Archive for the ‘satire’ Category


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.


Conferences: Fiction and British Politics

4 November 2009

Though I’m heading off to the Berlin Wall conference this weekend, I already have one eye on another conference I’m slated to present at in mid-December. The University of Nottingham’s Centre for British Politics is hosting a one-day conference on fiction and British politics, and rather predictably I’m giving a paper on Yes, Minister. (For the curious, here’s the official conference flyer.)

Since my article on the impact and influence of Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister went to press before I found out about this conference, I decided to look through the rest of my research on the series to see if there was another aspect of fiction and British politics that captured my interest. And then I recalled that my earliest interest in researching the series had been sparked when I read that on 9 January 1986, when Defence Secretary Michael Heseltine walked out of Cabinet over the furore known as the Westland Affair, Margaret Thatcher spent that evening watching the first episode of Yes, Prime Minister. That juxtaposition of political fiction and political reality ended up becoming the basis for my planned paper: ‘Yes, Prime Minister and the Westland Affair: A Tale of Two Resignations’.

As it’s a one-day conference, I’m sure the whole thing will be a bit of a whirlwind. (I do wish it was longer; there’s certainly enough material on fiction and British politics to fill up several days’ worth of panels and papers and plenary lectures.) All the same, I’m greatly looking forward to it — the scheduled conference papers sound fascinating, as do the invited guest speakers. Two conferences in two months is daunting, but I wouldn’t miss either of them for the world.


Publications: ‘Downing Street’s Favourite Soap Opera’ (in print)

20 September 2009

To my chagrin, I’ve only just realised that I’ve neglected to mention in To Bed With a Trollope that the following article is now available from Contemporary British History:

Downing Street’s Favourite Soap Opera: Evaluating the Impact and Influence of Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister‘, Contemporary British History 23:3 (September 2009): 315-336

Abstract: The satirical 1980s television programmes Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister have made a lasting contribution to the substance and content of political discourse in Britain, shaping public and political opinion on the relationship between politicians and civil servants. An in-depth analysis of the reactions to Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister — from the earliest reviews to the most recent references to the programmes in contemporary political debates — reveals the programmes’ incisive observations on the proper roles of government and administration in the British political system and explains why these observations continue to be relevant nearly three decades after the programmes first aired.

This article is available online through the link above or in the hard copy edition of the September 2009 issue of Contemporary British History.


Publications: ‘Downing Street’s Favourite Soap Opera’

4 June 2009

One of the things that’s been keeping me occupied of late has been the publication process for an article that is in press with Contemporary British History. ‘Downing Street’s Favourite Soap Opera: Evaluating the Impact and Influence of Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister‘ was born out of my (perhaps excessive) love for that particular 1980s satirical sitcom, and I’m beyond thrilled that it’ll be in print in the September 2009 issue of CBH.

I’ve sent in the appropriate copyright forms and am waiting for the page proofs, which should be ready in about a fortnight. I’m used to editing the page proofs of other people’s articles (I do it for a living, after all), but marking up my own will be an interesting challenge. I may ask a co-worker to skim through it just in case I’ve missed something in my zillionth read-through.

Of course, this whole process has reminded me of two other papers that are sitting on my hard-drive, silently nagging me to stop ignoring them and polish them up enough to submit elsewhere. One needs a more in-depth literature review; one needs to be ripped to shreds and pieced back together in a better and more logical format. But that’s a post for another time.


Our Man in Havana by Graham Greene

20 January 2009

Another foray into Graham Greene’s fiction, following on my reviews of The Quiet American and The Human Factor.

Our Man in Havana by Graham Greene

For expatriate Englishman James Wormold, life in Fulgencio Batista’s Havana has long lost any of the exotic charm or tropical romance it might once have possessed. His wife left him many years ago, leaving him responsible for raising their daughter Milly, and although he manages to keep his business as a vacuum cleaner salesman afloat, he cannot give Milly all of the little (and not-so-little) treats that she asks for. Fearful of the looming overdraft in his bank book, Wormold grasps at the first outside opportunity that presents itself to him: when a smooth-talking Englishman by the name of Hawthorne offers him a sizeable sum of money to work for British intelligence in Cuba, he hesitates for only a moment before accepting both the offer and the cash. Yet to keep the money coming in, Wormold has to provide information to pass along to London — and so he begins to fabricate an entire network of semi-real and entirely imaginary ‘agents’ in Cuba. Thanks to the work of his agents, he even provides his superiors with the design plans of a new secret weapon supposedly being assembled in Cuba. (Strange, though, that the plans for the secret weapon should bear a strong resemblance to sketches of the parts of a vacuum cleaner….) As Wormold’s half-truths and utter lies become more and more detailed, his superiors in London could not be more pleased with the professional output of their man in Havana, whose information allows them to show up the efforts of their counterparts on either side of the Cold War. But as the fiction begins to create its own increasingly dangerous reality, Wormold soon realises that he has no choice but to finish the game he started to play — before someone else decides to finish it for him.

The plot of Our Man in Havana draws heavily upon Greene’s work for British intelligence during and shortly after World War II. In particular, Wormold’s position as a real agent in charge of fictional agents owes a good deal to the story of the real World War II double agent known as GARBO, a Spanish citizen who fabricated an elaborate network of subagents through which British intelligence passed false information to GARBO’s ostensible superiors in the Abwehr. For that matter, for a book first published in 1958, the story’s talk of revolutionaries in the hills and (real or fictional) secret military installations on Cuban soil is more than a little prescient. But Greene’s focus is on the absurdities of the intelligence game, especially the notion of the ‘gentleman spy’ so beloved of espionage fiction writers like Ian Fleming, and he wastes few opportunities to skewer or invert many of the genre conventions of which Fleming and others were so fond.

The historical background and parody status notwithstanding, Our Man in Havana falls a little flat in its execution. The pragmatic female character introduced halfway through the story may as well have had ‘eventual love interest’ stamped across her forehead from the outset, in spite of Greene’s attempts to break the convention and fashion her into a spirited woman who can hold her own with the men around her. The final confrontation scenes, in which Wormold must elude both the Cuban authorities and the real (and far more deadly) intelligence operatives working in Havana, are quite good but seem somewhat strained in context, as if Greene himself found it difficult to switch gears to write them. Several scenes are indeed amusing from an enjoyably farcical perspective, and the plot wraps up neatly in the best happy-family comedy style, but as a work of espionage fiction Our Man in Havana has a hard time measuring up to the literary, thematic, character, or plot standards of Greene’s more serious The Quiet American or The Human Factor. Which is not to say that it is not worth reading — Greene’s sly commentary on expatriate life and satirical approach to the genre makes Our Man in Havana as much of an ‘entertainment’ as the book’s original subtitle suggests.


The Hands of History: Parliamentary Sketches 1997-2007 by Simon Hoggart

13 March 2008

Slipping in an extra review this week to make up for the paucity of postings last month. I have other reviews still to finish, but this one seemed to come out most easily.

The Hands of History: Parliamentary Sketches 1997-2007 by Simon Hoggart

Based on an earlier review of Playing to the Gallery, Simon Hoggart’s collection of Guardian parliamentary sketches from the early Blair years, it may come as little surprise to learn that I eagerly picked up a copy of The Hands of History, Hoggart’s more recently published collection of sketches spanning the Blair decade. The index at the back of the book is not quite as funny as the previous one, but it gives readers a good idea of what to expect within. John Prescott, master of the unintelligible and angry speech for any occasion, from party conferences to PMQs. Sir Peter Tapsell MP (Louth and Horncastle), one of the last of the old Tory knights of the shires, whose oratorical style almost demands that the Hansard editors cast his words in bronze. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield) and his collection of wigs. More inane New Labour jargon, more Conservative party leadership circuses contests, more of Tony Blair’s verb-free sentences…all of the old friends and foes are back.

Much of what I said earlier about the humour of Hoggart’s parliamentary sketch-writing still holds true, though seeing a much broader range of sketches reveals a few small weaknesses that are common to anyone who writes on regular subject on a regular basis. The most notable one is that Hoggart has quite a few standard jokes, several of which are mentioned above, and seeing them repeated in successive sketches grows a little tiring over time. (Though in one of his editorial notes, he mentions that some readers will write in to complain if he hasn’t made one of his usual references in a while.) The Hands of History does manage to catch the highlights of the Blair decade, sticking mostly to the well-known incidents and leaving out much of the day-to-day petty dramas. (I wish he’d included this sketch from mid-February 2006, if only for the amusement value, but space in the book was at a premium and the incident itself has almost certainly been forgotten.) Hoggart often has a fine gift for picking out the metaphors from the reality, as in this description from the time in May 2004 when Fathers4Justice protestors threw flour-filled condoms at Blair during his Question Time:

What an amazing shot by the protestor, throwing from hundreds of feet along a downward trajectory! And how marvellously apt! It had been aimed at Blair but it had exploded all over Brown. The protestors had thrown Britain’s finest political metaphor.

Like Hoggart’s previous book, The Hands of History knows its intended readership. If a collection of parliamentary sketches about the past ten years sounds like it would be entertaining reading, then it is not likely to disappoint — even if the politicians mentioned within do, more often than not.


Playing to the Gallery: Parliamentary Sketches from Blair Year Zero by Simon Hoggart

10 February 2008

A quick review this Sunday, since I’m sort of in the middle of travelling at the moment.

Playing to the Gallery: Parliamentary Sketches from Blair Year Zero by Simon Hoggart

The craft of writing parliamentary sketches is a fairly longstanding tradition in the history of modern journalism. Charles Dickens even tried his hand at it, back in the day when several pages of the quality press were devoted to reporting the ins and outs of whatever had happened that day in the Commons and the Lords. But now that Hansard is available online, viewers can watch debates through BBC Parliament, and most newspapers have cut down the column inches devoted to parliamentary coverage, parliamentary sketches might well seem to be on the way out as well. But the art of capturing memorable moments in the alternating frenzy and dullness of the Westminster village is not easily acquired — and it would be a shame if some of the cleverest sketches of the Guardian‘s Simon Hoggart were to be lost to the maze of microfilm and Internet archives without being collected somewhere for quick, easy reading.

Playing to the Gallery is a collection of Simon Hoggart’s sketches, a selection of the ‘best bits’ as collected works are so often touted. The sketches are not merely from 1997; the selected sketches begin with the pre-election coverage of April 1997 and run until well into 2002, giving a full range of the first five years of the Blair government. Plenty of familiar faces grace the pages, and some mostly forgotten faces crop up now and then, including perennial stalking horse Michael Heseltine, the ageing and now deceased rake Alan Clark, and the former Madam Speaker Betty Boothroyd. The index, for that matter, is one of the best parts of the book; the entries are pithy summaries that are almost complete sketches in and of themselves. The entries for Tony Blair include ‘helps William Hague into heffalump trap, 169-71‘ and ‘treats Parliament like late-night radio call-in, 107-9‘. Ken Livingstone, as it happens, ‘launches campaign for London mayor with high-pitched whining noise, 154-5‘. One of John Prescott’s many notable moments includes an incident in which he ‘blames Tories for rain, 188-90‘. There’s just enough truth to the exaggerations to make for fine and accurate parody.

Hoggart is quite skilled at deciphering the often unintelligible proclamations of John Prescott, and he takes pleasure in finding and holding up for ridicule some of the most vapid examples of New Labour prose — he actively points out how the New Labour speech style all but abandons verbs in its attempt to make promises without actually promising anything. I spent most of my reading time alternating between chuckling and wincing, for beneath the humour lies a certain amount of wry bitterness, a little voice that says, ‘Is this really what we’ve managed to dig up, push past the post, and stuff into that faux-Gothic monstrosity in SW1A?’ Playing to the Gallery is a collection made for politicos and political junkies, true, but it’s a sad trueism that no history is forgotten quite so easily as that of the recent past. Even those who are less than fond of the state of political reporting in this day and age would be able to spend a few worthwhile moments looking at one or two of the sketches compiled in this book.


How to Be a Civil Servant by Martin Stanley

3 February 2008

Gerald Kaufman’s How to Be a Minister was a sly, satirical look at what happens to politicians who find themselves a few inches nearer to the top of the greasy pole. But for their counterparts in administration, the mandarins of Whitehall, the equivalent guidebook was a little longer in coming.

How to Be a Civil Servant by Martin Stanley

Martin Stanley is a former senior official in the Cabinet Office who then went on to head the Postal Services Commission. His book, How to Be a Civil Servant, is written primarily for an incoming civil servant who will be working in Whitehall — most of the information relates to how to deal with ministers and junior ministers, Parliament, and the EU. Far from being written in impenetrable bureaucratese, the text is clear and straightforward, very well-organised. And it is far from dull, as a few examples will illustrate:

…it is perfectly proper for our drafts to omit facts and arguments which might cast doubt on the appropriateness of [policies]. In doing this, we are not being unprofessional. Rather, like the barrister whose principal duty is to the court and who does not necessarily believe in the client’s case, we are simply providing the best possible professional service to our clients, without going so far as to mislead the Minister or Parliament. (11)

And on more specific subjects, such as individual jobs:

[Personal Private Secretaries] are on call 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, and know where all the bodies are buried. For this reason, they are usually promoted when they leave Private Office…. (21)

And yes, it does mention Sir Humphrey Appleby of Yes, Minister fame, but only as a convenient shorthand reference when referring to the Cabinet Secretariat.

How to Be a Civil Servant is a delightfully witty but remarkably practical book for anyone who happens to be entering into a fast-track, high-flying Civil Service job. For that matter, the chapters about Parliamentary Questions and how to respond to them would be most enlightening for newly elected Members of Parliament, let alone a civil servant. The book is tongue-in-cheek without being overly sarcastic, which makes it more of an actual ‘how to’ book than Kaufman’s satirical study. And for those who’ve any interest in looking at Whitehall from a rather less cynical and scheming viewpoint, How to Be a Civil Servant is probably the most helpful text that’s out there.

In addition to the book, the author has created a companion Web site at The Web site is well worth exploring in its own right, not least because it has any number of files and pages that are worth looking at…in my opinion, this one in particular.


How to Beat Sir Humphrey: Every Citizen’s Guide to Fighting Officialdom by Antony Jay

29 January 2008

In my undergraduate days, I wrote a massive honours thesis on my pet obsession at the time (and somewhat still, to this day): the 1980s satirical political comedy Yes, Minister. As part of my quest to get my hands on every bit of Yes, Minister merchandise I could find, I purchased the DVDs and the ‘Hacker diaries’, acquired a complete set of Richard Crossman’s three-volume Diaries of a Cabinet Minister (key background texts for much of the series), and managed to find the 1988 and 1989 day planners in near-mint condition. Yet I still scour the Internet in search of other items that I’m looking for…and this book was one of those items. I found it in audiobook format first before finding it in paperback — but more on that shortly.

How to Beat Sir Humphrey: Every Citizen’s Guide to Fighting Officialdom by Antony Jay

Antony Jay wrote How to Beat Sir Humphrey about a decade ago, and in it he has written a step-by-step overview of how ordinary citizens can combat government- or private finance-backed plans that they feel will be detrimental to their community — plans for development that can be as localised as an old building being torn down to make room for a supermarket, or as expansive as a proposed motorway extension. How to Beat Sir Humphrey describes how to organise an action group for best efficiency, ways to raise money and community awareness about the project, pitfalls to avoid at all cost, and how to potentially beat the local officials and the bureaucrats at their own game. One thing to note: the book is written with the intent of fighting British officialdom, so it’s possible that other countries might have different steps or bureaucratic levels that Jay doesn’t mention. But most of the strategies seem to have universal merit and application…such as festooning a local official’s car with yards and yards of ‘red tape’ as a mild protest to draw media attention to the cause.

Jay admits at the end of the book that the suggestions he gives in How to Beat Sir Humphrey are not wholly fail-proof. Sometimes, even one’s best efforts will not be successful, and the project will go through in spite of local disapproval. But he suggests that even the effort made to organise citizens in a civically responsible fashion is one of the things that strengthens our civil society, and that the game itself is really always worth the candle.

For fans of Jay’s television work, the audiobook release is an even better find than the original text itself. Why? Because the person who reads the audiobook is none other than Derek Fowlds, the actor who played high-flying civil servant Bernard Woolley with such pedantic charm in Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister. Hearing Derek Fowlds reading the audiobook is an experience that almost borders on the bizarre. Listening to Bernard Woolley give you advice on how to combat Sir Humphrey Appleby and those of his ilk — you almost have to suspend disbelief in order to wrap your head around that set-up. It’s an extra little treat for those who enjoyed the original television satire.


How to Be a Minister by Gerald Kaufman

29 November 2007

In lieu of a rambling, disjointed post about the things that I find wrong or misleading with Jenni Russell’s recent article about the deteriorating relationships between ministers and civil servants, here’s a review of a fairly light-hearted but meaningful book about the difficulties involved in being a member of any particular Government.

How to Be a Minister by Gerald Kaufman

Labour MP Gerald Kaufman (Manchester Gorton) worked as a press advisor to Harold Wilson and later became a junior Minister under Wilson and then under Jim Callaghan. Today, he is probably best known to the general public for his description of the 1983 Labour election manifesto as ‘the longest suicide note in history’. But one of the other things he is known for is his book How to Be a Minister, written and published shortly after Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister. Presumably, Kaufman wanted to write about his experiences as a Minister when his memories (and perhaps his wounds) were still fresh, and that’s essentially what he does — he gives advice on how to be a Minister, drawing on personal experiences and observations of the foibles of the 1970s Labour Governments.

The book’s chapters cover a wide range of Ministerial topics, touching on everything from working with trade unions to running (and not being run by) your Department to not getting in trouble with your Prime Minister. One thing that Kaufman does emphasise — understandably, considering his situation — is the fact that every Minister is an ex-Minister waiting to happen, and that one of the worst things you can do as a Minister is to fall under the impression that you will be in office forever. The entire last chapter of the book is devoted to the tricky task of leaving office gracefully, if you can help it, and how this difficult task can be managed with a minimum of pain and suffering. The book is liberally sprinkled with examples of ‘how to do’ and ‘how not to do’ things as a Minister, and fortunately Kaufman is willing to put up his own failures, as well as his successes, for the readers’ examination.

All in all, How to Be a Minister a nice, quick read, and it’s sitting on my bookshelf with my other ministerial diaries and memoirs as a sort of meta-piece about life in government. Kaufman is able to look back on his tenure as Minister with irony and general good humour…two things that are not always part of a politician’s retrospective on his or her career.