Television based on government is such an odd concept. You wouldn’t think that it would work, but mysteriously it does. We have no greater example than Aaron Sorkin’s West Wing, but that’s not where government and television first collided. No, it was British television show, Yes Minister, which had the honor of being one of the first shows to combine the banality of government with TV. It did not have pretty sets or a story that spanned over hundreds of episodes. What it did have was humor, wit, and sarcasm in a way that only a British comedy could.
I am not very familiar with the British system of government, so there is a bit of a learning curve when it comes to this television show. I am positive that I missed out on a fair amount of jokes, especially in the first season.
The banter is between the three main characters: Minister of Administrative Affairs Jim Hacker, Permanent Secretary of Administrative Affairs Sir Humphrey Appleby, and Principal Private Secretary to the Minister Bernard Woolley. To simplify things, the minister creates policy, the permanent secretary implements it, and the principal private secretary is personal assistant to the minister.
Hacker is no Josiah Bartlett. At the onset of the show, he seems like a bumbling idiot, and for the most part he is one. On the other hand, Appleby is a conceited know-it-all and a graduate of Oxford university. Hacker is not without a degree himself, being a graduate from the London School of Economics. Still, he is fooled by the smallest of Appleby’s tricks. Hacker comes into office with an agenda to reduce the Civil Service (which is the entity that Appleby heads), but ends up increasing its red tape. During the show, Hacker gains tact and the ability to counteract Appleby. He becomes sly, cynical, and, above all, a statesman.
Woolley is in a peculiar position. He reports directly to Hacker, but his paychecks and performance reviews are written by Appleby. He often has to decide where his loyalty lies and does a good job. He brings balance to the show as he is not a complete proponent of red tape and the civil service, but he is not Hacker either. Woolley derides both characters for their mixed metaphors and their overtly complex arguments.
Yes, Yes Minister is a show about three guys in government. It shouldn’t be funny, but it is. The humor is in the ridiculous situations Hacker has to deal with. They did not recreate the Palace of Westminster. It’s a show from the early ’80s and it’s extremely visible that no investment was made to improve quality, but there is wit, sarcasm, and most of all there are references to the Queen.