Yes Minister – Party Games

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Broadcast on the 17th of December 1984, Party Games was the final episode of Yes Minster (it lead directly into the sequel series Yes Prime Minster).  It has a slight Chrismassy feel, but it’s not really a surprise that politics (rather than Christmas) dominates proceedings.

We open with Bernard (Derek Fowlds) telling Jim Hacker (Paul Eddington) that there’s something much more urgent than the defence papers he’s working on.  Jim pulls a face when he realises that Bernard’s talking about his Christmas cards, but obediently goes over to the desk where a mountain of cards awaits him.  As might be expected, the neat civil servant in Bernard has organised everything down to the finest detail. “These you sign Jim, these Jim Hacker, these Jim and Annie, these Annie and Jim Hacker, these love from Annie and Jim.”

Sir Humphrey (Nigel Hawthorne) has gone for a meeting with Sir Arnold (John Nettleton). Sir Arnold is the cabinet secretary, and Jim helpfully reminds Bernard (and the audience) exactly how important Sir Arnold is. “In some ways, Sir Arnold is the most powerful chap in the country. Permanent access to the PM, controls Cabinet agenda, controls access to everything.”

He’s due to retire early and is keen to appoint a successor. But the right man for the job has to be able to ask the key question – when Sir Humphrey asks how Sir Arnold plans to spend his retirement, it’s obvious he’s on the right track. “There might be jobs you could pick up, ways you could serve the country, which your successor, whoever he might be, could put your way – er, persuade you to undertake!”

One of the joys of Yes Minister and Yes Prime Minster was the way in which it felt horribly credible.  This wasn’t surprising, since the writers (Anthony Jay and Jonathan Lynn) had access to several different high level sources who would feed them valuable material.  But what is surprising about Party Games is how it seems to predict future events (a sheer fluke but it’s fascinating nonetheless).

When the Home Secretary, shortly after launching his Don’t Drink and Drive Campaign, is picked up for drunk driving, he’s forced to retire.  Shortly after, the Prime Minister also announces his retirement – which sparks an intense leadership contest.  It soon becomes clear that the Prime Minister hated the Home Secretary and only stayed in power long enough to ensure that he’d never get the chance to become PM.

Two clear candidates for the top job emerge.  Eric Jefferies (Peter Jeffrey) and Duncan Short (Philip Short).  Both are viewed with disfavour by the Chief Whip Jeffrey Pearson (James Grout).  “If Eric gets it we’ll have a party split in three months. If it’s Duncan, it’ll take three weeks.”

What they need is a comprise candidate – somebody with no firm opinions and lacking the personality to upset anybody.  Jim Hacker, of course, is the perfect man.  When Party Games was repeated in 1990, shortly after Margaret Thatcher’s fall from power, the parallels between Jim Hacker and John Major were simply irresistible.  Both seemed only to have got the job because they were seen as a safe (and bland) pair of hands – as well as preventing other, more divisive, figures from occupying the top job.

As ever with Yes Minister, the script sparkles with killer one-liners.  A favourite of mine comes from Sir Humphrey after Jim wonders what will happen to the Foreign Secretary following his enforced retirement.  “Well, I gather he was as drunk as a lord. So, after a discreet interval, they’ll probably make him one.”

Nigel Hawthorne also has the opportunity to recite a typical tongue-twisting monologue.  This is how Sir Humphrey breaks the news to Jim that he’s been promoted to Cabinet Secretary. “The relationship which I might tentatively venture to aver has been not without some degree of reciprocal utility and perhaps even occasional gratification, is emerging a point of irreversible bifurcation and, to be brief, is in the propinquity of its ultimate regrettable termination.”

Jim is able to persuade both Duncan and Eric to stand down from the leadership contest after he reads their MI5 files. As Sir Arnold says, “you should always send for Cabinet Ministers’ MI5 files, if you enjoy a good laugh.”

Party Games may feel a little bit stretched out at sixty minutes (as well the fact it does feel like an extended intro for the new series) but there’s still more than enough good material to make it an episode that repays multiple viewings.

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The Good Life – Plough Your Own Furrow

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By 1975 John Esmonde and Bob Larby were a well-established writing team (responsible for hit series such as Please Sir!).  When creating The Good Life they started with pretty much a blank slate – they knew that Richard Briers would star (since the BBC were keen to have Briers appear in another sitcom) but everything else was up for grabs.

The first moment of inspiration came when Esmonde and Larby realised that both Briers and Larby were coming up to the age of forty – as Larby said, it was one of those “Oh God!” ages.  So it was decided that Briers’ character would be facing some mid-life crisis, but what form would this take?

Thoughts such as his character deciding to resign his job and sail around the world or live on a desert island were kicked around (though not terribly seriously) before they hit upon the idea of a man totally fed up with his job and the whole rat-race existence.  So he decides to “drop out” and become self sufficient.  This was a decent idea and the logical move would have been for him to sell his house and buy a place in the country.

But in a stroke of genius, Esmonde and Larby decided that Briers’ character (Tom Good) would do no such thing – instead his house and garden (in the middle of Surbiton) would be turned into a mini-farm, complete with animals, vegetables and all the other paraphernalia that it entailed.

With this initial concept decided, the rest of the small cast fell into place.  Felicity Kendall was Barbara, Tom’s long-suffering wife whilst Penelope Keith and Paul Eddington would be the Good’s long suffering next-door neighbours, Margo and Jerry.

Larby conceded that had Margo and Jerry simply been relentlessly disapproving then the series wouldn’t have worked very well.  Margo and Jerry are Tom and Barbara’s best friends and it’s the conflict between their friendship and their disapproval of the Good’s new lifestyle which drives some of the comedy along.

The first episode, Plough Your Own Furrow, is an interesting one.  It’s not wall-to-wall laughs, as there’s space when the characters (especially Tom) pause to reflect upon the course of their life so far.  Partly this may be because it was the first episode of a new series – as time went on, the audiences would become more attuned to the characters, the writing and the style of the programme and be more inclined to show their approval.

As the episode opens, we see Tom celebrating his 40th birthday.  He’s clearly a man searching for something which is, at that time, undefinable.

It’s quality of life.  That’s what I’m after.  If I could just get it right.  I’ll tackle it and get it right, as soon as I know what it is.

It’s clear that he isn’t getting any job satisfaction.   A whole host of small irritations are highlighted – such as the office car-park attendant knowing Jerry’s name, but not Tom’s (“I’ve really made an impact with you over the years, haven’t I?  Cor blimey, I’ve only been here eight years.”) and the fact there was an office cricket team but nobody thought to ask him (“We didn’t need to.  We got my dad to umpire”).

This is another indication that Tom is standing still at best or even moving backwards.  Everybody else in his department is in their twenties, so what does the future hold for Tom?  Jerry joined the company at the same time as Tom, but he’s ascended to the executive level whilst Tom remains stuck on the fourth floor, engaged in vital work such as designing a toy hippo to be included as a free gift in a popular brand of breakfast cereal.

Jerry spells it out to Tom.

We joined this company – what, eight years ago, wasn’t it it?  And do you know something?  I was frightened of you then.  You were a better draughtsman than I was and you had better qualifications than mine.  I was going to have to rely on pure cunning just to keep up with you.  Still, I needn’t have bothered, need I?  Cos look at us.  I’m up here and you’re down there, not getting picked for cricket teams.  And why?  Because you use about one tenth of your ability.  I have to use all mine and what I lack I make up with sheer, bloody crawling.

Then Sir (Reginald Marsh) joins Tom and Jerry (and every time I type their names I assume that Esmonde and Larby picked those names as a tribute to a popular cat and mouse partnership) for a chat about his latest top-secret project.

The bubble has just come off the top of the think-tank and I don’t mind telling you that this is an absolute blockbuster of an idea.  It’s going to put our wildlife preservation series in the vanguard of world mouldings.  Our mould is going to be a giraffe! And Tom, I’m thinking of putting this giraffe on your plate.

Tom has the chance to advance his career with some “bloody crawling” but his hysterical laughter at the giraffe news scuppers this.  This is point when Tom finally realises the futility of his job (“You should have heard Sir.  You’d think he’d invented penicillin.  I couldn’t help laughing”).  There has to be more to life, but what?  Then Tom has a lightbulb moment, which he explains to Barbara.

I quit work and we become as damned near self-sufficient as possible.  We’ve got bags of garden, we grown our own food.  We keep some animals, chickens, a pig.  We produce our own energy, recycle rubbish.  We design the things we need.  I’ll show you what being a draughtsman is really all about.  Now , some things we can’t make, right.  Some things we can’t grow, right.  So we flog our surplus and buy stuff, and that’s without good old Medieval barter.  It’ll be damned hard work.  We won’t have much in the way of mod cons, but we might enjoy discovering what we can do without.  And we won’t need the world and his wife to give us the yea or nay.  It’ll be just us, doing it for us.  What do you think, eh?

This monologue is the essence of the series.  And Barbara’s reaction is interesting.  The camera cuts back to her on several occasions and her expression is, at best, neutral.  It would have been incredibly unrealistic for her to instantly agree, so even though it’s the middle of the night she puts on her wellies and walks up and down the garden until she finally decides that yes, they’ll do it.

This naturally results in a celebration – and as they dance in the fishpond the noise wakes up the Ledbetters next door.  We see Jerry, but only hear Margo (in this episode we don’t see Penelope Keith).  And the next morning Tom has been up good and early.  He’s sold his car and bought a plough, so he can start on the back garden and take the first step on the road to self-sufficiency.