Is 'Yes Minister' one of the best cases of art not imitating but affecting life?

John Fardy and Shane Coleman discuss the iconic British sitcom, this week's choice for the Cultural Toolbox

Is 'Yes Minister' one of the best cases of art not imitating but affecting life?

The main figures of the fictitious Department of Administrative Affairs in the British sitcom Yes Minister (Wikipedia.org)

Despite the fact that so much political humour is reliant on timeliness, a surprising amount is totally timeless too. On one hand, politics (and history) tends to repeat itself with worrying frequency. But at the same time a good gag - political or otherwise - will withstand the test of time.

One of the most enduringly popular and influential political comedies is BBC's Yes Minister. The show, which was first broadcast in 1980, ran for three seasons, a Christmas Special and a two-season 'sequel' series, Yes Prime Minister. There was also a Yes Prime Minister reboot, broadcast in January and February 2013.

It's a show that has definitely made a lasting impact in television schedules - but it's not much of a stretch to suggest it has affected real world political life as well. That was one of the points made by John Fardy and Shane Coleman as they discussed Yes Minister, John's choice for the Cultural Toolbox this week.

"I know this is going to sound like I was a really smart child (I wasn't - far from it)" John recalled, "but I remember even for a kid finding a lot of it hilarious.

"You have to remember this is the 80s - before The Thick of It, The West Wing, or things that poked fun at the establishment."

The comedy centres around three main characters: Jim Hacker (Paul Eddignton), 'the Minister for Administrative Affairs'; Hacker's permanent secretary Sir Humphrey Appleby (Nigel Hawthorne); and Sir Bernard Wooley (Derek Fowlds), the secretary who runs Hacker's private office.

"There's this brilliant setup," John continued. "Every episode is similiar, in that the minister has this idea that would be 'good for votes'... that he has no interest in whatsoever". It then falls on Humphrey to persuade - or indeed trick - the minister into doing something else entirely.

Shane said, "there's a line in it, where a leading banker says to Sir Humphrey - 'isn't that your job, to talk him out of things?'".

"It's incredibly British, there's no denying that," John admitted. "But I think it is first and foremost maybe the best satire on the western democratic system - this could be Ireland of the 80s".

Shane agreed, although added "it would be nice if a civil servant stopped a government minister from setting up a public inquiry every now and then".

How popular was it? Shane observed how, for anyone who didn't watch it at the time of the original broadcasts, it is hard to describe "just how huge and influential this was - everybody watched it, particularly in British government circles". It was even speculated that Tony Blair's cabinet entered government incredibly paranoid about the sort of 'civil servant' caricature seen in Yes Minister.

"It's one of the best cases of art not imitating but affecting life," John argued. "It made politicians much more aware of double speak, of these minions ferreting in the shadows. It has entered the lexicon - the phrase 'Yes Minister' is played upon all the time in headlines".

Oh, and we can't forget how funny it was. "It was very much a situation comedy," John explained. "It was filmed in front of a live audience. They only had three different sets... there was very little stuff outside.

"Britain is the home of the situation comedy, so for this to be number six [in a poll of greatest British comedies]..." Indeed, amid countless 1980s British sitcoms, Yes Minister is one that still seems as amusing and even pertinent as it was thirty years ago.