Published: January 23, 2020 12:02:11 am
A common exercise among theatre practitioners is to say a line in many ways, altering with subtleties of accent and expression its meaning. So, whether the emphasis is placed on “be” or “not” in “to be or not to be” makes all the difference. Derek Fowlds, who died last week, at 82, managed to say so many different things with just two words, when he played Bernard Woolley, the junior civil servant and private secretary to minister and later British Prime Minister Jim Hacker, in Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister.
Yes, Minister and its sequel had, and continue to have, a particular resonance in India. This is in part due to the fact that this country shares the Westminster system with the British and much of the Commonwealth — the obfuscations of British bureaucratic language, the pomposity of civil servants, have deep resonance with anyone who has interacted with babus or the sarkar. But what truly set apart Yes, Minister — and even its Indian remake, Ji Mantriji — was that the agents of the state were not villainous. Each of them — the minister, the private secretary and the senior permanent secretary, Sir Humphrey — had a logic to their actions. The politician, answerable to the people, wanted quick-fixes and the civil servant wanted things to stay the same.
In Yes, Minister, we never find out which party Hacker belongs to, nor the political leanings of Bernard and Sir Humphrey. But the show illustrated for the world an important lesson about the nature of the state: The steel frame is conservative. And it can find ways to circumvent the politician. The ways in which Fowlds managed to say “Yes, Minister” and “Of course, Sir Humphrey” were a subversion of all the preening and certainty that the powerful deploy.