For more than 25 years Graham McCann has been chronicler, historian and critic of some of the most lasting, most acclaimed, most canonical figures and artefacts of popular culture. A high stack of solid volumes – biographies of Marilyn Monroe, Cary Grant, Morecambe and Wise, and critical histories of Dad’s Army and Fawlty Towers – testify to his pre-eminence as our most assiduous and likeable scholar of the stars and of those best fictions closest to the mighty beating heart of the people’s narratives.
Yes Minister, along with the television series of McCann’s earlier studies and others such as All Creatures Great and Small, The Good Life and As Time Goes By, live still and are regularly resurrected in the continuingly gentle, decent, courteous life of British culture, even after all Margaret Thatcher did to it.
McCann declares that Yes Minister, conceived in 1977 by a herbivorous lefty (Jonathan Lynn) and a genteel sort-of-Tory (Antony Jay, eventually knighted for services to kindly satire), won its success by teaching its vast audiences how politics was turned into policy by the long, baffling collusion of ministers and the Civil Service. He contends, although in a discreetly pedagogic tone, that a British public hitherto ignorant of day-to-day life in politics learned to its delight that the political lives that gave order and meaning to daily labour and leisure were comically defined by personal vanity, bloodlessly civil and uncivil war, embarrassed ambition, and, occasionally, conscientious effort.
It is rare to find an academic study in which there is such clearly felt affection for its subject and its protagonists. McCann takes us, in unobtrusive displays of intelligently practical criticism, through large numbers of the series’ funniest and sharpest scenes, balancing judiciously what he has to say about Prime Minister Jim Hacker as opposed to the actor, gallant and lovable Paul Eddington, and just as tactfully playing the character of Sir Humphrey Appleby off against Sir Nigel Hawthorne. One might object in passing to his endearing view that the 38 episodes of Yes Minister and Yes, Prime Minister instructed the country about the permissible hypocrisy and venality of its rulers and their courtiers. This contention obscures the fact that about halfway through its life and Thatcher’s reign, civil servants and their ministers alike learned to gloze in the language of corporate boilerplate, to deny truth, and, since 2010, to put party before country exactly as Sir Humphrey always warned against.
Among the great pleasures of this book is simply to rediscover the splendid jokes. If laughing at power is the best weapon of the powerless, then read aloud Prime Minister Hacker’s immortal speech explaining who in the country reads which newspapers – the Financial Times by the people who own the country, The Guardian by people who think they ought to run the country, and so on. Sir Humphrey asks, what about The Sun? Bernard Woolley, his principal private secretary, responds, “Sun readers don’t care who runs the country as long as she’s got big tits.”
What is nonetheless missing from this shrewd and excellent book is a sociology of common sentiment. Its audience loved the series, and that was because its dominant frame of feeling matched the amiable, docile and – George Orwell’s adjective for the British polity – somnambulist sensibility of our nation.
A Very Courageous Decision: The Inside Story of Yes Minister
By Graham McCann
Aurum Press, 384pp, £20.00
Published 16 October 2014