Yes, Prime Minister
|Created by||Antony Jay|
|Theme music composer||Ronnie Hazlehurst|
|Country of origin||United Kingdom|
|No. of series||3 (Yes Minister) |
2 (Yes Prime Minister)
|No. of episodes||Yes Minister 21 + 2 specials|
Yes, Prime Minister 16
2013 revival 6 (list of episodes)
|Running time||30 minutes (with a one-hour-long Christmas episode and several short specials)|
|Original release||25 February 1980 –|
28 January 1988
2013 revived series: 15 January – 19 February 2013
Yes Minister is a British political satire sitcom written by Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn. Comprising three seven-episode series, it was first transmitted on BBC2 from 1980 to 1984. A sequel, Yes, Prime Minister, ran for 16 episodes from 1986 to 1988. All but one of the episodes lasted half an hour, and almost all ended with a variation of the title of the series spoken as the answer to a question posed by Minister (later, Prime Minister) Jim Hacker. Several episodes were adapted for BBC Radio; the series also spawned a 2010 stage play that led to a new television series on Gold in 2013.
Set principally in the private office of a British Cabinet minister in the fictional Department of Administrative Affairs in Whitehall, Yes Minister follows the ministerial career of Jim Hacker, played by Paul Eddington. His various struggles to formulate and enact policy or effect departmental changes are opposed by the British Civil Service, in particular his Permanent Secretary, Sir Humphrey Appleby, played by Sir Nigel Hawthorne. His Principal Private Secretary Bernard Woolley, played by Derek Fowlds, is usually caught between the two. The sequel, Yes, Prime Minister, continued with the same cast and followed Jim Hacker after his unexpected elevation to Number 10 upon the resignation of the previous Prime Minister.
The series received several BAFTAs and in 2004 was voted sixth in the Britain's Best Sitcom poll. It was the favourite television programme of the then Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Margaret Thatcher.
The series opens in the wake of a general election in which the incumbent government has been defeated by the opposition party, to which Jim Hacker MP belongs. His party affiliation is never stated, his party emblem is clearly neither Conservative nor Labour, and his party's political colour is white. The Prime Minister offers Hacker the position of Minister of Administrative Affairs, which he accepts. Hacker goes to his department and meets his Permanent Secretary, Sir Humphrey Appleby, and Principal Private Secretary, Bernard Woolley.
While Appleby is outwardly deferential towards the new minister, he is prepared to defend the status quo at all costs. Hacker and his party's policies of reducing bureaucracy are diametrically opposed to the Civil Service's interests, in which staff numbers and budgets are viewed as merits of success (as opposed to sizes of profits or losses in private industry). Woolley is sympathetic towards Hacker but as Appleby reminds him, Woolley's civil service superiors, including Appleby, will have much to say about the course of his future career (i.e., assessments, promotions, pay increases), while ministers do not usually stay long in one department and have no say in civil service staffing recommendations.
Many of the episodes revolve around proposals backed by Hacker but frustrated by Appleby, who uses a range of clever stratagems to defeat ministerial proposals while seeming to support them. Other episodes revolve around proposals promoted by Appleby but rejected by Hacker, which Appleby attempts by all means necessary to persuade Hacker to accept. They do occasionally join forces in order to achieve a common goal, such as preventing the closure of their department or dealing with a diplomatic incident.
As the series revolves around the inner workings of central government, most of the scenes take place in private locations, such as offices and exclusive members' clubs. Lynn said that "there was not a single scene set in the House of Commons because government does not take place in the House of Commons. Some politics and much theatre takes place there. Government happens in private. As in all public performances, the real work is done in rehearsal, behind closed doors. Then the public and the House are shown what the government wishes them to see." However, the episode "The Compassionate Society" does feature an audio recording of Yesterday in Parliament in which Hacker speaks in the House of Commons, and other episodes include scenes in the Foreign Secretary's House of Commons office ("The Writing on the Wall") and a Committee room ("A Question of Loyalty").
|Character||Yes Minister||Yes, Prime Minister|
|Series 1||Series 2||Series 3||Special||Series 1||Series 2|
|Sir Humphrey Appleby|
|Sir Arnold Robinson|
|Sir Frederick Stewart|
|Sir Ian Whitchurch|
|Sir Frank Gordon|
|Sir Richard Wharton|
|Dr Richard Cartwright|
|Sir Mark Spencer|
|Sir Desmond Glazebrook|
|Field Marshal Sir Guy Howard|
|Vic Gould, Chief Whip|
|George, the driver|
|Series 1||Series 2||Series 3||Series 1||Series 2|
|Yes Minister||Yes, Prime Minister|
Main article: Jim Hacker
The Right Honourable Jim Hacker MP (Paul Eddington), eventually elevated to the House of Lords as Lord Hacker of Islington, was the editor of a newspaper called Reform before going into politics. He spent a good deal of time in Parliament on the Opposition benches before his party won a general election, including serving as the Shadow Secretary for Agriculture. In Yes Minister, he is the Minister for Administrative Affairs (a fictitious ministry of the British government) and a cabinet minister, and in Yes, Prime Minister he becomes the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. Hacker received his degree from the London School of Economics (graduating with a Third), for which he is often derided by the Oxford-educated Sir Humphrey (who attended "Baillie College", a thinly-veiled reference to the real Balliol College, graduating with a First in Classics). 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, using 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, at his worst, is portrayed as a publicity-seeking bungler who is incapable of making a firm decision. He is prone to potentially embarrassing blunders, and is a frequent target of criticism from the press and stern lectures from the Chief Whip. However, he is also shown to be relatively politically savvy, and he slowly becomes more aware of Sir Humphrey's real agenda. In Yes, Prime Minister, Hacker becomes more statesmanlike. He practises more grandiose speeches, dreams up his "Grand Design" and hones his diplomatic skills. Nearly all of these efforts 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."
Main article: Humphrey Appleby
Sir Humphrey Appleby (Nigel Hawthorne) serves throughout the series as permanent secretary under his minister, Jim 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 long-winded 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.
However, although presenting an outward appearance of supreme confidence and competence, Sir Humphrey is not immune to making miscalculations or outright blunders. When such blunders occur, he relies on the Civil Service bureaucracy to save him.
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, though nominated, did not win at all.
Loquacious and verbose, he frequently uses both his mastery of the English language and his 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.
Main article: Bernard Woolley
Bernard Woolley, MA (Oxon) (Derek Fowlds) is Jim Hacker's Principal Private Secretary. His loyalties are often split between his Minister and his Civil Service boss, Sir Humphrey. While in theory he is personally responsible to Hacker, it is in practice Sir Humphrey who writes his performance reviews and influences his Civil Service career. 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, which sometimes annoys his Minister. Woolley tends to side with Hacker when new policies are announced, because they seem radical or democratic, only for Sir Humphrey to point out the disadvantages to the status quo and the civil service in particular. To sway Bernard, Sir Humphrey uses phrases such as "barbarism" and "the beginning of the end". 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 Woolley 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."
The editor's note to The Complete Yes Prime Minister (supposedly published in 2024 after Hacker's death but actually published by the BBC in 1989), thanks "Sir Bernard Woolley, GCB" for his help and confirms that he did indeed make it to the position of Head of the Civil Service.
The series featured a cast of recurring characters.
Meanwhile, Sir Humphrey's Civil Service colleagues were also regularly featured. They included:
Lynn joined the Cambridge Union in his first year at the University of Cambridge because he thought that he might like to enter politics. "All of the main debaters there, aged twenty, were the most pompous, self-satisfied, self-important bunch of clowns that I've ever clapped eyes on. They were all behaving as if they were on the government front bench, and twenty years later they all were: Michael Howard; John Selwyn Gummer; Kenneth Clarke. I thought at that point that the only way that I could ever contribute to politics is making fun of the politicians."
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 towards government reduction rather than expansion. The episode "Jobs for the Boys", for example, rejected corporatism. Throughout the period of Yes Minister and Yes Prime Minister the incumbent government of the United Kingdom was Conservative with the government led by Margaret Thatcher (although the pilot was produced before she came to power).
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 readers (although this material was not original):
Sir Humphrey: The only way to understand the Press is to remember that they pander to their readers' prejudices.
Hacker: Don't tell me about the press. 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 the 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.
Sir Humphrey: Prime Minister, what about the people who read The Sun?
Bernard: Sun readers don't care who runs the country, as long as she's got big tits.
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. Jay himself supported this:
The fallacy that public choice economics took on was the fallacy that government is working entirely for the benefit of the citizen; and this was reflected by showing that in any [episode] in the programme, in Yes Minister, we showed that almost everything that the government has to decide is a conflict between two lots of private interest – that of the politicians and that of the civil servants trying to advance their own careers and improve their own lives. And that's why public choice economics, which explains why all this was going on, was at the root of almost every episode of Yes Minister and Yes, Prime Minister.
Jay, however, has elsewhere emphasized that he and Lynn were interested first and foremost in the comical possibilities present in government and bureaucracy and that they were not seeking to promote any agenda: "Our only firm belief on the subject was that the underlying conflicts between ministers and ministries were better brought out into the open than kept secret".
The writers were inspired by a variety of sources, including sources inside government, published material and contemporary news stories. Jay has written that as early as 1965, he had been induced by developments in the Timothy Evans case to wonder about an "inverted alchemy" operating in Whitehall, capable of frustrating the most impassioned campaigner. The writers also met several leading senior civil servants under the auspices of the Royal Institute of Public Administration, a think-tank for the public service sector, which led to the development of some plot lines. Some situations were conceived as fiction, but were later revealed to have real-life counterparts. The episode "The Compassionate Society" depicts a hospital with five hundred administrative staff but no doctors, nurses or patients. Lynn recalls that "after inventing this absurdity, we discovered there were six such hospitals (or very large empty wings of hospitals) exactly as we had described them in our episode."
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 Falkender and Bernard Donoughue.: 98 The published diaries of Richard Crossman also provided inspiration. In particular the first of these describe his battles with "the Dame", his Permanent Secretary, the formidable Baroness Sharp, the first woman in Britain to hold the position.
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, to conceal the layout of the buildings.
The opening titles were drawn by artist and cartoonist 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 typeface used in the credits is Plantin, a common typeface used in the British press at the time. The show title is set in bold condensed and the credits are in bold.
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."
A substantially different set of titles and music were produced for the pilot episode, "Open Government", which were never broadcast but appear on the DVD release. The pilot opening and closing title caption cards feature drawings of most of the cast, but far less exaggerated than those of Scarfe, while the music by Max Harris is a more up-tempo piece for brass band. When the pilot was aired as part of series 1, these were replaced by the familiar Scarfe and Hazlehurst credits.
The different ideals and self-interested motives 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 and elevation to higher office as the key measures of his success. Accordingly, he must appear to the voters to be effective and responsive to the public will. To his party (and, in the first incarnation of the series, the Prime Minister) he must act as a loyal and effective party member. Sir Humphrey, on the other hand, genuinely believes that the Civil Service, being politically impartial, has the most realistic idea of what "good governance" means, and therefore knows what is best for the country – a belief shared by his bureaucratic colleagues.
Hacker sees the job of government as one of "doing good", or more specifically reforming the country according to his own party's policies: which, more often than not, means the initiation of departmental reforms and economies, a reduction of the level of bureaucracy and reduction of staff numbers in the Civil Service. To do so, or to at least look as if he is doing so, is what he considers to 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. But with the status quo notably including the prestige, power and influence of the Civil Service, Sir Humphrey attempts to 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 believe they really run the country). A typical episode centres on Hacker's suggesting and pursuing a reform and Sir Humphrey's 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, often by thwarting other arrangements or deals that Sir Humphrey has been making behind the scenes elsewhere with other ministers or civil servants – or in the case of the episode "The Tangled Web", Hacker successfully blackmailing Sir Humphrey into taking his stance. Sir Humphrey occasionally resorts to tactics such as calling a policy "courageous" to remind Hacker to contemplate the view that "a controversial policy will lose votes, whilst a courageous one will lose [him] the election", and thus to hinder the implementation of a particular policy. Sir Humphrey, on the other hand, believes that from the Civil Service's perspective "it makes very little difference who the Minister is".
The character of Bernard Woolley is characterized by a significant degree of ambivalence; largely playing the role of an observer of the cold conflict between Hacker and Sir Humphrey, mostly interjecting only to add a comic effect to the drama albeit occasionally playing a decisive part in determining which adversary triumphs ultimately. Initially, he naively 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, balance his two conflicting duties by resorting to elaborate verbosity (much like Sir Humphrey) so that he can avoid the appearance of being disloyal to one, in favour of the other. For example, in "The Skeleton in the Cupboard", he sees the importance of notifying Sir Humphrey that Hacker has left his office, whilst still assisting Hacker in his aims. Such is Bernard's success in performing this balancing act, that after the third series, following Sir Humphrey's promotion to Cabinet Secretary, when Hacker becomes Prime Minister he requests that Bernard continue as his Principal Private Secretary, reasserting the perception that he is a "high flier".
Sir Humphrey's personal characteristics include his complicated sentences, his cynical views of government, and his snobbery and superciliousness. Hacker's attributes include occasional indecisiveness, and a tendency to launch into ludicrous Churchillian speeches. Bernard is prone to linguistic pedantry. All characters are able to switch to a completely opposite opinion in seconds when convenient.
Nigel Hawthorne had worked with Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn before, and he and Paul Eddington claimed they immediately recognized the quality of writing of the series, but Jay and Lynn state that both actors asked for a second episode script (and a third script), after having read the pilot script, before committing to the series. When casting the role of Bernard, Jonathan Lynn met Derek Fowlds at a dinner, and subsequently offered him the role.
The first series featured Frank Weisel, Hacker's political adviser (played by Neil Fitzwiliam in the television series, and later by Bill Nighy in the radio series). The first syllable of his surname is pronounced "Wise", but Sir Humphrey and Bernard persistently call him "Weasel". Weisel does not appear after the first series, following his acceptance of a position on a quango (Quasi-Autonomous Non-Governmental Organisation) tasked with investigating the appointment of other quangos, the government's honours system, and "jobs for the boys". The character was dropped because Jay and Lynn thought that the interjection of a character concerned with party political matters distracted from the focus on the tension between the government and the civil service.
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 ensure a lasting mutual distrust between her and Sir Humphrey and provide an invaluable second opinion for Hacker. Sir Humphrey frequently annoys Dorothy by addressing her as "dear lady".
Hacker's home life is shown occasionally throughout the series. His wife Annie (Diana Hoddinott) is generally supportive, but is sometimes frustrated by the disruptions caused by her husband's political career and is at times somewhat cynical about her husband's politics. In one episode, his sociology student daughter, Lucy (Gerry Cowper), becomes an environmental activist, campaigning against the Department's intention to remove protected status from a wooded area believed to be inhabited by badgers. Sir Humphrey falsely assures her there have not been badgers in the woods for some years.
Sir Humphrey often discusses matters with other Permanent Secretaries, who appear similarly sardonic and jaded, and the Cabinet Secretary (whom he eventually succeeds in Yes, Prime Minister), Sir Arnold Robinson (John Nettleton), an archetype of cynicism, haughtiness and conspiratorial expertise. Sir Frank Gordon, the Permanent Secretary to the Treasury, is a friend and often a rival as they jostle for supremacy within the civil service. The fairly counter-intuitive view of government administration displayed by Sir Humphrey is completely taken for granted by the Civil Service.
Almost all the episodes (the exceptions chiefly being the earlier ones of the first series) end with one of the characters (usually Sir Humphrey) saying "Yes, Minister" or once, "Mais oui, Prime Minister," in "A Diplomatic Incident" which centred on negotiations with the President of France. Each episode of the former was more or less self-contained, but the first two episodes 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 Yes Minister.
Main article: List of Yes Minister and Yes, Prime Minister episodes
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 placed them under 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 immediately for fear that it could influence the results of the May 1979 UK General Election. It eventually aired on 25 February 1980. Yes Minister ran for three series, each of seven episodes, between March 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 originally for two series, each of eight episodes, from 1986 to 1988. There was a further six-part series, with a new cast, in 2013.
Main article: List of Yes, Prime Minister (2013) episodes
In January 2013, a new series of Yes, Prime Minister was launched on the Gold television channel. Jim Hacker is now portrayed as heading a coalition government, while dealing with an economic downturn, his coalition partner having a leadership crisis, and Scottish independence. Like the stage play, on which it was broadly based, it is set at Chequers. Filming took place in September 2012. Both David Haig and Henry Goodman reprised their stage roles as Jim Hacker and Sir Humphrey. Haig's Hacker was rather manic, while Goodman's Sir Humphrey was more aloof and supercilious than Hawthorne's had been. The other main characters were Bernard Woolley (Chris Larkin, reprising his role from The Gielgud Theatre run at London's West End) and Claire Sutton (Zoe Telford), the latter with a more prominent role than Hacker's special advisor in the original series. Critical reaction was largely negative. Jay and Lynn revealed that they had offered the show first to the BBC, but that the corporation had asked for a pilot episode which the writers thought was unnecessary in the light of the earlier series. The revived series ended up being produced by the BBC for Gold.
The series gained high audience figures, and 90+ on the audience Appreciation Index. Critics, such as Andrew Davies in the Times Educational Supplement and Armando Iannucci, have noted that the show had high expectations of its audience. Lynn posits that the public are more intelligent than most situation comedies, often patronizingly, give them credit for. Jay believes that the viewers were just as intelligent as the writers, but that there were some things that they needed to know but didn't.
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. Nigel Hawthorne was awarded Best Actor in Light Entertainment Programme at the 1981 Broadcasting Press Guild Awards.
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.
There is a division of opinions by political scientists. Some of them cite the series for their accurate and sophisticated portrayal of the relationships between civil servants and politicians, and are quoted in some textbooks on British politics. However, other political scientists considered it a reflection of the public choice model, which encouraged a "conservative agenda of balanced budgets and reduced government spending". The Washington Post considered its "ideas were at the center of the Thatcher and Ronald Reagan administrations in Britain and the United States, which favored cutting government and shifting its functions to the private sector".
The series was praised by critics and politicians, and allegedly the shows were 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." Lord Donoughue, an admirer of the series who was head of James Callaghan's policy unit at 10 Downing Street from 1976 to 1979, noticed that, when the Labour Party returned to power in 1997 after 18 years in opposition, a number of junior Ministers took so seriously the relationships with civil servants as depicted by Jay and Lynn that they were unduly wary of senior officials and allowed this suspicion to influence their behaviour.
Yes Minister and Yes, Prime Minister were the favourite programme of then Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher. She told The Daily 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. Authorship of the sketch is unclear. 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 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 a 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." The series was well received in the United States, running on the A&E Network and repeatedly on public television.
Not My Department took joint inspiration from Yes Minister and Charles Gordon's The Governor General's Bunny Hop, a contemporary satire of Canadian politics. Unlike Yes Minister, Not My Department was set almost entirely among public servants, with the Minister for Regional Incentive Targets only making occasional appearances by video tape—often because he was hoping to evade the latest scandal by taking protracted tours of the regions. Not My Department aired on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in 1987.
Ji Mantriji (literally "Yes Minister" in Hindi) is an Indian adaptation of Yes Minister. It was telecast on STAR TV's channel STAR Plus with permission from the BBC. Ji Mantriji features Farooq Sheikh as Surya Prakash Singh, the Minister of Administrative Affairs and Jayant Kripalani as the department's secretary. The plot lines were the same as those of the original, with suitable changes in the Indian context.
Sayın Bakanım ("Dear Minister" in Turkish) is a Turkish adaptation of Yes Minister that ran in 2004. The show featured acclaimed actors Haluk Bilginer, Kenan Isik and Ali Sunal. Sayin Bakanim was cancelled after 14 episodes. Although there were rumors that the show was cancelled due to a warning from the government, the producer of the show denied this claim. Instead, he explained that the show was cancelled due to low ratings.
Australian series The Hollowmen and Utopia were also inspired by Yes Minister.
Jay and Lynn collaborated again to produce a stage play which ran from 13 May to 5 June 2010, at Chichester Festival Theatre. This production revived at the Gielgud Theatre, in London's West End from 17 September 2010 until 15 January 2011. The principal cast was David Haig as Jim Hacker, Henry Goodman as Sir Humphrey, Jonathan Slinger as Bernard Woolley and Emily Joyce as Claire Sutton, Hacker's special policy advisor. This production, while following the spirit and tone of the original series in many respects, was set contemporaneously at Chequers, the Prime Minister's country residence, with BlackBerrys frequently in evidence, and even included a topical reference to a coalition agreement which Sir Humphrey had drafted (the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats having formed a coalition government in Britain in May 2010). The plot was a little more provocative and risqué than most of those seen previously (including a debate about the ethics of procuring a twelve-year-old as a sexual partner for a visiting dignitary, a proposition which it is suggested might be spun in the national interest as a "euro-job") and included some stronger expletives (reflecting perhaps their widely reported use among New Labour's hierarchy between 1997 and 2010). There was also a higher element of traditional farce.
The play began a tour of the United Kingdom in February 2011, with Simon Williams as Sir Humphrey, Richard McCabe as Jim Hacker, Chris Larkin as Bernard and Charlotte Lucas as Claire Sutton. It returned to the West End in July 2011 for a 10-week run at the Apollo Theatre in Shaftesbury Avenue, with Williams and McCabe reprising their roles. The play then went back on a tour of the United Kingdom before returning to the West End with a revised script. Further rewrites took place before the 2012 UK tour and subsequent Trafalgar Studios run, the crucial change having replaced references from underage to multiple partner sex.
Reflecting in 2011 on the sustained topicality of Yes, Minister/Prime Minister, Jonathan Lynn noted that, since the opening of the stage show in Chichester, "all we've added is a couple of jokes about [telephone] hacking and an extra joke about the Greeks [subject at the time to a debt crisis]." He added that the original episodes were written about a year before transmission – "satirical comedy doesn't change" – and that "writing in 1986, we found the same headlines in 1956".
Its sequel, Yes, Prime Minister, has been also produced internationally in Singapore and Kuala Lumpur in May 2014 by the British Theatre Playhouse.
The play features a new character, Claire Sutton, who is introduced by the Prime Minister as head of the policy unit at Number Ten. She is a 21st-century successor to Dorothy Wainwright, but less haughty and seemingly more willing to get her hands dirty. She is described by Jay and Lynn as in her late thirties, attractive and intelligent. She calls Hacker by his first name ("Fiscal mechanics, Jim"), whereas Dorothy addressed him as "Prime Minister". In response to a sarcastic interjection about "starving permanent secretaries", Sir Humphrey patronises her as "dear lady" (as he did "that Wainwright female" in the TV series). Emily Joyce, who played Claire both at Chichester and in London, was forty-one when the play opened. The character was retained in the new TV series that followed the play.
Sixteen episodes of Yes Minister were adapted and re-recorded for broadcast by BBC Radio 4, with the principal cast reprising their roles. Produced by Pete Atkin, they were broadcast across two series, each with eight episodes. The first series aired 18 October to 6 December 1983, with the second originally transmitted 9 October to 27 November 1984. The complete set was released on cassette in February 2000, and on compact disc in October 2002. The series was repeated on the digital radio station BBC Radio 7 in early 2007 and on BBC Radio 4 Extra in November 2013. The series was re-repeated on BBC Radio 4 Extra in 2018.
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 British Prime Minister of the time, Mrs Margaret Thatcher was so taken by the show that she wrote a sketch herself (together with her Press Secretary Bernard Ingham). In it she played herself as the Prime Minister, Paul Eddington played Jim Hacker and Nigel Hawthorne played Sir Humphrey. It was played on the National Viewers and Listeners Association Awards 1984 (and can be viewed on YouTube).
Both series were aired in Scandinavia during the 1980s.
Both series were also aired in the Czech Republic (ČT2) on Friday nights along with other 'britcoms'
Israel Broadcasting Authority aired both series during the early to mid-1980s where they both gained broad popularity
A Chinese translation of the BBC book version of The Complete Yes Minister (遵命大臣：内阁大臣海克尔日记) was published in Beijing in 1991. The Chinese translator was Cheng Hong, whose husband Li Keqiang later became the Prime Minister of People's Republic of China.
Both series aired in the United States on some PBS stations during the 1980s, usually in the Sunday night British Comedy Block, and have aired on PBS stations as recently as 2021.
In West Germany, all three series of Yes Minister were aired in 1987 (German title Yes Minister), and the first series of Yes, Prime Minister in 1988 (German title Yes Premierminister) on national public broadcaster ARD; repeats occurred during the 1990s on some of the public regional channels. They were broadcast in bilingual mode, permitting owners of a stereo set to select between German overdub and English original sound. Each episode was shortened by about 5 minutes to allow time for the continuity announcer, as was common practice at the time. The second series of Yes Prime Minister was never aired in Germany, thus no German overdub and no German episode titles exist for it. The German DVD release (December 2013) reflects these alterations; it contains the full length episodes, but during the edited portions it throws the German sound back to the English one, and it omits the second series of Yes Prime Minister. The books The Complete Yes Minister and The Complete Yes, Prime Minister were also translated into German as Yes Minister (ISBN 3-442-08636-1) and Yes Premierminister (ISBN 3-442-08892-5) respectively.
In Spain, the series was broadcast under the title of "Si Senor Ministro".
The BBC issued some episodes of Yes Minister, and all of Yes, Prime Minister on VHS. They were re-released and repackaged at various points. The complete collection was released by the BBC through Warner Home Video on Region 1 DVD in October 2003. Warner appears to have added RCE region coding to the individual release of the second series of Yes Minister, but there are no similar reported problems on playing the complete collection. The BBC, through 2 Entertain Video, also issued several Region 2 DVDs:
The 2013 relaunched series on GOLD was released on 25 February 2013
Netflix streams both series to subscribers. All four series are also available for download purchase from iTunes and similar programs.
The Region 4 (Australian/New Zealand) releases took place from 2002 to 2007:
The series spawned several books. The scripts were edited and transformed into prose, and published by BBC Books in the form of diaries. Scenes that did not involve Hacker took the form of private memos between civil servants, or 'interviews' and written correspondence from other characters. In some instances, the novelizations added extra details, while padding-out some existing details. For example, in the novelization for 'The Official Visit', Sir Humphrey manages to confuse Hacker, by reeling-off a plethora of acronyms—without explaining them, leaving Hacker with nonsense to fathom.
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:
Sir Antony Jay's How to Beat Sir Humphrey: Every Citizen's Guide to Fighting Officialdom (ISBN 0-9528285-1-0) 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.
The "Yes Minister" Miscellany was released in October 2009.
The script of the play, Yes, Prime Minister, was published in paperback by Faber & Faber in 2010 (ISBN 978-0-571-26070-6).
Graham McCann's 'A Very Courageous Decision: The Inside Story of Yes Minister,' was published by Aurum Books in October 2014 (ISBN 978-1781311899).
Main article: Yes, Prime Minister (video game)
A Yes, Prime Minister video game was released in 1987 for Amstrad CPC, BBC Micro, Commodore 64, DOS and ZX Spectrum. In the game, the player takes on the role of Prime Minister Jim Hacker for one week as he navigates through meetings with Sir Humphrey, Bernard Woolley and other government officials, making decisions about seemingly minor government policies which regardless have an effect on the PM's approval rating by the end of the week.
The show has been remade several times internationally, albeit sometimes unofficially. The title of the Portuguese remake, Sim, Sr. Ministro (from 1996), is a direct translation of the original's title. Ji, Mantriji (2001) was the remake in Hindi (with the BBC's permission) by STAR Plus, Rupert Murdoch's Indian satellite TV channel. Both Sir Humphrey and Jim Hacker are portrayed there by the actors who dubbed them for the original. Not My Department was a Canadian television sitcom, explicitly modelled on Yes Minister, airing on CBC Television in 1987. The Israeli sitcom Polishook, also modelled on Yes Minister, aired for two series on Channel 2's Keshet Broadcasting. A Dutch remake had been made by S&V Fiction for VPRO, lasting 11 episodes, called Ja, Bewindsman (Sorry Minister). In the Dutch version, Sir Humphrey is a woman and Bernard is a Moroccan called Mohammed.
In 2005, BBC Four launched The Thick of It, described by director Armando Iannucci as "Yes Minister meets Larry Sanders", and The Daily 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 limited abilities.
As an adaption of The Thick of It, Armando Iannucci also created and directed Veep, an American political satire comedy television series. As the United States has a different political system from United Kingdom's parliamentary system, the show instead focuses on a fictional female Vice President of the United States and her staff. Both Yes, Minister and Veep feature a Prime Minister/President that is never depicted on-screen, but nevertheless highly influential in the plot; and in both series, the unseen Prime Minister/President eventually resigns, resulted in both protagonists later becoming the Prime Minister/President themselves.
In a 2006 poll, British MPs voted Yes Minister as the greatest political comedy of all time.
We are especially grateful also to Sir Bernard Woolley GCB, formerly Hacker's Principal Private Secretary at Number Ten Downing Street and eventually Head of the Home Civil Service