I kind of didn’t want this blog to be a nostalgiafest, but apparently I’m just not too interested in writing about current cultural happenings and I’m definitely not interested in writing about current events.
On the other hand, I am certainly not alone in this view judging by the amount of remakes coming out of the TV industry. In an ideal world, I’d be able to address the first two points by talking about a new version of Yes, Minister but this isn’t an ideal world, that’s not happening and so I’ll have to talk about the original instead. My hand is forced, you see.
Can you actually have nostalgia for something that happened before you were born? Well, I do anyway. Yes, Minister is a BBC comedy show about the inner workings of the British Government in the early 1980s. As I wasn’t born then, I first encountered in when I was 17 or so, when a repeat aired on BBC 2 at 3:30 which I used to rush home from school to catch. You may draw your own conclusions as to my teenage social life.
I appreciated it then- as I do now- for how intelligent it was. The comedy stemmed not from absurd situations or physical pratfalls, but from the characters trying to maneouver around each other to further their own agendas.
Another quality it had that is an unfortunate rarity is how nice and gentle it was. It helped that the situations that provided the friction were often very low-stakes, one I can remember offhand is that a developer wants to build a factory in a wood where there might be endangered badgers. The civil servant Sir Humphrey wants the development to go ahead as it would be good for the economy. Meanwhile, the Minister James Hacker is inclined to stop it as he’s worried about the badgers; not because he cares about wildlife but because he might lose votes from enviromentalists.
The Department has to make a decision, so they clash, they hatch schemes and they sabotage each other, but it’s not mean spirited. They’re opponents, but only because it’s their job to be and they all know that theoretically (and occasionally in practice) they are on the same team working for the same thing.
Despite the gentle tone, the program wasn’t uncritical of its participants. Politicians were generally only too ready to do something shortsighted if it meant looking good in the press and the civil servants were often out of touch elitists obsessed with their career development. Generally, though they were fundamentally good people who just wanted to do what they thought was the best thing.
There have been a few political comedies since. The Thick Of It is also set in a British government department and is in many ways a direct reaction to Yes, Minister. Where Yes, Minister is nice and gentle, The Thick Of It -while still very intelligent and very funny- is a black comedy about how everyone involved is transparently self-serving, a colossal moron, ludicrously angry or some combination of those three. I also hear good things about Veep, a US show but I haven’t got around to watching it yet.
I’d say even now its well worth tracking down an episode or two of Yes, Minister if you’ve never seen it. It’s cosy television so enjoy it with a nice cup of tea and maybe you’ll also join me in hoping someone in the TV business decides there’s still room for a modern version of a nice, smart comedy.