Yes Minister meets Larry Sanders

Just how original is The Thick of It?

An intriguing exchange of comments appeared in response to Paul Owen's final post on the Guardian's Thick of It blog just before Christmas. "Doesn't Yes Minister seem so innocent now?" proposed a commenter named "Socket". "I've heard people say, ‘They should do a new Yes Minister.' We've got a new Yes Minister. Long live The Thick of It."

"The thing about Yes Minister is that it involved politicians confronting the civil service to get policies through," argued "vastariner". A few hours later: "TTOI is about politicians aligning with the civil service, with the sole aim of retaining power."

Now that the third season of Armando Iannucci's excellent political satire has come to an end, in a shower of expletive-powered pathos, all thoughts turn to where the show stands, 16 episodes on: its successes, failures, its continued verisimilitude, its relevance, its future (under a Tory government, perhaps). And, inevitably, reflections (here, here and here, to refer to three very different examples) that touch upon such questions struggle to do so without mentioning Yes Minister, British television's only truly canonised political comedy.

This distinctly boring phenomenon has not been helped by Iannucci's own suggestion that The Thick of It might be described "Yes Minister meets Larry Sanders". He was even willing to argue, back in 2005, that the show represents "Britain's Best [ever] Sitcom", with the following gushing recommendation:

Yes Minister made the driest subject possible -- the minutiae of politics -- into sparkling comedy.

No sitcom has been so thoroughly researched -- it used real Whitehall insider moles to spill the beans -- and meant that (unlike Richard Curtis, for example) the writers were considered a threat to national security!

Yes Minister was more than a sitcom, it was a crash course in Contemporary Political Studies -- it opened the lid on the way the government really operated.

It remains the most quintessentially British of the British sitcoms -- understatement, embarrassment, Masonic secrecy and respect for the rules all in evidence.

It had the only sitcom title sequence -- drawn by Gerald Scarfe -- that was a genuine work of art.

And, perhaps above all else, it is the lasting legacy of two of our greatest actors: Paul Eddington and Nigel Hawthorne.

Socket and vastariner's exchange is more interesting than this pointless linking of names, however, because it poses (tacitly) a question hitherto unanswered: to what extent can The Thick of It be said to be a product of direct influence by Yes Minister? To put it another way: is the former, as Socket seems to suggest, really just a kind of remake of the latter, albeit with a slightly altered emphasis? Or are the two programmes, as vastariner implies, fundamentally different entities with only a superficial resemblance to one another?

And, perhaps more importantly, should our opinion of Iannucci's creation be based upon the answers to these questions?

Obviously, this blog isn't the place for the full Yes Minister v The Thick of It evaluation that'd be necessary if one wished to address all these questions properly. It is, however, a good place to get the ball rolling. And I want to try to do exactly that with that most facile of starting points: a list of character comparisons.

Why that specifically? Well, it seems to me that this is the area that represents the most immediately obvious basis for comparison, especially if one focuses particularly on the just-finished third season (new word) of The Thick of It and the magnificent first series (old word) of Yes Minister. Both hinge, after all, on a relationship between a new, naive, inexperienced minister, an unelected but despotic figure, invested with absolute power at the beginning but losing his grip on it later on, and a mediating member of the civil service.

Jim Hacker / Nicola Murray: Fundamentally likeable ministers in charge of peripheral, scrappable departments, Hacker and Murray find their principles begin to fade as they get sucked into the political machinery. Both are more real than their colleagues -- their families are a focus, for example.

Both characters often end up largely overshadowed by: Sir Humphrey Appleby / Malcolm Tucker. Unelected but all-powerful figures who make it impossible for their minister to actually take charge of their department and to represent anything more than a public mouthpiece, a figurehead. Although Appleby and Tucker have altogether different jobs -- Appleby is a neutral permanent secretary, Tucker a party spin doctor -- both achieve their aims in remarkably similar ways: through backroom deals and the potency of their extraordinary rhetorical gifts.

Bernard Woolley / Terri Coverley (and, to some extent, Glenn and Olly): Again unelected figures who invariably find themselves caught between their minister and either Appleby or Tucker. The sympathies of both characters seem to be with the former, and both duly occasionally act in a manner that is more party-political than it is civil service-neutral. Yet both ultimately know that they're likely to see numerous ministers come and go, and so remain objective, sometimes even slightly contemptuous of Hacker/Murray. The actors Derek Fowlds and Joanna Scanlan both do a wonderful, understated job with a difficult brief.

Both also regularly call on a gallery of civil service and party-political grotesques when the time is right. For example: Sir Frederick Stewart / Julius. Bald, brilliantly acted allies to Appleby/Tucker. I could go on. Even journalists (in some cases, themselves recurring characters) play a very similar role in both programmes.

As I say, this hardly amounts to a comparison of any depth. But it certainly suggests that the question of whether or not The Thick of It can be considered a genuinely original piece of progamme-making is at least worth asking. Or maybe I'm just missing the point. Maybe The Thick of It was always supposed to be an elegant tribute to its creator's favourite show. With a side helping of Larry Sanders.

GERRY BRAKUS
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“Like a giant metal baby”: whether you like it or not, robots are already part of our world

For centuries, we have built replacements for ourselves. But are we ready to understand the implications?

There were no fireworks to dazzle the crowd lining the streets of Alexandria to celebrate Cleopatra’s triumphant return to the city in 47BC. Rather, there was a four-and-a-half-metre-tall robotic effigy of the queen, which squirted milk from mechanical bosoms on to the heads of onlookers. Cleopatra, so the figure was meant to symbolise, was a mother to her people.

It turns out that robots go back a long way. At the “Robots” exhibition now on at the Science Museum in London, a clockwork monk from 1560 walks across a table while raising a rosary and crucifix, its lips murmuring in devotion. It is just one of more than 100 exhibits, drawn from humankind’s half-millennium-long obsession with creating mechanical tools to serve us.

“We defined a robot as a machine which looks lifelike, or behaves in lifelike ways,” Ben Russell, the lead curator of the exhibition, told me. This definition extends beyond the mechanisms of the body to include those of the mind. This accounts for the inclusion of robots such as “Cog”, a mash-up of screws, motors and scrap metal that is, the accompanying blurb assures visitors, able to learn about the world by poking at colourful toys, “like a giant metal baby”.

The exhibits show that there has long existed in our species a deep desire to rebuild ourselves from scratch. That impulse to understand and replicate the systems of the body can be seen in some of the earliest surviving examples of robotics. In the 16th century, the Catholic Church commissioned some of the first anthropomorphic mechanical machines, suggesting that the human body had clockwork-like properties. Models of Jesus bled and automatons of Satan roared.

Robots have never been mere anatomical models, however. In the modern era, they are typically employed to work on the so-called 4D tasks: those that are dull, dumb, dirty, or dangerous. A few, such as Elektro, a robot built in Ohio in the late 1930s, which could smoke a cigarette and blow up balloons, were showmen. Elektro toured the US in 1950 and had a cameo in an adult movie, playing a mechanical fortune-teller picking lottery numbers and racehorses.

Nevertheless, the idea of work is fundamental to the term “robot”. Karel Čapek’s 1920s science-fiction play RUR, credited with introducing the word to the English language, depicts a cyborg labour force that rebels against its human masters. The Czech word robota means “forced labour”. It is derived from rab, which means “slave”.

This exhibition has proved timely. A few weeks before it opened in February, a European Parliament commission demanded that a set of regulations be drawn up to govern the use and creation of robots. In early January, Reid Hoffman and Pierre Omidyar, the founders of LinkedIn and eBay respectively, contributed $10m each to a fund intended to prevent the development of artificial intelligence applications that could harm society. Human activity is increasingly facilitated, monitored and analysed by AI and robotics.

Developments in AI and cybernetics are converging on the creation of robots that are free from direct human oversight and whose impact on human well-being has been, until now, the stuff of science fiction. Engineers have outpaced philosophers and lawmakers, who are still grappling with the implications as autonomous cars roll on to our roads.

“Is the world truly ready for a vehicle that can drive itself?” asked a recent television advert for a semi-autonomous Mercedes car (the film was pulled soon afterwards). For Mercedes, our answer to the question didn’t matter much. “Ready or not, the future is here,” the ad concluded.

There have been calls to halt or reverse advances in robot and AI development. Stephen Hawking has warned that advanced AI “could spell the end of the human race”. The entrepreneur Elon Musk agreed, stating that AI presents the greatest existential threat to mankind. The German philosopher Thomas Metzinger has argued that the prospect of increasing suffering in the world through this new technology is so morally awful that we should cease to build artificially intelligent robots immediately.

Others counter that it is impossible to talk sensibly about robots and AI. After all, we have never properly settled on the definitions. Is an inkjet printer a robot? Does Apple’s Siri have AI? Today’s tech miracle is tomorrow’s routine tool. It can be difficult to know whether to take up a hermit-like existence in a wifi-less cave, or to hire a Japanese robo-nurse to swaddle our ageing parents.

As well as the fear of what these machines might do to us if their circuits gain sentience, there is the pressing worry of, as Russell puts it, “what we’re going to do with all these people”. Autonomous vehicles, say, could wipe out the driving jobs that have historically been the preserve of workers displaced from elsewhere.

“How do we plan ahead and put in place the necessary political, economic and social infrastructure so that robots’ potentially negative effects on society are mitigated?” Russell asks. “It all needs to be thrashed out before it becomes too pressing.”

Such questions loom but, in looking to the past, this exhibition shows how robots have acted as society’s mirrors, reflecting how our hopes, dreams and fears have changed over the centuries. Beyond that, we can perceive our ever-present desires to ease labour’s burden, to understand what makes us human and, perhaps, to achieve a form of divinity by becoming our own creators. 

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution