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From the Archives: A Most Novel and Courageous Undertaking

complete_yes_ministerFirst published June 24, 2009

As this is by way of being Michael Ng’s first topic as an Official Fox, what better introduction than a chat about one of his grand passions?  Today, Michael joins Kirsty to talk about the TV series and novels that inspired them both: the Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister series by Anthony Jay and Jonathan Lynn.  They met over a sherry in a smoky room (sounds better than “on MSN”, doesn’t it?) to have this, frankly, courageous discussion.

Kirsty says: Well, I think, as this is your first official post, you should officially introduce yourself.

Michael Ng says: Unaccustomed as I am to public speaking, I (your current interlocutor)…

Kirsty says: (shouldn’t that be RAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAARGH unaccustomed as I am to public speaking?*)

Michael Ng says:  (Haha, I was hoping you’d get it.)

Michael Ng says: In other words, I’d like to introduce myself to all the Vulpes Libris readers who have not yet met me.  My name is Michael Ng and it is my pleasure to talk to you today about Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister with Kirsty.

Kirsty says: Well, Michael, although we seem an odd pairing we do have something very important in common!

Michael Ng says: Indeed so!  Though, of course, it is an interesting subject since I came to YM/YPM as an American and as a postgraduate in London.  I think it was my 2nd year as a PhD candidate and an Indian friend mentioned that he thought I would greatly enjoy a show called Yes, Minister about a bumbling minister and his civil servants who could at times be his cronies or his worst enemies. I thanked him, made a note of it, and forgot about it during the press of my 2nd year’s writing.  At the end of my 2nd year and the beginning of my 3rd year, I found myself browsing HMV for films or telly programmes to watch and saw it on sale so I bought all 5 series.  Well, I should imagine that if I were to look this horse in the mouth, I should find many civil servants.

Kirsty says: A horse full of civil servants – we have the first arresting image of the day.  What would the Latin tag for that be?

Michael Ng says: Well, interesting: Latin is not only the English for Latin but also the Latin for Latin.

Michael Ng says: Well, actually, no, it isn’t.

Kirsty says: I think I already know which character you mostly identify with.

Michael Ng says: I took to the show because I have always been fascinated by civil servants and mildly sympathetic to them.

Kirsty says: Ha, well, my father is a civil servant and I have worked in the civil service over a few University summers so… I shall not comment.

Michael Ng says: Very discreet of you, Kirsty.

Kirsty says: It would be potentially courageous.

Michael Ng says: As novel as it is, I shall not obfuscate.  I rather admire Sir Humphrey Appleby, the nominal subordinate of the Minister, Mr. Jim Hacker, MP.

Kirsty says: Ah, Humphrey, probably my first great television crush.

Kirsty says: Yes, I know it would never have worked *sob*

Michael Ng says: There there, Kirsty.  Don’t take on so.

Michael Ng says: Perhaps it’s my own apathy to demagogues and politicians but I found the character of Sir Humphrey very appealing.  His smooth enunciation and his classical education.

Kirsty says: Well, it is ironic because we are clearly not supposed to admire Humphrey and yet…

Michael Ng says: …and yet, I do.  It is interesting since the character in the novelisation of the series is far less pleasant and, indeed, more arrogant and even a bit supercilious.

Michael Ng says: He never even realises, in the book, his precarious standing with Sir Arnold.

Kirsty says: I do think that he is less sympathetic in the book version.  I wonder how much Nigel Hawthorne’s performance transformed the character?

Michael Ng says: I think Nigel Hawthorne created a character which was actually likeable and not some cynical middle-aged man.

Kirsty says: In fact, just about everyone is less sympathetic in the books.

Michael Ng says: That’s true, Hacker is far more grubby and grasping.  Even Bernard loses much of his innocence without Derek Fowlds to bring out the character’s humanity.

Kirsty says: The books are certainly bleaker, both about the nature of the civil service and about Hacker’s own character.  The TV series perhaps cushions the blow a little, although it certainly does not have a simple moral either. In fact, that is one of the things I very much like about these series.  There really is no happy ending, and everyone compromises themselves to some extent in order to get on according to their own priorities.

Michael Ng says: I think you’re very right there, Kirsty, and that was always the splendid nature of the show.  That life is never simple and even the people whom we might think are masters and commanders are little more than pawns. The irony, I suppose, is that it is a very democratic message in some ways. That with the politicians, the would-be power-players are often the pawns who are controlled by their nominal peons, the voter.

Kirsty says: In fact, who *is* the authority figure?  I don’t think even Sir Arnold is entirely in control.

Michael Ng says: I think, actually, there is the supreme irony (I do rather enjoy that word).  For all the bureaucrats and their love of control and the illusion of power given to the politicians, no one has control.

Kirsty says: You are positively Lermontovian in your employment of that term.

Michael Ng says: When Sir Frank and Sir Humphrey fight for control of the Civil Service in several episodes of Yes, Prime Minister, well… In some ways, I’d almost be tempted to think of the idea of Rome and how it kept things going during the Roman Empire’s darkest days even when there was little central control and with multiple breakaway provinces.

Kirsty says: Yes, and that brings us to one of my all time favourite episodes: The Key (YPM, Series 1).

Michael Ng says: Ah yes, The Key.

Kirsty says: The Key has everything you could want, right down to splendid slapstick and the sight of poor Humphrey desperate at the idea of losing his authority.  And yet, you (or perhaps I) don’t feel that Hacker has really triumphed in getting the upper hand over Humphrey – in fact it makes him seem rather squalid.

Michael Ng says: When Sir Humphrey has lost the composure of a lifetime’s practice and is dirty, smudged, and a bit chagrined by the sound of alarms at the door.  But you’re right, Hacker’s victory is rather Pyrrhic.

Kirsty says: Nobody wins in that world, one feels.

Michael Ng says: I’m not sure why, but you feel as if Hacker’s victory has only set him back and created further dislike.  Something which I wonder if the writers might have touched on more in the novelisations (though they did not). Perhaps that world reflects our own.  A world in which we never know who ultimately shall win. Or, indeed, if there is anything worth winning.  Perhaps the most empty thing about Hacker’s victory is that you’re not quite sure what he has won.

Kirsty says: Well yes, rather like that nasty little twist at the end of The Moral Dimension (YM, Series 3), where Hacker’s attempt to expose corruption is met with Humphrey’s threat to expose Hacker’s own unethical behaviour.  That is a queasy little moment and I feel my laughter almost comes from discomfort rather than anything.

Michael Ng says: The theme in both seems to be that both men trip themselves up over some belief that they are infallible.  That they’re entitled to their power and forget that, along the way, someone else has something on them. From Hacker’s inability to stomach a few hours ‘without a drinkie’ to Humphrey’s need to be the Cabinet Secretary.

Kirsty says: But Humphrey has a whole system behind him, he has permanence, while Hacker is just passing through. We’re reminded over and over in these series that politicians hardly have time, or power, to make lasting changes – or at any rate, changes for the good.

Michael Ng says: Indeed, though we have no time to discuss it, The Greasy Pole (YM, Series 2) shows something interesting.  That when a politican does make change, it is usually political expedience which sacrifices the long-term good for a cheap and hollow (but public relations) victory.

Kirsty says: As well as having a hilarious portrayal of student Trotskyism of course.

Michael Ng says: Oh yes, how could I forget.

Michael Ng says: What’s particularly fascinating, I suppose, is how much of the series makes sense to a Yank passing through London.  Even more so, is how depressing it is to realise how true the series is to politics of the time and even to the present.

Kirsty says: You are no ordinary citizen of your country, mind – you are far more British than I.

Kirsty says: What horrifies me is how many of the “joke” policies have since been adopted by real governments!

Michael Ng says: Something amused me when I was talking to an old teacher and she noted how few things seem to shock me.

Michael Ng says: Would it surprise you if I were to express little shock at your 2nd statement?

Kirsty says: Not really.

Michael Ng says: I see you are not easily inflamed or surprised.

Kirsty says: I am in fact quite easily inflamed, as anyone who ever mentioned Young Stalin to me has found…

Michael Ng says: Ah yes, well… I will merely practise my inscrutable look and nod to you, Minister.  *awkward pause* I mean, Kirsty.

Kirsty says: Hey, who are you calling Minister?  I will have you know I did not go to the LSE.

Michael Ng says: Well, no, you did not. You know, I don’t believe you’ve ever mentioned to me which of the three characters you enjoy the most?

Michael Ng says: Ah yes, you must dearly enjoy Bernard.

Kirsty says: Well of course, who could not enjoy Bernard.

Michael Ng says: As I deftly sidestep the crush issue.

Michael Ng says: Now, as I rub your nose in my deft sidestepping…

Kirsty says: You know, sidestepping is more effective if you don’t point it out, Minister.

Michael Ng says: It is, but I was going to imagine you as Bernard and I, of course, as Sir Humphrey.

Kirsty says:  That sounds disturbing.

Michael Ng says: So what do you enjoy about Bernard?

Kirsty says: Well, I think Bernard is the young keen creature Humphrey probably once was, the classic career starter.

Michael Ng says: It’s almost impossible to imagine Humphrey as the young, somewhat bumbling, high flyer, isn’t it?

Kirsty says: Well, when we find out about The Skeleton in the Cupboard (YM, Series 3), we do get a glimpse of it…

Michael Ng says: There is that.

Michael Ng says: Bernard really ties the show together, I think.  Between Sir Humphrey and Hacker duelling about power, the role of ministers in a democracy, and the power of the permanency of the civil servants, you have this fresh civil servant who shows off his naivete.

Kirsty says: Yes, he is the perfect complement to both Hacker’s rather brash and clodhopping, but well meaning nature and Humphrey’s very practised… what is the word for what Humphrey does anyway?

Michael Ng says: Humphrey’s…

Michael Ng says:  Perhaps Humphrey ‘guides’.  Yes, that’s what he does.  He ‘guides’ inexperienced ministers.

Kirsty says: Lovely use of inverted commas.

Michael Ng says:  In the end, I was drawn to YM/YPM since it seemed to sum up 1980s Britain and, indeed, British life for several decades and, perhaps, portrayed a lifestyle that no longer exists.  The Whitehall mandarins who, alas, are no longer purely classicists.

Michael Ng says: Perhaps that was the most striking thing that we can imagine.  Sir Humphrey enjoyed his perks but Mr. Hacker certainly flaunted them and was easily bought off with flattery.

Kirsty says: Well, having worked in the Civil Service and having more than a passing interest in management literature I can tell you that the language has never gone away… even if Greek tags are no longer the norm.

Michael Ng says: Your own experience only reminds me that much of that dream seems…remote at best.  If not non-existent at worst.

Kirsty says: I mostly did filing. You’ll have to reminisce with my dad if you want the corridors of (sort of) power.

Michael Ng says: Imagine, a discussion between your father and myself.

Kirsty says: I would buy popcorn.

Michael Ng says: Would it be frank bordering on … ?

Kirsty says: Novel.

Michael Ng says: Oh dear.

Michael Ng says:  I suppose, Kirsty, people have asked me (almost always another Yank), ‘What makes two people talking about politics funny?’

Michael Ng says:  (I’m juxtaposing us with Yes, Minister’s premise.  Aren’t I clever?  :P ).

Kirsty says: You should do your Churchill impression.

Michael Ng says: Ah, but our audience could not see my hand hiding under my suit jacket.

Kirsty says: Ewww, dude!  TMI!

Michael Ng says: As I puff out my chest and bellow out inspiring words and press my foot down on the accelerator.  Wait, no… I meant brake. Oh well, we’re doomed either way, really.

Kirsty says: And on that note, Minister, I mean Michael, we probably have to wind up for today at least.

Kirsty says: The relationship which I might tentatively venture to aver has been not without some degree of reciprocal utility, and perhaps even occasional gratification, is emerging a point of irreversible bifurcation and, to be brief, is in the propinquity of its ultimate regrettable termination.

Michael Ng says: Oh, jolly good then.  How many red boxes for my next edition?

Kirsty says: *stacks a pile on the desk*

Camera angle pans out and fades revealing the VL main page

Big Ben chimes in the background

(* Blackadder reference)

One comment on “From the Archives: A Most Novel and Courageous Undertaking

  1. Hilary
    February 19, 2013

    Thanks for reminding me, of this piece and the brilliant creations that inspired it! I’m a Sir Humphrey girl, I confess, but I think Nigel Hawthorne had a lot to do with that.

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This entry was posted on February 18, 2013 by in Entries by Kirsty, Fiction: humour, Film and Television and tagged , , , , .



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