14 August 2008

""You should always look at politicians' MI5 files, if you enjoy a good laugh"

Inspired by the recent Comedy Connections episode on the programme, I retrieved one of my favourite episodes of any sitcom at all from my DVD collection the other night and settled down to watch it.

It was Party Games, the last episode of Yes, Minister - a feature-length festive edition which showed the rise of Jim Hacker from the fictional Department of Administrative Affairs to the top job in Number Ten.

It is a fantastically clever piece of work, even beyond the consistent intelligence and insight which Jay and Lynn wrote into each episode. Only after hearing what the two writers had to say about Party Games did I realise just how effective and intuitive the plot to get Hacker into the top job was.

Hacker, as we know, was conscientious and decent but not blessed with a first-class mind and always too quick to worry about what certain policy ideas would do for his majority or his job, making him easily manipulated by his civil servants, led by the immortal Sir Humphrey Appleby. Therefore, the only way to get such a wildcard, such an outsider, into Number Ten was to put Humphrey there first.

It was an ingenious story without ever seeming remotely contrived. Sir Arnold retires as Cabinet Secretary, fast-tracks Humphrey into the job through a series of barely shrouded pieces of controlled bribery, and then upon the resignation of the (never-seen) Prime Minister, Humphrey takes the opportunity to discredit the obvious candidates in order to get Hacker into Number Ten and therefore obtain much greater control of national affairs for himself. Hacker, of course, doesn't see it this way - he merely believes that the underhand campaign to elevate him to power is down to the goodness of Humphrey, his party's belief in him and his own lofty ambitions.

The one-liners are just amazing ... such as:-

Humphrey: "How's things going at the campaign for Freedom of Information, by the way?"
Arnold: "Sorry, I can't talk about that."

or ...

Humphrey: "What would you say to your present master becoming the next Prime Minister?"
Bernard: "The Minister? Mr Hacker? As Prime Minister?"
Humphrey: "Yes."
*Bernard glances at his watch*
Humphrey: "Are you in a hurry?"
Bernard: "No, I'm just checking it wasn't April the first."

When Jay and Lynn came up with these, they must have laughed like hell. What brilliant pieces of writing, and yet you can imagine real civil servants having exactly these discussions, without the benefit of a studio audience to point out the irony.

And, of course, thanks to all the scenarios coming together, Hacker got the gig. For all the brilliance of Yes, Prime Minister which followed, the crossover episode which moved the three main protagonists into Number Ten should be held as high as any other piece of sitcom writing as an example of how it should be done.

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