Broadcast on the 17th of December 1984, Party Games was the final episode of Yes Minster (it lead directly into the sequel series Yes Prime Minster). It has a slight Chrismassy feel, but it’s not really a surprise that politics (rather than Christmas) dominates proceedings.
We open with Bernard (Derek Fowlds) telling Jim Hacker (Paul Eddington) that there’s something much more urgent than the defence papers he’s working on. Jim pulls a face when he realises that Bernard’s talking about his Christmas cards, but obediently goes over to the desk where a mountain of cards awaits him. As might be expected, the neat civil servant in Bernard has organised everything down to the finest detail. “These you sign Jim, these Jim Hacker, these Jim and Annie, these Annie and Jim Hacker, these love from Annie and Jim.”
Sir Humphrey (Nigel Hawthorne) has gone for a meeting with Sir Arnold (John Nettleton). Sir Arnold is the cabinet secretary, and Jim helpfully reminds Bernard (and the audience) exactly how important Sir Arnold is. “In some ways, Sir Arnold is the most powerful chap in the country. Permanent access to the PM, controls Cabinet agenda, controls access to everything.”
He’s due to retire early and is keen to appoint a successor. But the right man for the job has to be able to ask the key question – when Sir Humphrey asks how Sir Arnold plans to spend his retirement, it’s obvious he’s on the right track. “There might be jobs you could pick up, ways you could serve the country, which your successor, whoever he might be, could put your way – er, persuade you to undertake!”
One of the joys of Yes Minister and Yes Prime Minster was the way in which it felt horribly credible. This wasn’t surprising, since the writers (Anthony Jay and Jonathan Lynn) had access to several different high level sources who would feed them valuable material. But what is surprising about Party Games is how it seems to predict future events (a sheer fluke but it’s fascinating nonetheless).
When the Home Secretary, shortly after launching his Don’t Drink and Drive Campaign, is picked up for drunk driving, he’s forced to retire. Shortly after, the Prime Minister also announces his retirement – which sparks an intense leadership contest. It soon becomes clear that the Prime Minister hated the Home Secretary and only stayed in power long enough to ensure that he’d never get the chance to become PM.
Two clear candidates for the top job emerge. Eric Jefferies (Peter Jeffrey) and Duncan Short (Philip Short). Both are viewed with disfavour by the Chief Whip Jeffrey Pearson (James Grout). “If Eric gets it we’ll have a party split in three months. If it’s Duncan, it’ll take three weeks.”
What they need is a comprise candidate – somebody with no firm opinions and lacking the personality to upset anybody. Jim Hacker, of course, is the perfect man. When Party Games was repeated in 1990, shortly after Margaret Thatcher’s fall from power, the parallels between Jim Hacker and John Major were simply irresistible. Both seemed only to have got the job because they were seen as a safe (and bland) pair of hands – as well as preventing other, more divisive, figures from occupying the top job.
As ever with Yes Minister, the script sparkles with killer one-liners. A favourite of mine comes from Sir Humphrey after Jim wonders what will happen to the Foreign Secretary following his enforced retirement. “Well, I gather he was as drunk as a lord. So, after a discreet interval, they’ll probably make him one.”
Nigel Hawthorne also has the opportunity to recite a typical tongue-twisting monologue. This is how Sir Humphrey breaks the news to Jim that he’s been promoted to Cabinet Secretary. “The relationship which I might tentatively venture to aver has been not without some degree of reciprocal utility and perhaps even occasional gratification, is emerging a point of irreversible bifurcation and, to be brief, is in the propinquity of its ultimate regrettable termination.”
Jim is able to persuade both Duncan and Eric to stand down from the leadership contest after he reads their MI5 files. As Sir Arnold says, “you should always send for Cabinet Ministers’ MI5 files, if you enjoy a good laugh.”
Party Games may feel a little bit stretched out at sixty minutes (as well the fact it does feel like an extended intro for the new series) but there’s still more than enough good material to make it an episode that repays multiple viewings.