Ten best political sitcoms of all time
By Dr Matt Ashton
You wait ages for a new political sitcom and then two of them come along at once. Tomorrow sees the debut of the new series of Yes Prime Minister, and later in the month Brian Cox stars as Bob Servant Independent.
Politics has always been a natural subject for comedy stretching back to the Greek playwrights, and luckily inspiration has never been in short supply. As the late great Will Rogers once dryly noted: "I don't tell jokes, I just watch the government and report the facts."
Despite this, there aren't as many political sitcoms out there as you might think. Possibly this is because political humour can be a tricky thing. After all, what a Conservative finds funny could go down like a lead balloon with a Labour supporter. Getting the balance right is essential. The original Yes Minister/Yes Prime Minister managed this beautifully, and the political persuasion of Jim Hacker's government is never explicitly mentioned (although the general consensus is that it's Conservative).
Remaking any much-loved show is always risky, especially one as iconic as Yes Minister. Time will tell whether is stands up against the best of the genre.
In the meantime, here's my run-down of the best political sitcoms of all time.
10) No Job For A Lady
Cruelly described by some as the Last of the Summers Wine of political sitcoms, No Job For A Lady hasn't aged very well. A lot of the time the whole thing was kept afloat by Penelope Keith lead performance. Her comic timing and delivery often rescues weak material. She plays a new Labour MP caught up in the usual conflict between her party and her principles. While not a bad sitcom per se, it suffers simply because it’s nowhere near as good as the others on this list.
9) Absolute Power
Spun off from the BBC 2 series In the Red, Absolute Power starred Steven Fry and John Bird as scheming PR men. Funny while never actually managing to be hilarious.
Or The Thick of it set in America as some have called it. The corridors of Westminster are swapped for the Office of the Vice Presidency as Julia Louis-Dreyfus navigates her way through possibly the most pointless job in American politics. As with most HBO series the production values are sky-high. The only reason it’s not higher on this list is that if you’ve seen The Thick of it, this isn’t really that different.
7) The Hollowmen
Probably the only one on this list you won't have heard of. This Australian sitcom takes an inside look at policy creation down-under. Some of the references are a little hard to follow if you’re not familiar with Australian politics, but the plots and jokes help underline the fact that think-tanks and civil servants are the same everywhere.
Only recently ended, 2012 dealt with the planning and run-up to the London Olympic Games. Like The Thick of it, it drew its inspiration from what was in the papers at the time. Unfortunately as the G4 security fiasco illustrated, real life can often be more farcical than sitcom. There was still a lot of comedy to be derived though from watching Hugh Bonneville and his team endlessly musing about what the word ‘legacy’ actually meant. In terms of how the show itself will be remembered, it’s perhaps been slightly undermined by the fact that in reality the Games were a tremendous success.
5) Spin City
One of only two American efforts on the list. It's less savage than its British counterparts, but not necessarily the worse for it. Barry Bostwick (Brad from the Rocky Horror Picture Show), played an incompetent mayor of New York while Michael J Fox was his scheming deputy trying to keep his boss out of trouble while spinning his version of the truth to the press. It lasted for over 140 episodes but isn't that well remembered in the UK. Unlike Friends and Will and Grace it's not on permanent repeat and was never released on Region 2 DVD. Like Yes Minister the party affiliation of the mayor and his team is never made clear. On a more negative note, it helped launched Charlie Sheen's sitcom career.
4) The New Statesman
Also notable for being the only ITV show on this list, The New Statesman is less a political sitcom and more a vehicle for Rik Mayall to act like a complete rotter. He played Alan B'Stard, a sociopathic Tory MP who was the 80s' 'greed is good' ethos made flesh. Over the course of four series he tried to climb the greasy pole, double-crossing everyone in his path. Along with The House of Cards' prime ministerial villain Francis Urquhart, he helped reinforce the public’s perception of the Conservatives as the 'nasty party' of British politics. Mayall has revived the character several times over the years, most recently on stage.
3) Citizen Smith
Despite his later crimes against comedy in My Family, Robert Lindsay was on top form here as 'Wolfie' Smith. A self-proclaimed revolutionary and Britain's answer to Che Guevara, the show was a merciless sendup of 70s counter-culture politics. Each week Citizen Smith and his motley crew of hangers-on and petty criminals would attempt to fight for social justice and secure 'Freedom for Tooting'. In practice their efforts would always be frustrated by their own ineptitude and lack of planning. The series ran from 1977 and 1980 which seems strangely apt in retrospect. A character like Smith in Thatcher's Britain would have been oddly out of place. Luckily writer John Sullivan launched Only Fools and Horses a year later which perfectly caught the mood of the times.
2) The Thick Of It
Often described as a modern day version of Yes Minister, on first inspection the parallels aren't always obvious due to the completely different filming style and the Herculean levels of swearing. It concerns various hapless government ministers and civil servants trying to do their jobs while avoiding the wrath of the PM's terrifying director of communications, Malcolm Tucker. Most of the fun comes from him bullying terrified MPs while inventing ever more elaborate ways to insult them. Possibly the ultimate proof that swearing can be clever when done well.
1) Yes, Minister
Still the best ever example of the genre. The set-up was simplicity itself. Jim Hacker, played by the ever wonderful Paul Eddington, becomes the new minister for administrative affairs. His attempts at getting things done are constantly thwarted by the civil service in the form of Nigel Hawthorne's Machiavellian Sir Humphrey. Stuck between the two is Derek Fowlds as the hapless Bernard Woolley, who as Hacker's principal private secretary represents the audience and gets to ask all the questions. The show was revolutionary in terms of suggesting that all real power in the UK actually rests with a civil service committed to the status quo regardless of who was in government. Jim Hacker eventually becomes prime minister, but despite occupying the highest office in the land discovers that he still can't get anything done.
Yes Minister manages to be a razor sharp dissection of UK politics, but at the same time is almost universally applicable. I've spoken to academics from dozens of countries who all agree that their governments have plenty of Jim Hackers and Sir Humphreys in the corridors of power. Often political satire dates badly, but if you watch the episodes that deal with Britain's relationship with Europe, the arms trade and nuclear weapons, they’re just as relevant now as they ever were. In this sense Yes Minister/Yes Prime Minister isn't just the best political sitcom of all time, it's probably the best political TV show of all time.
– – – – –
And finally, lest we forget, here's the worst political sitcom ever:
This terrible show was about a group of MPs in the House of Commons and was billed as the 90s version of Yes Minister. In reality it was so bad that it's been wiped from the collective consciousness. Certainly I've hardly ever met anyone who watched it. The entire monstrosity of a first series is available on 4OD if you feel the need to watch it. To give you some idea of its quality though, despite it being online for free since 2010, most episodes have been viewed less than 200 times each. This is a show so bad Channel 4 can't even get people to watch it for free. As long as the new Yes Minister manages to be better than this, it'll have done its job.
Dr Matthew Ashton is a politics lecturer at Nottingham Trent University. Visit his blog.