Could a sitcom that features three older men sitting around talking about public policy actually be funny? Yes, Minister, a TV series that aired on the BBC in the early 1980s and has aired on public television and on cable from time to time in the United States succeeds in that improbable challenge.
The premise of the show is that, in the wake of a British election, James Hacker, played by veteran comic actor Paul Eddington, part stumble bum, part devious pol, is awarded the Ministry of Administrative Affairs in the new British government. That’s part of the joke, as this particular Ministry-which does not exist in real life-is a sprawling bureaucracy that is supposed to run the sprawling bureaucracies of all of the other ministries.
Hacker is ostensibly aided, but actually obfuscated by Sir Humphrey Appleby, played by Nigel Hawthorne, the Ministry’s Permanent Secretary whose loyalty is more to the British Civil Service bureaucracy than to Minister he reports to. Caught in the middle is Hackers Private Secretary, Bernard Woolley, played by Derek Fowlds, an amiable, pun addicted fellow who has to serve two masters.
Each episode is a game of political will contending with bureaucratic won’t, and usually-but not all the time-losing. Hacker would like to institute a lot of idealistic reforms, like open government, budget cut backs, efficiencies, and so on. He is thwarted at every turn by Appleby, who is very sure that he is the man who really runs the Ministry and resents that the actual Minister would do so.
For instance, in the episode The Economy Drive, Hacker, while trying to cut the Ministry’s bloated budget, is persuaded by Appleby that “economy begins at home.” So he give up perks like his staff car and fancy office. Despite the good publicity this entails, Hacker finds all of this too inconvenient, having to drive himself in London traffic. When his own car breaks down, he is found face-down in the gutter after a champagne reception at the French embassy. He is then persuaded by Appleby to juggle the books to make it seem as if he has cut his budget, when he actually has not.
In Big Brother, Hacker, who once campaigned against wire taps, discovers that his Ministry’s wire tap policies have made him the “chief bugger.” He thinks better of curtailing this practice when he is informed that he is on a terrorist death list, a fact discovered by the very methods he abhors. Fortunately the terrorists decide that he is “too important to kill.”
In A Question of Loyalty, Hacker and Appleby pass the buck to protect each other when they appear before a select committee investigating charges of waste in Hacker’s ministry. That is, until Hacker discovers a “higher loyalty” and wins one of his few victories over his Permanent Secretary by stabbing him in the back.
Besides being a laugh out loud show about political infighting, Yes, Minister is a semi-scary manual about how the affairs of government actually work. We know this to be true, because Margaret Thatcher, the actual Prime Minister of Great Britain at the time of the shows airing, called it, “a closely observed portrayal of what goes on in the corridors of power.” She was the show’s biggest fan.
The greatest joy of watching the series is seeing the three principles wrangle over small details of policy, using and misusing the English language (Appleby is a past master in this regard, able to speak paragraphs that say nothing or obscure his real meaning.) Body language is also used to great effect. Paul Eddington’s Hacker can shift from Churchillian pomposity to total befuddlement in a fraction of a second, effortlessly.
One of the secrets to the show’s success is that it didn’t take sides in political controversies, preferring to get its laughs from the inner workings of government. Hacker was a little to the left of Conservative and a little to the right of Labour. This is a lesson that could be learned by Americans who try political satire but wind up annoying one side or another of the political spectrum. Yes, Minister was and is beloved by people of all political stripes.