by Allan Fish
(UK 1980-1984/1986-1988 1,147m) DVD1/2
p/d Peter Whitmore, Sydney Lotterby w Antony Jay, Jonathan Lynn m Ronnie Hazelhurst titles Gerald Scarfe
Paul Eddington (Jim Hacker), Nigel Hawthorne (Sir Humphrey Appleby), Derek Fowlds (Bernard Woolley), Diana Hoddinott (Annie Hacker), John Nettleton (Sir Arnold Robinson), Neil Fitzwilliam (Frank Weisel), John Savident (Sir Frederick ‘Jumbo’ Stewart), Peter Jeffrey, Philip Stone, Graeme Garden, Robert East, Nigel Stock,
In the history of television, can there be a more suitable fitting of actor to part as Nigel Hawthorne to Sir Humphrey Appleby, the real hero of Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn’s comedy, often perfectly described as a “Whitehall waltz”? It won him three BAFTA awards as best comedy actor and many other accolades, too. His very first scene, in the opening episode, demonstrated the superciliousness of the character in a nutshell, detailing the full list of employees under the disposal of his new minister, and baffling him in the process. It was the first of many Sir Humphreyisms.
Jim Hacker is a former press editor turned MP living in the Midlands, who is appointed Minister for Administrative Affairs in the new government. He arrives to find that the position is somewhat of a political graveyard, with occupants barely getting chance to get their seat warm before leaving office. His two principal allies/jousting partners, are his Permanent Under-Secretary, Sir Humphrey Appleby, a dyed-in-the-wool Oxford old boy who’s been in the Civil Service for decades, and the Minister’s Private Secretary, the tactful diplomatist, Bernard Woolley, who gets himself caught between the two. Several years on, Hacker found himself, almost inadvertently, becoming Prime Minister, with Sir Humphrey as his cabinet secretary, still trying to stop him rocking the boat and stymieing his every radical reform move.
Looked back upon two decades after the last episode, it’s amazing how fresh it still seems. The series itself began less than a year after Margaret Thatcher came to power, and ended less than two years before she vacated it. It was well known to be her favourite programme, and it’s one thing you couldn’t begrudge her – Antony Jay even got a knighthood out of it. There are no words to describe the incredibly layered, witty, supremely intelligent nature of the scripts, each so perfect as to defy description. Every episode is a mini-masterpiece of political manoeuvring and farcical comedy, with a special mention to The Compassionate Society – in which the minister is shocked to learn that a hospital in Greater London has no patients, but a staff of over 500, and can’t get people to see that the purpose of a hospital is to cure the sick, not create employment for the backroom staff – and The Moral Dimension, in which the minister and his entourage, worried about not being able to drink for five hours at a reception in Qumran, due to Islamic law, set up a communications room adjacent to the reception and get messages sent out at regular intervals to pick up alcohol smuggled from the British embassy (“the Soviet Embassy for you, Sir Humphrey, a Mr Smirnoff”).
As the unfortunate, LSE-educated and somewhat simplistic Hacker, Paul Eddington got his signature role, relishing every opportunity to summon forth Churchill-like statements of bravado and nationalism at moments of crisis, while Derek Fowlds was simply sublime as the paradoxically harried and unflappable Bernard, who realises that in order to make sure no-one reads a touchy document, don’t bother shredding it, just file it. And though many cameos make a mark – special mention to ex-Goodie Graeme Garden as a special branch operative sent to brief the minister when he appears on a Death List (“if you are pushed out of a high window and there’s iron railings underneath, try and land on your head; quicker!”) – this is Hawthorne’s show in every sense of the word, the personification of two-faced diplomacy, but it’s that he makes you love him in spite of the old school tie that is so indicative of his unique talent as a comic actor.