Page last updated at 16:18 GMT, Monday, 26 April 2010 17:18 UK

Memo to the Minister: Sir Humphrey returns

Sir Humphrey Appleby played by Henry Goodman
Henry Goodman assumes the role of Sir Humphrey Appleby - made famous in the 1980s by actor Sir Nigel Hawthorne

BBC Comedy producer Jonathan Harvey explains why Sir Antony Jay, co-writer of classic political comedies Yes Minister and Yes, Prime Minister, has resurrected the master of obfuscation and manipulation Sir Humphrey Appleby for Newsnight's Election 2010 campaign coverage.

Over the weekend our image of Whitehall civil servants has gained an added dimension from the story of the back-firing memo, which supposedly prepares for the Pope's visit to Britain later this year.

With parliament dissolved and ministers away campaigning, you'd think it would be time to relax - a bit of golf or gardening, perhaps, until the fuss dies down. But you'd be wrong
Antony Jay

It is unusual to catch government workers indulging in a spot of satire, but the effect has been to reinforce the view of them as a target for the satirist's pen.

For many of us the image conjured in our heads when we hear the words "civil servant" is that of Sir Humphrey Appleby, the brilliantly devious permanent secretary in the classic political comedy, Yes Minister.

So it was strange that the papal memo story should break just as Newsnight was filming some brand new fictional monologues featuring Sir Humphrey, as part of our election specials.

We have had two decades and four prime ministers since the last episode of Yes, Prime Minister aired in 1988, but now its creators Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn are collaborating once more and a stage version of Yes, Prime Minister opens in May at Chichester Festival Theatre.

For Newsnight Antony Jay has written a set of three monologues featuring Sir Humphrey, portrayed by Henry Goodman, who takes the iconic role in the forthcoming play.

In three episodes we will see him flick through the main party manifestos and offer his unique advice for any incoming minister on handling, or getting around, aspects of potential future policy.

Memo to the Minister
Jay offers advice to incoming ministers from each of the three parties

Antony Jay writes: "Election time may mean frantic activity for politicians on the hustings, but what about the civil servants in Whitehall? With parliament dissolved and ministers away campaigning, you'd think it would be time to relax - a bit of golf or gardening, perhaps, until the fuss dies down. But you'd be wrong.

"The officials are at this very moment deep in the party manifestos, preparing their responses and proposals for when the new minister arrives. In fact, whichever party wins, on his first morning every new minister will find a file on his desk showing how the department will turn the manifesto promises into acts of parliament. Or maybe why it won't be possible.

"So how does it work? Well, we were lucky enough to catch a top civil servant grappling with the problem…"

According to Sir Humphrey, party manifestos are "wonderful anthologies of creative writing", and they are certainly packed with optimism.

On the front cover of their manifesto Labour boldly proclaim A Future Fair for All, while the Conservatives' hard-back volume offers An Invitation to Join the Government of Britain.

In contrast the Liberal Democrats have plumped for the slightly less catchy Liberal Democrat Manifesto 2010, which at least does what it says on the tin.

In past elections after polling day all but one of the party manifestos have been transformed in an instant from future vision to historical artefact.

Will the same be true this time?

Whatever happens, it is the mission of our civil servants to navigate the incoming government's policies, and Sir Humphrey is the consummate master.

Watch the first Memo to the Minister sketch on Newsnight on Monday 26th April 2010 at 10.30pm on BBC Two.

Sir Humphrey responds to Tory manifesto
26 Apr 10 |  Newsnight


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