TV Serial: Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister (1980s)

Yes, Minister (and Yes, Prime Minister) – Extremely watchable, hilarious BBC TV serial from the 1980s – Review

I had enjoyed this BBC tele-serial in the late 80s. So, when Swapna (my wife) noticed the DVDs of the complete collection in a bookshop, I said “let’s buy them.” Though I was looking forward to seeing them again, I had a lingering suspicion that with the passage of time and a different context, I may not enjoy them as much (like many other books, movies, TV programs, and places that were great some years ago, but disappointing now). But my suspicion was unfounded, and I enjoyed watching all the episodes once again – maybe more than I enjoyed them when I saw them over 25 years ago.

So here are the details, for people who may want to indulge in nostalgia, and also for those who never saw the original series.

I believe that the series have been revived in 2013 with a new cast, but I have not seen any episodes, so I will not comment on the 2013 version.

BBC TV Series
GenrePolitical satire, British comedy TV
Created byAntony Jay and Jonathan Lynn
Original RunFeb 1980 to Jan 1988
[The series was revived in 2013, with a different cast]
CastPaul Eddington as Jim Hacker, first as a Minister and then as the Prime Minister of Britain
Nigel Hawthorne as Sir Humphrey Appleby the main civil servant through whom Jim Hacker has govern
Derek Fowlds as Bernard Woolley, Hacker’s Private Secretary
Deborah Norton as Dorothy Wainwright, Hacker’s political advisor in his stint as the PM
MusicRonnie Hazlehurst
Produced byStuart Allen, Sydney Lotterby, and Peter Whitmore
EpisodesYes, Minister (22 episodes; 1980-7; 1981-7; 1982-8)
Yes, Prime Minister (16 episodes; 1986-8; 1987-8)The episodes are 30 min each.

Yes, Minister ImageAt the start of the series, James (Jim) Hacker’s party wins the general election in Britain and Hacker is appointed as the Minister of Administrative Affairs (I believe that such a minitry did not really exist in the 1980s).  Minister Hacker’s department is run by Sir Humphrey Appleby, the Permanent Secretary, a senior civil servant. Hacker’s Principal Private Secretary is Bernard Woolley, another civil servant, but not as senior as Sir Humphrey. After a few years, due to some fortunate circumstances, Jim Hacker becomes the prime minister, and Sir Humphrey and Bernard get elevated along with the minister. Sir Humphrey assures his colleagues in the civil service that they have a ‘house-trained’ Prime Minister.

Extremely watchable and Hilarious

Each hilarious episode of 30 minutes focusses on the working of the British government – the central theme being the relationship between the politicians and the bureaucrats. Hacker usually comes up with (or supports) idealistic proposals that will bring in change but may diminish the power of civil servants. In the early episodes, Sir Humphrey usually manages to put Hacker in a spot, so that he is forced to withdraw his proposal in exchange of being saved by Sir Humphrey or one of his senior colleagues in the civil service. There are other episodes where Hacker and Humphrey have to reluctantly support one another.

Each episode deals with one main theme with two or three other threads woven around the main theme. There are a wide variety of issues and themes like unemployment, foreign affairs, defense budgets, education, government waste, inter-departmental wrangling, conflict with unions, press coverage, building laws, health, and so on.

Initially, Sir Humphrey usually wins his battles with Hacker. However, in the later stages as the Prime Minister, Hacker is ably assisted by his political advisor,  Dorothy Wainwright. Dorothy is a non-nonsense, incisive, and smart aide who is not only able to anticipate Sir Humphrey’s moves, but is also able to advise Hacker on proactive moves to counter Humphrey. Bernard Woolley is also able to pitch in more often. With the help of Dorothy and Bernard, Hacker does win a few of his skirmishes in the later stages.

Yes Minister Cast

Most of the action takes place in closed rooms (Jim Hacker’s room, usually). The ‘action’ is really in the witty dialogues between the players.

Jim Hacker (played by Paul Eddington) is an idealist politician, but insecure about his popularity with the masses and within his own party and extremely sensitive to the press coverage that he gets. “That is a very bold (or courageous) proposal, Minister” is enough to make the minister think that the proposal may be unpopular. It is also easy to play on Hacker’s insecurity by implying that some of his party colleagues are plotting to overthrow him. Hacker fancies himself as a great statesman and enacts ludicrous Churchillian speeches.

Sir Humphrey (Nigel Hawthorne) is supercilious, snobbish, patronizing, sexist, cynical, and manipulative. He mocks at everyone except other senior civil servants. Sir Humphrey saying “Really?” with either an amused or a shocked expression to Jim Hacker’s, “Humphrey, I have been thinking” is an exchange that strewn across many episodes. Sir Humphrey loathes Hacker’s political advisors and maneuvers to have them sidelined or replaced. Eventually he meets his match in Dorothy Wainwright, who competently plays her role in effectively supporting the PM.

If I had to identify a ‘villian’ in this series, it would be Sir Humphrey for his beliefs and his attitude towards others.

Bernard Woolley (Derek Fowlds) is often naïve, wants to support his minister, but is repeatedly reminded by Sir Humphrey that his career is in the hands of the senior civil servants in the long run.  Bernard is really funny when he tries to point out the impossibilities of mixed metaphors used by Hacker or Sir Humphrey. He is obsessively pedantic and frequently says unpalatable (but true) things, annoying the minister and/ or Sir Humphrey. Though he is scared of Sir Humphrey, he often manages to stand up to the senior civil servant, towards the later part of the series.

There are other amusing characters like the extremely rich, buffon-like banker (Sir Desmond), well-entrenched civil servants (Sir Arnold and Sir Frank), the party Whip, media chiefs, diplomats, and cabinet ministers.

Here is a youtube clip from one of the later episodes (when it became Yes, Prime Minister).

If the youtube clip does not load, click here.

The series is available as two DVD collections:  Yes, Minister and
Yes, Prime Minister.

Quotes from the Series:

Here are some memorable quotes from the series (some of them have been abbreviated from long conversations):

  • Sir Humphrey: “The Civil Service must always have the right to appoint the best man for the job, regardless of sex.”
  • Sir Desmond, prominent London banker on the Financial Times and why he carries it around: “I can’t understand it. Full of economic theory. Oh, you know, it’s part of the uniform.”
  • Sir Humphrey about the citizens: “No. They have a right to be ignorant. Knowledge only means complicity in guilt; ignorance has a certain dignity.”
  • Sir Humphrey: “In Arab countries women get stoned when they commit adultery. In Britain, they commit adultery when they get stoned.”
  • Bernard Wooley: “Sun readers don’t care who runs the country, as long as she’s got big tits.”
  • Sir Humphrey: “The Foreign Office are not spineless. It takes a great deal of strength to do nothing all the time.”
  • Sir Humphrey: “Politicians must be allowed to panic. They need activity. It is their substitute for achievement.”
  • Sir Humphrey: “Reorganizing the Civil Service is like drawing a knife through a bowl of marbles.”
  • Jim Hacker, when he is called over by the PM to No. 1o: “Don’t be silly, Humphrey. They don’t ask you to Number 10 for a drink just because they think you’re thirsty!”
  • Sir Humphrey: “It is only totalitarian governments that suppress facts. In this country we simply take a democratic decision not to publish them.”
  • Jim Hacker: “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.”
  • Sir Humphrey admitting to his role in something that went wrong: “The identity of the official whose alleged responsibility for this hypothetical oversight that 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 whom your present interlocutor is in the habit of defining by means of the perpendicular pronoun.”
  • Sir Humphrey about winking at corruption: “No, no, Minister! It could never be government policy. That is unthinkable! Only government practice.”
  • Sir Humphrey: “Well, almost all government policy is wrong, but… frightfully well carried out.”
  • Sir Arnold (retired senior civil servant): “Sorry, I can’t talk about that.” (about the Campaign for the Freedom of Information).
  • Sir Arnold: “If once they accepted the principle that senior Civil Servants could be removed for incompetence, that would be the thin end of the wedge. We could lose dozens of our chaps. Hundreds, perhaps, thousands.”
  • Sir Humphrey: “Ministers do not believe they exist unless they are reading about themselves in the newspapers.”

I think the series was created with a high expectation of its audience – that is why it is so likeable and popular!

Please do share your views as comments!

Author: Rajesh Naik

I'm Rajesh Naik, and this is my personal website If you are interested in contacting me, I am also available on LinkedIn and I will be glad to accept your invite.

3 thoughts on “TV Serial: Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister (1980s)”

  1. “Yes Rajesh” (like Yes Minister).

    I have seen the entire Yes Minister series; and purchased the “Yes Prime Minister ” recently. Watched a couple of episodes. I love the wit, the sarcasm, the Gentleman’s English (sublime, understated, classical).

    Thanks Rajesh, for putting out a few of those witty one liners from the series.

    (The perpendicular pronoun) absolutely liked reading those lines.


    1. Many of them were not one liners in the original. I have condensed long conversations into one-liners in such cases.


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