“Yes, Prime Minister” Returns

THE essential political satire show of the 1980s returns to television this week. I saw the revival play at the Trafalgar and it was fun, although not quite as sharp as the original (is anything?). David Haig, who was in the play version, will portray Jim Hacker on TV. On stage he was more farcical and frantic than Paul Eddington, and it will be interesting to see if that works on the tube.

One of many priceless scenes from the original:

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College Lonon. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over ten thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

12 thoughts on ““Yes, Prime Minister” Returns”

  1. It returns, but not on the BBC. When asked why, the writers said that the BBC asked for a pilot, and they replied that there were already 38 pilots. Since it’s been 25 years since the original series, and with none of the original cast available, I see the Beeb’s point.

  2. I think daksya and the BBC are right on the money. Iconic series but also a product of a particular time in England and also the result of really inspired writing and some amazingly talented actors. “Yes, Minister,” could easily have turned out to be more like an endless series of Monty Python sketches instead of a series with interesting characters and a certain amount of plot continuity.

    Also, the point about it being an iconic series and a product of a time and place (as opposed to merely being set in the England of that period) probably does mean that the episodes of the original series will be largely useless as a basis for judging the merits of the remake. It’s very difficult to remake something that is so much a product of its time. The original Miami Vice was a unique, vibrant series with sets and actors and a series premise perfectly fitting a time and place that captivated people in the 1980’s; the movies that remade it were awful.

    People love Hawaii but there have been dozens of cop shows set there and none took off like, for examples, Magnum P.I. and Hawaii 5-0. Both shows used Hawaii perfectly (almost as a character) and had great supporting casts but could you really remake them without Tom Selleck or Jack Lord and reasonably expect to have a hit? Same with Kojak. Original series had a great cast, used New York City well but the thing that made the difference with that Telly Savalas (an actor who had been around forever without becoming a big star) click in the role of Kojak and the show was a hit.

    A very sensible call by the BBC.

  3. I thought the modern version of Yes, Minister already existed and was called The Thick Of It. And before that, the radio version of Absolute Power.

    Nothing against the brilliance of the original, but after a 25-year hiatus they’re going to have to prove they still have something to say, and about the current generation, and an ability to say it comparable to that which they had a couple of political generations ago.

  4. If the originals are available on the Internet, as the wonderful clip supplied here indicates, why watch the new one? Comedies have staying power, as “The Honeymooners” and countless other prove. But thanks for the post. I’ve instructed my two children, born in the ’80s, to look up the original.
    “The first rule of politics is — never believe anything until it has been officially denied.”

  5. Funny, sure.

    Let’s talk about the specific issue. The UK is our main ally today and was our main ally when this skit was created. So the question really isn’t, what does the UK by itself need. Because the UK by itself could then, and can today, depend on the United States for its defense. The question for the UK, and you, Keith, is what are your responsibilities in this alliance?

    1. I don’t think it’s as much as an issue of Britain’s supposed free-riding on American military expenditures as it is a question of what are the reasonable threats facing the UK for which would justify increased military spending. There is no military threat to the UK at the moment and none on the horizon. What exactly is it you think the American military is protected Europe and the UK from? The UK would seem to need very little in terms of military spending at the moment.

      Just as an aside, the “debate” about military spending in the United States seems to be playing out as a parody of “Yes Minister’s” parody. I notice that not once in recent years has the defense budget been defended in terms of actual military threats to the country that would require a defense budget that simply dwarfs the rest of the world. What are the threats that the US military is primarily defending against?

      1. Where to begin. Is there waste, fraud, and abuse in the defense budget? Sure. There’s waste, fraud, and abuse in every human endeavor. Could we and should we be more efficient? Sure.

        What is the US military doing? Well, among other things, the US Navy is essentially the sole guarantor of freedom of navigation on the seas. More generally, US armed strength underpins a world order that serves our interests, and those of our friends and allies, fairly well. Perhaps no world order, or a world order supervised by China, would do just as well. But I rather doubt it.

    2. That’s not what the skit was about, sorry. It was about the politics of mutually assured destruction in the context of the NATO/Warsaw Pact standoff.

      Note that PM Hacker suggests funnelling savings from abandoning Trident into conventional forces, not cutting military spending outright. In fact, Trident did have an acquisition cost £9.8 billion, 38% of which was incurred in the US, so the proposal to invest £15 billion in conventional forces would have been a major increase in military spending.

      The Warsaw Pact in the 1980s had superior conventional forces, but an inferior nuclear program (which still was more than enough for MAD). The PM’s rationale is that the UK Polaris program was still plenty sufficient to decimate the Soviet Union, so that it made more sense to invest the money in conventional upgrades, so that a conventional Warsaw Pact attack could potentially be stopped by conventional means without resorting to a nuclear strike, while Trident in practice was little more than a status symbol for a former superpower still pining over its lost influence (a point elegantly made by Sir Humphrey).

      I have my doubts how well his proposal to reintroduce conscription would have gone over with the British electorate, though.

      1. I think it’s important to distinguish between conscription and an increase in the size of the fully effective standing military. Conscription is seen as having some social benefits (from, obviously, a certain perspective): it reduces youth unemployment, it keeps disaffected youth off the streets and gives sergeants a crack at molding them, it encourages conformity, it gets people out of their home communities and gives them a larger, more homogenized perspective on the country (or on the empire, once upon a time). And it might just teach them to follow orders, especially when delivered in the appropriate accent.

        None of those are necessarily good things if you’re not looking at it from the “appropriate” perspective, and even beyond that there are the obvious costs, not least the loss of liberty as people lose any choice what to do with a year or two of their youth. But my main point is that none of those points had anything to do with military effectiveness, either; the increased manpower from conscription may have helped in counterinsurgency campaigns in Cyprus, Malaysia, Ulster, and elsewhere (again, obviously, it can be debated whether the availability of more troops for those efforts was a good thing), but where the Evil Empire was concerned the question wasn’t really how many conscripts could be mustered to point rifles eastwards; the relevant factor was the 192 Polaris missiles, even if they might theoretically be obsolete within 35 years.

        1. The way I understood Hacker’s idea was that the reintroduction of conscription was a separate policy goal in addition to the £15 billion for the conventional forces. Not that the £15 billion were earmarked for conscription? In any event, it was not as though the proposal aimed at abandoning the UK’s responsibilities within NATO.

          Of course, one can overanalyze a skit; but shifting military expenses from nuclear to conventional forces was one of the more frequently voiced policy ideas during the 80s (as far as I recall), given the disparity between NATO’s conventional forces and that of the Warsaw Pact.

  6. My favourite scene was the one where Sir Humphrey explains to the gormless Hacker that Europe was progressing towards unity so the UK had to join in to make sure that never really happened.

    It has some bite as a Tory Prime Miniser prepares yet another “key speech” on Britain on Europe.

  7. I read somewhere that the show went down well in Saudi Arabia. The basic situation – the gormless ruler and scheming adviser – is as old as Hammurabi.
    They don’t need to change the plot lines much. Cameron still has to choose between aircraft carriers and a nuclear deterrent. The Euro-sausage is still with us.

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