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Commentary: Sir Humphrey on Newsnight

29 April 2010

As part of Newsnight‘s Election 2010 coverage, Yes, Minister co-creator Sir Anthony Jay has written a set of three new sketches featuring the quintessential civil servant Sir Humphrey Appleby, played by Henry Goodman (who will be portraying Sir Humphrey in the new Yes, Prime Minister stage play opening in May at the Chichester Festival Theatre). According to the BBC’s description: ‘In three episodes we will see him flick through the main party manifestos and offer his unique advice for any incoming minister on handling, or getting around, aspects of potential future policy.

For now, the clips are available here: Conservatives, Liberal Democrats, and Labour [to be aired on 4 May].

Overall, I found the writing to be fairly clever, with some good turns of phrase in the best mandarin style. Though it is nigh-impossible to live up to the memory of Sir Nigel Hawthorne’s performance, I would say that Henry Goodman’s portrayal is well up to par — though I do wish he hadn’t said ‘Lib Dem’, which would be far too crude for the Sir Humphrey Appleby I recall. But my primary reservation about these sketches is that they would be a good deal more funny, and more in keeping with the spirit of the original series, if we weren’t told which party’s manifesto was actually being read.

One of the most prized aspects of the series was that it carefully avoided party-political issues in favour of highlighting the underlying conflict between government and administration, an approach that allows it to have continued relevance more than three decades later. It doesn’t seem entirely appropriate to have Sir Humphrey, always so scrupulous about drawing the line between the sordid world of party politics and the tidy machinery of the Civil Service, offering commentary in this muddled grey area between the policy and the policymakers. Sir Humphrey himself would be the first to say that to the Civil Service, it barely matters what party is in power…or rather, in government, because no party is ever truly in ‘power’ in that sense of the word.

I’ve spent quite a bit of time studying Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister, so perhaps I’m somewhat protective of the original series and resistant to the prospect of its ‘modernization’ in this fashion — even when modernised by the creators. But even setting that aside and attempting to judge the sketches purely on their own merits, they seem somewhat lacking in the classic Yes, Minister message that first attracted my interest.

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