Thursday, September 22, 2011
YES PRIME MINSTER: COMEDY AS IT SHOULD BE
‘Yes Prime Minister’ was first aired almost 25 years ago after three hilarious seasons of ‘Yes Minister’ and unexpected rise of Jim Hacker to the Prime Ministership. Both the series depict the sweet irony of administration and governance where common sense has no role in the labyrinth of procedure and rules.
In the ‘Grand Design’ the inaugural episode of iconic British Comedy ‘ Yes Prime Minister’ the conversation between the lead characters the newly elevated Prime Minister Rt Honerable Jim Hacker his Cabinet Secretary Sir Humphrey and His Principal Private Secretary Bernard go like this.
Jim: So we haven't got somebody here to cater for me.
Sir Humphrey: It's the way things have been done for two and half centuries.
Jim: And that's the clinching argument?
Sir Humphrey: It has been for two and half centuries.
Bernard: With respect Sir Humphrey, it couldn't have been the clinching argument for two and half centuries, because half a century ago it had only been the clinching argument for two centuries, and a century ago it had only been the clinching argument for one and half centuries.
Those who have seen the series must be smiling on the memory of the faces of the dramatis personae. This delicious repartee is just one example of alchemy of superb comic timing, crisp script and top notch acting that created the enduring appeal of the legendary sitcom. The series has run all over the world and had many local adaptations. In Hindi we had particularly successful ‘Jee mantraji’ and ‘Ji Pradhan Mantriji’. Farookh Sheikh and Jayant Kriplani were great. Manohar Shyam Joshi’s ‘Netaji Kahin’ was another masterpiece from the genre. The original twin series from the BBC stable are timeless classic.
Yes Prime Minister was first aired exactly 25 years ago after three hilarious seasons of ‘Yes Minister’ and unexpected rise of Hacker to the Prime Ministership. Both the series depict the sweet irony of administration and governance where common sense has no role in the labyrinth of procedure and rules. Stalling has been raised to the level of art. Hacker, played by Paul Eddington is a politician, self-serving with all the flaws of his tribe (blatant corruption was side stepped). At the same time he wants to leave a legacy and do something good for the people. What he had not bargained for was Humphrey Appleby, “unflappable symbol of a machine that has no gears, only brakes.” Utterly snobbish and elitist Sir Humphrey (Nigel Hawthorne) is quintessential parody of a bureaucrat with almost frightening resonance of realism. Bernard (Derek Fowlds) is Private Secretary of the Minister he is into puns and intricacies of the language. His deadpan interjections are some of the most uproarious moments of this great series. In ‘The Tangled Web’ issue is phone-tapping and Jim is uncomfortable about it. Ultimately he too sees the virtues of it when he is told that he too is in the ‘death list’ but not before some side-splitting exchanges sample this.
Jim: Anyway, why are we bugging Hugh Halifax, is he talking to the Russians?
Sir Humphrey: No, the French actually, that's much more serious.
Bernard: Well the Russians already know what we're doing.
Irreverence is a much desired ingredient of comedy. It is achieved by not being bothered by the holy cows and finding a fresh take on conventions. However being frantic about conveying irreverence may simply bury the comedy. Yes Minister and later Yes Prime Minister hit the sweet spot where irreverence meets with the light touch of superb timing to create timeless magic. It is all the more creditable as it was achieved in the field of Politics. Ironically, a goldmine of comic situation, politics has been more successfully exploited by other genres such as crime, intrigue or thrillers. The twin series are the crowning achievement of British situation comedy- an unbelievably rich field of accomplishments. Political comedy is found to be difficult and has a tendency to degenerate into lampooning. The twin series were authentic. Nothing may have happened actually but nothing was beyond the pale of actually happening. Nothing was sacrosanct but everything was somehow believable. Once again from ‘Man Overboard’ Jim asks about the figures given to him “and all this is absolutely honest and accurate?” To which Sir Humphrey replies “It comes from the Ministry of Defence” to that Jim says “even though, it could be honest and accurate”. Irreverence is coming from comedy not the other way round.
We in India, baptised in the Westminster Model of parliamentary democracy, have much to identify with in the series. The series depends on the clash between Civil Service and politicians. They have very different moral codes and objectives, both of which have to project an image of unity, harmony and common purpose. Co-Writer Anthony Jay said later “what comedy writer could ask for more? And yet there is more. Both the minister and the permanent secretary are committed to maintaining the pretence that the minister is the expert, all-powerful boss, and the permanent secretary is the docile servant, obediently awaiting instructions. The reality, of course, is the exact opposite....It is the servant-wiser-than-master joke, so successfully exploited in Jeeves and The Admirable Crichton.” Our own Akbar-Birbal can also be fitted in this category. Not that the master does not know the reality. The more you know, funnier it gets. Jim says in one of the episodes “the three articles of Civil Service faith: it takes longer to do things quickly, it's more expensive to do them cheaply and it's more democratic to do them in secret”. Yes Minister and Yes Prime Minister made this hilarity blindingly obvious to people across cultures.
Margret Thatcher was a fan. In fact she went on to script a small episode for the series with lead actors taking part. It was not a big success but indicates the cult following it enjoyed and still does. Issues like open government, University spending, environment, privacy, youth rebelliousness and austerity continue to pose enough challenge to governance. It is still providing fodder to comedy empire comprising of cartoons, late night shows and stand up comedy. Radia Tapes, Wikileaks and fee riots in Britain have exposed us to situations whose comic perspective was so vividly given to us by Hacker, Humphrey and Bernard. Anthony Jay further said “Jonathan (Co-author) and I are sometimes described as satirists, but that is not how we see ourselves. Satirists are trying to change things; we are happy just to enjoy the comic possibilities of things as they are and share the discovery with our fellow citizens.”
While Bernard is afflicted with ‘fondness for awful puns and maddening pedantry’, Sir Humphrey’s Machiavellian skills are’ often accompanied by brain-wrenching sentences designed to confuse Hacker - and often succeeding.’ This is a sample from one rare instance (from- The Skeleton in the Cupboard) where tables are turned and Sir Humphrey is at the receiving end.
Sir Humphrey: Minister I think there is something that perhaps you ought to know.
Jim: Yes Humphrey.
Sir Humphrey: The identity of the official whose alleged responsibility for this hypothetical oversight has been the subject of recent discussion, is, not shrouded in quite such impenetrable obscurity as certain previous disclosures may have led you to assume, but not to put too fine a point on it, the individual in question is, it may surprise you to learn, one whose present interlocutor, is in the habit of defining by means of the perpendicular pronoun.
Jim: Beg your pardon.
Sir Humphrey: It was I.
As opposed to this is Bernard at his pedantic best in ‘The Bed of Nails’-
Jim: But if I pull it off then it would be a feather in my cap.
Bernard: If you pull it off Minister it won't be in your cap any more.
By highlighting the comic possibilities of everyday politics and governance BBC has created a classic in true sense of the word. It has not dated and it has straddled the boundaries of diverse cultures. It is perpetually on air in some or the other network all over the world. A theatre version opened this year to critical acclaim in England. Diverse countries like India, Ukraine and Holland have created their local versions. It has been translated in various languages. A virtual piracy empire has been created around it on Internet and DVDs. A superbly executed piece of art, the twin series captures the gentle hypocrisy of politics and bureaucracy with unfailing grasp on the humour of it all. Therein lays its appeal.