Set in the private office in Whitehall of a British government cabinet minister (and, in the sequel, in 10 Downing Street), the series follows the ministerial career of Jim Hacker MP, played by Paul Eddington. His various struggles to formulate and enact legislation or effect departmental changes are opposed by the will of the British Civil Service, in particular his Permanent Secretary (senior civil servant), Sir Humphrey Appleby, played by Nigel Hawthorne. His Principal Private Secretary Bernard Woolley, played by Derek Fowlds is usually caught between the two, although heavily influenced by Sir Humphrey. Almost every programme ends with the line "Yes, Minister" (or "Yes, Prime Minister"), uttered (usually) by Sir Humphrey as he quietly relishes his victory over his "political master" (or, occasionally, acknowledges defeat).
A huge critical and popular success, the series received a number of awards; including several BAFTAs and in 2004 came sixth in the Britain's Best Sitcom poll. It was the favourite television programme of the then British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher.
The dominant running theme is the struggle between (The Rt Hon.) James "Jim" Hacker M.P., the newly-appointed Minister in the (fictional) Department of Administrative Affairs, and his civil servants and ministerial colleagues. Chief among his officials are Sir Humphrey Appleby, KCB, MVO, MA (Oxon), who is the department's Permanent Secretary, and Bernard Woolley, Hacker's Principal Private Secretary. "Behind the scenes" influence is also exerted when Sir Humphrey consults (or is summoned by) the Cabinet Secretary Sir Arnold Robinson at their St James's Gentlemen's club.
The different ideals and self-interested motivations of the characters are frequently contrasted. Whilst Hacker occasionally approaches an issue from a sense of idealism and a desire to be seen to improve things, he ultimately sees his re-election as the only endorsement of his success. In order to achieve this he must appear to the voters to be effective and responsive to the public will. To his party (and, in the first incarnation, the Prime Minister) he must act as a loyal and effective party member. Sir Humphrey, on the other hand, genuinely believes (along with most of the other civil servants who are depicted) that it is the Civil Service that knows what is best for the country, which is usually "coincidentally" what is best for the Civil Service. Most of Sir Humphrey's actions are motivated by his wish to maintain the prestige, power, and influence he enjoys inside a large, bureaucratic organisation, and also to preserve the numerous perks of his position: automatic honours, a substantial income, a fixed retirement age and a large index-linked pension, and the practical impossibility of being made redundant or being sacked. In fact, a good deal of the tension in their relationship comes from Hacker's awareness that it is the politicians who are liable to lose their jobs if civil service ineptitude comes to public attention. In "Doing the Honours" he notes:
In private industry if you screw things up you get the boot; in the civil service if you screw things up I get the boot.
Hacker, then, sees his task as the initiation of departmental reforms and economies, a reduction of the level of bureaucracy and staff numbers in the Civil Service, and the government of the country according to his party's policies. To do so, or to at least look as if he has, would be a vote-winner. Conversely, Sir Humphrey sees his role as ensuring that politics is kept out of government as much as possible, and that the status quo is upheld as a matter of principle. He will block any move that seeks either to prevent the further expansion of the civil service or to reduce the complexity of its bureaucracy.
Much of the show's humour thus derives from the antagonism between Cabinet ministers (who believe they are in charge) and the members of the British Civil Service who really run the country. A typical episode centres on Jim Hacker's suggesting and pursuing a reform, and Sir Humphrey's ingenious blocking of all Hacker's lines of approach. More often than not Sir Humphrey prevents him from achieving his goal, while mollifying Hacker with some positive publicity, or at least a means to cover up his failure. Occasionally, however, Hacker does get his way, as in "The Greasy Pole" and "A Victory for Democracy".
Initially, Woolley naïvely sees his job as the disinterested implementation of the Minister's policies, but he gradually finds that this conflicts with his institutional duty to the department and, sometimes (since Sir Humphrey is responsible for formally assessing Woolley's performance), his own potential career development. Consequently, another recurring scenario is one where Bernard must "walk the tightrope" – that is, arbitrate between his two conflicting duties by resorting to elaborate verbosity (much like Sir Humphrey) to avoid explicitly choosing one over the other.
The first series featured Frank Weisel, Hacker's political adviser, played by Neil Fitzwiliam. While his name is pronounced W-"eye"-sel, Sir Humphrey and Bernard persistently call him "Mr Weasel". Weisel does not appear after the first series, following his convenient acceptance of a position on a quango (Quasi-Autonomous Non-Governmental Organisation) tasked, appropriately, with investigating the appointment of other quangos. After the third series, following Sir Humphrey's promotion to Cabinet Secretary, Hacker becomes Prime Minister and requests that Bernard Woolley continue as his Principal Private Secretary. The first series of Yes, Prime Minister introduced Dorothy Wainwright (played by Deborah Norton) as a highly able Special Political Adviser to the Prime Minister. Her experience and insight into many civil service tricks ensures a lasting mutual distrust between her and Sir Humphrey (he once refers to her as "the Wainwright female") and an invaluable second opinion for Hacker.
Hacker's home life is shown occasionally throughout the series. His wife, Annie (Diana Hoddinott), is clearly frustrated by the disruptions caused by her husband's political career and is at times somewhat cynical about her husband's politics. Meanwhile, his sociology student daughter, Lucy (Gerry Cowper), becomes an environmental activist in one episode (her only on-screen appearance, despite several other mentions), campaigning against one of her father's departmental policies.
Sir Humphrey's personal characteristics include his complicated sentences, his ineffable snobbery, his cynical views on government, and his superciliousness. Hacker's attributes include occasional indecisiveness, and a tendency to launch into ludicrous Churchillian speeches. Bernard is apt to linguistic pedantry. Sir Humphrey often discusses matters with other Permanent Secretaries, who appear similarly sardonic and jaded, and the Cabinet Secretary (whom he will eventually succeed in Yes, Prime Minister), Sir Arnold Robinson (John Nettleton) an archetype of cynicism, haughtiness and conspiratorial expertise. This fairly counter-intuitive view of government administration is not only Sir Humphrey's: it is completely taken for granted by the civil service.
The Yes, Prime Minister episode "The Bishop's Gambit" parodied liberal theology and politics in the Church of England. Hacker thought that the church is a Christian institution, but Sir Humphrey gleefully informed him that most of the bishops do not believe in God, and that a theologian's job is partly to explain why an agnostic or atheist can be a church leader.
Almost all the episodes end with one of the characters (usually Sir Humphrey) saying "Yes, Minister" or "Yes, Prime Minister" accordingly. Each episode of the former was more or less self-contained, but the first series of Yes, Prime Minister had a loose story arc relating to Hacker's attempts to reform the United Kingdom's armed forces, while the second was mostly devoted to concluding storylines and character arcs that had been seen over the course of the show.
The series, then, intended to satirise politics and government in general, rather than any specific party. The writers placed Hacker at the centre of the political spectrum, and were careful to identify his party headquarters as "Central House" (a combination of Conservative Central Office and Labour's Transport House). The terms "Labour" and "Conservative" are scrupulously avoided throughout the series, favouring terms such as "the party" or "the Government" and "the opposition." In the first scene of the first episode, "Open Government", Hacker is shown at the declaration of his constituency result wearing a white rosette, with other candidates sporting the red and blue rosettes associated with the two leading British parties. The one exception to this neutrality occurs very briefly in "The National Education Service", when Sir Humphrey explains to Bernard how the policy of comprehensive education is retained through successive governments, using different arguments according to which party is in power. Even there, Humphrey does not reveal which party Jim Hacker represents. Despite this, the overall thrust was toward government reduction rather than expansion. The episode "Jobs for the Boys", for example, rejected corporatism.
In a 2004 documentary, Armando Iannucci compared Yes Minister to George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four in how it has influenced the public's view of the state. Although Lynn comments that the word "spin" has "probably entered the political vocabulary since the series," Iannucci suggests that the show "taught us how to unpick the verbal tricks that politicians think they can get away with in front of the cameras." The series depicted the media-consciousness of politicians, reflecting the public relations training they undergo to help them deal with interviews and reading from autocue effectively. This is particularly evident in the episode "The Ministerial Broadcast," in which Hacker is advised on the effects of his clothes and surroundings. The episode "A Conflict of Interest" humorously lampoons the various political stances of Britain's newspapers through their readership.
(In fact this joke is a slight reworking of one previously used on television by Dave Allen.)
Adam Curtis, in his three-part TV documentary The Trap, criticised the series as "ideological propaganda for a political movement", and claimed that Yes Minister is indicative of a larger movement of criticism of government and bureaucracy, centred upon public choice economics. This view has been supported by Jay himself:
In a programme screened by the BBC in early 2004, paying tribute to the series, it was revealed that Jay and Lynn had drawn on information provided by two insiders from the governments of Harold Wilson and James Callaghan, namely Marcia Williams and Bernard Donoughue. The published diaries of Richard Crossman also provided inspiration.
The episode entitled "The Moral Dimension", in which Hacker and his staff engage in the scheme of secretly consuming alcohol on a trade mission to the fictional Islamic state of Qumran, was based on a real incident that took place in Pakistan, involving Callaghan and Donoughue, the latter of whom informed Jay and Lynn about the incident. Jay says that "I can't tell you where, I can't tell you when and I can't tell you who was involved; all I can tell you is that we knew that it had actually happened. That's why it was so funny. We couldn't think up things as funny as the real things that had happened." Media historian Andrew Crisell suggests that the show was "enriched by the viewers' suspicion that what they were watching was unhealthily close to real life.
Fusing inspiration and invention, Lynn and Jay worked on the story "for anything from three days to two weeks," and only took "four mornings to write all the dialogue. After we wrote the episode, we would show it to some secret sources, always including somebody who was an expert on the subject in question. They would usually give us extra information which, because it was true, was usually funnier than anything we might have thought up." Designers Valerie Warrender and Gloria Clayton were given access to the Cabinet Rooms and the State Drawing Rooms. For security purposes, the arrangements of the rooms were altered, and the views from the windows were never shown, in order to conceal the layout of the buildings.
Jim Hacker (Paul Eddington) was an academic political researcher, polytechnic lecturer and editor of a newspaper, Reform, before entering Parliament, where he apparently spent a good deal of time in Opposition before his party won the general election. In Yes Minister he is the Minister for Administrative Affairs (a fictitious ministry of the British government) and a Cabinet Minister. Hacker received his degree from the London School of Economics, for which he is often derided by the Oxford-educated Sir Humphrey. His early character is that of a gung-ho, but naïve, politician, bringing sweeping changes to his department. Before long, Hacker begins to notice that Civil Service tactics are preventing his planned changes being put into practice. As he learns he becomes more sly and cynical, and uses some of the Civil Service ruses himself. While Sir Humphrey initially held all the aces, Hacker now and again plays a trump card of his own.
Throughout Yes Minister Hacker is regularly portrayed as a publicity-mad bungler who is incapable of making a firm decision, prone to make potentially embarrassing blunders, and a frequent target of criticism from the press and stern lectures from the Chief Whip. However, in Yes, Prime Minister Hacker becomes more statesmanlike. He practises more grandiose speeches, dreams up his "grand design" and hones his diplomatic skills, and nearly all of these land him in trouble. In a Radio Times interview to promote Yes, Prime Minister, Paul Eddington stated, "He's beginning to find his feet as a man of power, and he's begun to confound those who thought they'd be able to manipulate him out of hand."
Sir Humphrey Appleby (Nigel Hawthorne) serves throughout the series as Permanent Secretary under the ministry of James Hacker at the Department of Administrative Affairs. He is appointed Cabinet Secretary just as Hacker's party enters a leadership crisis, and is instrumental in Hacker's elevation to Prime Minister. He is committed to maintaining the status quo for the country in general and for the Civil Service in particular. Sir Humphrey is a master of obfuscation and manipulation, baffling his opponents with technical jargon and circumlocutions, strategically appointing allies to supposedly impartial boards, and setting up interdepartmental committees to smother his Minister's proposals in red tape. In Britain's Best Sitcom, Stephen Fry comments that "we love the idea of the coherence and articulacy of Sir Humphrey... it's one of the things you look forward to in an episode of Yes Minister... when's the big speech going to happen? And can I see if he's reading it from an idiot board... he's really learned it, and it's superb." Derek Fowlds posited to a concerned Eddington that these speeches were the reason why Hawthorne won a BAFTA for Best Comedy Performance four times in a row, while Eddington didn't win at all.
Loquacious and verbose, he frequently uses both his mastery of the English language and even his superb grasp of Latin and Greek grammar both to perplex his political master and to obscure the relevant issues. In a Radio Times interview to promote the second series of Yes, Prime Minister, producer Sydney Lotterby stated that he always tried to give Eddington and Hawthorne extra time to rehearse as their scenes invariably featured lengthy dialogue exchanges.
Bernard Woolley (Derek Fowlds) is Jim Hacker's Principal Private Secretary. His loyalties are therefore split between his Minister and his Civil Service boss, Humphrey Appleby: while he is theoretically responsible to Hacker personally, it is Sir Humphrey who writes his performance reviews and influences Bernard's Civil Service career. This leads to difficult situations for the young civil servant. He usually handles these situations well, and maintains his reputation in the Civil Service as a "high flier" (as opposed to a "low flier supported by occasional gusts of wind").
Woolley is always quick to point out the physical impossibilities of Sir Humphrey's or Hacker's mixed metaphors, with almost obsessive pedantry. He can occasionally appear rather childlike, by making animal noises and gestures or by acting out how such an analogy cannot work.
Woolley does tend to side with Hacker when new policies are announced because they appear radical and democratic, only for Sir Humphrey to point out the disadvantages of the policy to the Status quo and the civil service in particular. At times when Sir Humphrey fails to get his way, Woolley can be seen smiling smugly at him over his defeat.
In a 2004 retrospective, Armando Iannucci commented that Fowlds had a difficult task because he had to "spend most of his time saying nothing but looking interested in everyone else's total and utter guff" but "his one line frequently had to be the funniest of the lot." Iannucci suggests that Bernard is essential to the structure of the show because both Hacker and Appleby confide in him, "which means we get to find out what they're plotting next."
Hacker's family comprised his wife, Annie (played by Diana Hoddinott), who appeared in several episodes, and his daughter, Lucy (played by Gerry Cowper), who only featured on-screen in one episode ("The Right to Know") but who is mentioned intermittently throughout. At one point (in "Party Games") it is suggested that the Hackers have more than one child, but as this occurs when stating a well-rehearsed rebuttal, this could be seen as one more instance where the Minister has become "house trained" to conform to departmental convenience (even though the Minister is in the running for the leadership).
Hacker's chauffeur, George (Arthur Cox), appeared in five episodes. He is a character who is always more in touch with current events than the Minister—anything from empty NHS hospitals to Cabinet reshuffles. This often irritates Hacker who, when he asks George where the information came from, is usually told that it is common knowledge among the Whitehall drivers. Well-known broadcasters who played themselves included Robert McKenzie, Ludovic Kennedy and Sue Lawley. Robert Dougall regularly played a newsreader, which was his own real life profession. Another newscaster, Nicholas Witchell can be heard reporting on Hacker's visit to a school in "The National Education Service".
A total of thirty-eight episodes were made, and all but one are of 30 minutes' duration. They were videotaped in front of a studio audience, which was standard BBC practice for situation comedies at the time. The actors did not enjoy filming as they felt that the studio audience added additional pressure. Lynn, however, says that the studio audience on the soundtrack was necessary because laughter is a "communal affair." The laughter also acted as a kind of insurance: Jay observes that politicians would be unable to put pressure on the BBC not to "run this kind of nonsense" if "200–250 people were falling about with laughter." There were occasionally film inserts of location sequences, and some shots of Hacker travelling in his car were achieved by means of chroma key. Each programme usually comprised around six scenes.
The pilot was produced in 1979 but not transmitted until 1980 in fear that it could influence the results of the 1979 UK General Election. Yes Minister ran for three series, each of seven episodes, between 1980 and 1982. These were followed by two Christmas specials: one 10-minute sketch as part of an anthology presented by Frank Muir, and then the hour-long "Party Games", in 1984. The latter's events led to Hacker's elevation to Prime Minister, dovetailing into the sequel, Yes, Prime Minister. This ran for two series, each of eight episodes, from 1986 to 1988.
The opening titles were drawn by artist Gerald Scarfe, who provided distinctive caricatures of Eddington, Hawthorne and Fowlds in their respective roles to represent distortion. He animated them as 'self-drawing' by positioning the camera above his paper, adding parts of lines, and then photographing two frames at a time. The sequence ended with the title of the episode superimposed on a facsimile of an edition of the House of Commons Weekly Information Bulletin. Curiously, the legend Compiled in the Public Information Office of the House of Commons Library was left in the sequence. Scarfe created a second set of graphics for Yes, Prime Minister, including a different title card for each episode. Derek Fowlds wanted to buy an original drawing but was unable to afford it. The series' performance credits typically only featured those of the actors who appeared in the particular episode, not the names of characters.
The theme music was composed by Ronnie Hazlehurst and is largely based on the Westminster Quarters: the chimes of Big Ben. When asked in an interview about its Westminster influence, Hazlehurst replied, "That's all it is. It's the easiest thing I've ever done. Scarfe's and Hazlehurst's work was not used for the first episode, "Open Government". The final version of the titles and music had yet to be agreed, and both differ substantially from those used for subsequent instalments. The opening and closing title caption cards feature drawings of most of the cast, but are less exaggerated than those of Scarfe, while the unaccredited music is a more up-tempo piece for brass band. The Scarfe and Hazlehurst credits were used for some repeat broadcasts of the first episode, but the original pilot credits were retained for the DVD release.
Yes Minister won the BAFTA award for Best Comedy Series for 1980, 1981 and 1982, and the "Party Games" special was nominated in the Best Light Entertainment Programme category for 1984. Yes, Prime Minister was short-listed for Best Comedy Series for both 1986 and 1987. Nigel Hawthorne's portrayal of Sir Humphrey Appleby won the BAFTA Award for Best Light Entertainment Performance four times (in 1981, 1982, 1986 and 1987). Eddington was also nominated on all four occasions. Yes Minister came sixth in a 2004 BBC poll to find 'Britain's Best Sitcom'. In a list of the 100 Greatest British Television Programmes drawn up by the British Film Institute in 2000, voted by industry professionals, Yes Minister and Yes, Prime Minister were jointly placed ninth. They were also placed 14th in Channel 4's The Ultimate Sitcom, a poll conducted by people who work in sitcoms.
The series have been cited by political scientists for their accurate and sophisticated portrayal of the relationships between civil servants and politicians, and are quoted in some textbooks on British politics. The series was highly rated by critics and politicians. The shows were very popular in government circles. The Guinness Television Encyclopedia suggests that "real politicians ... enjoyed the show's cynical dismissal of Whitehall intrigue and its insights into the machinations of government. They were the favourite programme of then Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher. She told The Telegraph that "its clearly-observed portrayal of what goes on in the corridors of power has given me hours of pure joy." Gerald Kaufman described it as "The Rt. Hon. Faust MP, constantly beset by the wiles of Sir Mephistopheles." As a supporter of Thatcher, Jay embraced her appreciation, although the more leftist Lynn was concerned.
Thatcher performed a short sketch with Eddington and Hawthorne on 20 January 1984 at a ceremony where the writers were presented with an award from Mary Whitehouse's NVLA, an event commemorated on the cover of the satirical magazine Private Eye . Various sources attribute authorship of the sketch. In Britain's Best Sitcom, Bernard Ingham says that he wrote it; other sources give Thatcher sole credit, while Michael Cockerell says that she wrote it with Ingham's help. Another source gives renegade credit to Charles Powell. The actors, who were both starring in separate West End plays at the time, were not enthusiastic at the idea and asked Lynn to \"get them out\" of it. The writer, however, was not in a position to help. Hawthorne says he and Eddington resented Thatcher's attempts to \"make capital\" from their popularity. Ingham says that it \"went down a bomb\", while Lynn brands it a \"dreadful sketch\" that was only funny because Thatcher was doing it. Accepting the award from the NVLA, Lynn thanked Thatcher \"for taking her rightful place in the field of situation comedy.\" Everyone, except the Prime Minister, laughed.
When Paul Eddington visited Australia during the 1980s, he was treated as a visiting British PM by the then Australian leader, Bob Hawke, who was obviously a great fan of the show. At a rally, Hawke said \"You don't want to be listening to me; you want to be listening to the real Prime Minister\", forcing Eddington to improvise. In an interview to promote the first series of Yes, Prime Minister, Derek Fowlds said that \"both political sides believe that it satirises their opponents, and civil servants love it because it depicts them as being more powerful than either. And of course, they love it because it's all so authentic.\"
In 2005, BBC Four launched The Thick of It, described by director Armando Iannucci as \"Yes Minister meets Larry Sanders\", and The Telegraph called it \"a Yes, Minister for the Labour years. The style shows many identifiable hallmarks of Yes Minister, namely the blundering politician virtually entirely dependent on those whose presentational and political nous greatly eclipse his own personal experience.
In 1997, Derek Fowlds reprised the role of Bernard Woolley to read Antony Jay's How To Beat Sir Humphrey: Every Citizen's Guide To Fighting Officialdom. It was broadcast in three daily parts by Radio 4 from 29 September to 1 October 1997 and released by BBC Audiobooks on cassette in October 1997.
The three series of Yes Minister were published as paperbacks in 1981, 1982 and 1983 respectively before being combined into a revised hardback omnibus edition, The Complete Yes Minister: The Diaries of a Cabinet Minister, in 1984. Two volumes of Yes, Prime Minister: The Diaries of the Right Hon. James Hacker were published in 1986 and 1987, before being made available as an omnibus edition in 1988. Both series were published as omnibus paperback editions in 1989:
Antony Jay's How to Beat Sir Humphrey: Every Citizen's Guide to Fighting Officialdom (ISBN 0-952-82851-0) was published in April 1997. It was illustrated by Gerald Scarfe and Shaun Williams. It was read by Derek Fowlds on Radio 4 later that year.