It can be a curse for an actor to be too closely identified with one role, but for Derek Fowlds it secured his place in television history. The recently deceased actor’s work as Bernard Woolley in “Yes, Minister” and its successor “Yes, Prime Minister” was indispensable to the greatest political show on earth.
These brilliant bits of British television remain the gold standard for political comedy. They revolve around a triumvirate of characters. The show follows the day-to-day dealings of Jim Hacker, played by Paul Eddington, as a hapless politician, the elected lord and master of a civil service that has a mind of its own.
Specifically, it has the mind of Sir Humphrey Appleby (Nigel Hawthorne), chief bureaucrat and overseer of the red tape. The tension they embody between the “political will and the administrative won’t” drives the show, with Fowlds’s character, the minister’s private secretary, often caught in the middle, thereby serving as a fulcrum for the plot and the jokes.
Of the main characters, Fowlds’s Bernard was perhaps closest to the audience in outlook. He was not as cynical as Humphrey, nor a grandstanding and paranoid politician like Hacker. Bernard’s lingering earnestness often provide opportunities for Hacker and Humphrey to explain the realities of government, often cynically: “But surely the citizens of a democracy have a right to know.” “No. They have a right to be ignorant. Knowledge only means complicity in guilt; ignorance has a certain dignity.”
Fowlds also provided an important counterpart to the show’s witty verbosity through his occasional deft use of understated physical humor, which enlivened a show that mostly consisted of men in suits sitting around and talking.
But what talking! The jokes were cleverly written and perfectly delivered by Fowlds and his co-stars, with Fowlds in particular a master of deadpan. Although a comedy, the show understood the realities of government far better than ostensibly serious shows like “The West Wing,” which is politics as earnest freshmen political science majors wish it was.
“Yes, Minister” is much closer to politics as it really is, not a drama so much as a frenetic farce (and it avoided the crudity of “Veep”). As one character puts it, “Politicians like to panic. They need activity; it’s their substitute for achievement.”
The dialogue is full of quotable quips that shine as characters volley lines. For instance, when Bernard, seeking advice from Humphrey, says he would like a clear conscience, Humphrey replies by asking him when he acquired “this taste for luxuries?” Much of the humor arose from characters stating things more directly than their real-life counterparts would, thereby presenting taboo truths—such as the observation that the queen is essential to the Church of England, but God is an optional extra.
The central insight of “Yes, Minister” is that much political absurdity is the result of those in government being rational actors. Politicians and bureaucrats alike tend to act for what they perceive to be their self-interest, and it is the clash of these often private interests that produces so many ridiculous results, especially when they are compared to politicians’ promises.
Thus, the show’s jokes are grounded in a realistic view of politics, which understands both politicians and public servants as self-interested actors. Politicians, for instance, are rarely loyal soldiers fighting to enact their party’s policies. Rather, they are more of a “loose confederation of warring tribes,” and therefore they are often more concerned with their standing than with enacting an agenda or even supporting their colleagues.
Meanwhile, civil servants may swear that they are just humble functionaries carrying out the directives of their democratically elected political bosses. But the show reveals that they, as well as the politicians, have views and interests of their own. Also, as Sir Humphrey explains to Bernard, they would be mad if they really believed in all the often diametrically opposed policies they are instructed to implement.
Some government workers want to advance a cause, some want advancement in their career. Some want to build bureaucratic empires. Some want to take revenge. Some just want to go home early. As in any workplace, there are ambitions, rivalries, jealousies, incompetence, and laziness. Even the arch-bureaucrat Sir Humphrey had weaknesses and moments of indiscretion or incompetence that occasionally allowed Hacker or Bernard to get the better of him.
“Yes, Minister” reminds us that concentrated power will not be wielded by dispassionate experts for the common good, but by those who can seize it. As Humphrey puts it, “each new responsibility eagerly seized; each old one jealously guarded.” Even decades later, this bon mot remains the mot juste for the governing class.
Even as those who created and gave life to “Yes, Minister” have passed on, their work is still vividly relevant to the world. Derek Fowlds gave us a gem of a performance in a treasure of a show. May he rest in peace.