th anniversary of its first episode in February 1980 by examining how true to life the series was and what former and current politicians and senior civil servants thought of it. Even better, the two-part Yes, Minister the View from Whitehall (Saturdays) was presented by William Hague, who has experienced both sides of government - even marrying his private secretary at the Welsh Office and whose light touch helped make the first episode both amusing and revealing.

The producer Anthony Worrall selected clips from the series which reminded me of just how complete it was: wonderful scriptwriting by Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn and fine acting by Nigel Hawthorne (Sir Humphrey Appleby), Paul Eddington (Jim Hacker) and Derek Fowlds as Bernard. In the first episode, Hacker is made a secretary of state and introduced to his new permanent secretary. Sir Humphrey recalls having been grilled by Hacker at a public accounts committee hearing. Hacker: 'I wouldn't say that. You answered all mine [questions] anyway.' 'I'm glad you thought so,' replied the devious Sir Humphrey. Hague said that little did the BBC realise that the programme would paralyse the heart of the British state. Margaret Thatcher's former Cabinet Secretary Robin, now Lord, Butler said he loved it from the start and thought everybody in Whitehall did. 'It was very difficult to gel anybody to do anything in Whitehall, to have any meetings or evening engagements on the night it was being shown.'

Butler recalled waiting with William Waldegrave for the government's response to the publication of the arms to Iraq Scott inquiry report to be typed by secretaries, and passing the time by watching television. He was startled to find that that evening's Yes, Minister was called The Arms Inquiry, which must have been filmed even before the Iran-Iraq war but nonetheless had what he called 'wonderful truths' for the situation they were now in. The episode had Hacker telling Sir Humphrey that they must set up an inquiry into the arms exports. …

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