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.

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Russian pools, despatches from the Pole, and disagreeing with my son Boris on Brexit

My week, from Moscow to Westminster Hour.

With the weather in Moscow last week warm, if not balmy, I thought about taking a dip in the vast heated open-air swimming pool that I remembered from a previous visit. My Russian host shook his head. “That would have been the great Moskva Pool. Stalin actually tore down the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour to make way for it. But, after perestroika, they filled in the pool and rebuilt the church!” So I didn’t have my open-air swim, though I did visit the cathedral instead.

In the evening, spiritually if not physically refreshed, I addressed a gathering of Russian businessmen and bankers who were keen to learn what impact Brexit might have on the London property and investment scene, the UK being a prime destination for their money. We met in the old Ukraina Hotel, now splendidly refurbished and relaunched as the Radisson Royal, Moscow. A Rolls-Royce Silver Wraith was parked in the foyer, a snip at £150,000. “There is a great democratic debate going on in Britain at the moment,” I told my audience. “The issues are finely balanced. I’m for staying in. But on 23 June, the British people, not the politicians, not the tycoons, nor the lobbyists, will decide.”

I noted some uneasy laughter at this point. Russia’s fledgling democracy probably still has some way to go before matters of such moment are left to the people.

 

Culture club

I spent the next afternoon in the Tretyakov Gallery. A rich businessman, Pavel Tretyakov, collected thousands of items of Russian art (mainly icons and paintings) and donated both them and his magnificent house to the state in 1892. Over time, the state has added many more artefacts, including some from the vast storerooms of the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg.

My guide, Tatiana Gubanova, a senior curator, had recently organised the loan of several items from the Tretyakov to London’s National Portrait Gallery, where they are currently still on display in the splendid “Russia and the Arts” exhibition. She said that she was looking forward to returning to London next year: “The Royal Academy is planning a special exhibition to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution.” Whatever happens at the political level, it is good to know that our cultural links with Russia are still flourishing.

 

Heading south

Just before I left for Moscow, I attended ­Adrian Camrose’s funeral in St Bride’s Church, off Fleet Street. The scion of a great newspaper family, Adrian made his mark as the Daily Telegraph’s science correspondent.

In early 1984, I went to Antarctica with him. We shared a cabin on a British Antarctic Survey ship while it visited research ­stations “down south”. I was writing a book on Antarctica, subtitled “the Last Great Wilderness”, while Adrian sent a series of crisp despatches to the Telegraph via the ship’s radio-telex. Adrian’s dateline was “On board the John Biscoe, Antarctica”. Distant galaxies were Adrian’s consuming passion. I am sure he is filing stories from the spaceship Spacey McSpaceFace even as I write.

 

Green surge

As co-chairman with Baroness (Barbara) Young of Environmentalists for Europe, my life has been fairly hectic recently. I am sure it will get more so as the referendum day approaches. I know perfectly well that one of the reasons the invitations to speak or write articles ping into my inbox is the titillation factor. Are Families Divided on the Referendum? Is “Boris’s Dad” (that’s me!) going to Disagree with Boris?

Notwithstanding the family relationship, which I deeply treasure, the answer is “yes”. I am going to disagree. Boris and Michael Gove and other key members of the Brexit team have injected a wonderful level of vigour and energy into the referendum debate. They have raised issues, besides the economy, which needed to be discussed, particularly sovereignty, immigration and the EU’s general direction of travel. For this, the nation owes them a debt of gratitude. That said, I am convinced that this is not the moment to call time on the UK’s membership of the EU. As I see it, the best way to address the obvious problems is not to leave the EU but to “Remain” and to fight for change from within. In the end, this will benefit not just the UK but Europe as a whole.

 

Quiet no more

Last Sunday evening, I took part in the BBC Radio 4 programme Westminster Hour. My fellow panellists were the former work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith and Baroness Smith of Basildon, formerly Angela Smith MP, now the shadow leader of the House of Lords.

We had a very lively and sometimes rowdy discussion. IDS is the “quiet man” who, since his resignation from the cabinet a couple of months ago, has regained his voice in no uncertain terms. Baroness Smith, a delightfully unpushy lady, sometimes found it difficult to get a word in edgeways. I don’t think I did so well myself.

But I did, I hope, make it clear that, from my point of view, there was still time to build on all that was good in the EU (such as its environmental record), while seeking common rather than unilateral solutions for the problems that persist.

On 24 June, if the Remain side wins, the government should go into action in Europe with all cylinders firing and with our politicians and diplomats working overtime, to get the arrangements that we need and deserve. On the way out, IDS said to me, “It won’t work. They won’t have it.”

He may be right. But I still think we should give it a go. You don’t file for divorce as a result of a single tiff, not after more than 40 years of marriage.

On the issues of immigration, for example, and possible changes to the EU’s freedom of movement rules, we may find more allies in Europe than we think.

Stanley Johnson is co-chairman of Environmentalists for Europe: environmentalistsforeurope.org

Stanley Johnson is an author, journalist and former Conservative member of the European Parliament. He has also worked in the European Commission. In 1984 Stanley was awarded the Greenpeace Prize for Outstanding Services to the Environment and in the same year the RSPCA Richard Martin award for services to animal welfare. In 1962 he won the Newdigate Prize for Poetry. He also happens to be the father of Boris Johnson.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad