The Bishop's Gambit

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"The Bishop’s Gambit"
Yes, Prime Minister episode
Episode no. Series 1
Episode 7
Written by Antony Jay
Jonathan Lynn
Produced by Sydney Lotterby
Original air date 20 February 1986
Guest actors
Episode chronology
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List of Yes Minister and Yes, Prime Minister episodes
“The bishop’s gambit” may also refer to a variation of the chess opening: the King’s Gambit.

“The Bishop’s Gambit” is the seventh episode of the BBC comedy series Yes, Prime Minister and was first broadcast 20 February 1986.

Plot[edit]

Jim Hacker, Sir Humphrey Appleby, and Bernard Woolley are watching a news report about Fiona McGregor, a British nurse who has been detained in the Gulf state of Qumran, for possession of a bottle of whisky, a crime punishable with 10 years in prison and 40 lashes. The Prime Minister asks if anything can be done to save her. Sir Humphrey tells him that the Qumranis are good friends of Britain and assist the country in several ways, so the Foreign Office's advice would be to do nothing. When Hacker protests that the Foreign Office is there to look after British nationals overseas, the Cabinet Secretary corrects him: its purpose is to protect British interests abroad.

That evening, Sir Humphrey attends a dinner at his alma mater, Baillie College, with the Master and the Bursar. They wish to sound him out about succeeding the current Master upon his retirement (which will coincide with the time Sir Humphrey is planning to retire from the civil service). The only stumbling block is the Dean, who has taken a personal dislike to Sir Humphrey and is against his appointment. The only way that he can be removed from Baillie is to offer him a bishopric, and Bury St Edmunds has just fallen vacant. However, Sir Humphrey informs him that the job is taken: although it's by the PM's recommendation, the Church of England nearly always puts up an impossible second candidate in order to force his hand. Sir Humphrey explains that the Church is always seeking to maintain the balance of bishops between those who believe in God and those who do not. It is agreed that the Dean would have to perform some sort of public service to be in with a chance of getting a diocese, and Sir Humphrey suggests sending him to Qumran to intercede on behalf of the British nurse.

The next day, Hacker holds a meeting with Peter Harding, spokesman for the Church Commissioners, who provides background information on the two candidates for the diocese of Bury St. Edmunds. The favoured nominee is Canon Stanford, educated at New College, Oxford, a well-known college of the University of Oxford, and a modernist who is highly thought of and whose wife is the daughter of the Earl of Chichester. The second is a Dr Harvey, who has little that Harding can recommend because of his disestablishmentarian views. However, he reminds the PM that it is his choice. Even so, after Harding departs, Bernard indicates that appointing Canon Stanford may be an "own goal." He leaves to fetch Stanford's career details as Hacker is joined by Sir Humphrey.

The Cabinet Secretary informs Hacker that "modernist" is code for "non-believer". The PM wonders why, in that case, such a person could have been recommended for Bury St. Edmunds. Sir Humphrey enlightens him that the COE is primarily a social organisation rather than a religious one. Bishops therefore tend to be chosen more because of their public standing rather than their actual ideology. Bernard returns with the particulars of Canon Stanford's calling, and it transpires that he holds strong socialist beliefs. He may turn out to be a thorn in Hacker's side if installed. The PM decides he doesn't want him.

That evening, Hacker is in his flat above 10 Downing Street with his wife, Annie. She too is concerned about the British nurse in Qumran, and asks why the Foreign Office doesn't do anything. Her husband remarks that the principal function of the FO is to explain why things can't be done. The Bernard arrives with news that the Dean of Baillie College is proposed to be sent as an emissary to Qumran on a "faith to faith meeting". The FO is apparently against it, but Hacker instructs Bernard to tell them it will go ahead. After he leaves, Annie enquires about the appointment of bishops, and Hacker explains that religion doesn’t have much to do with it. He tells her of the preferred appointment for Bury St. Edmunds, and that he can’t really refuse it because it would look political. Annie suggests a simple solution: since Canon Stanford doesn’t believe in heaven, hell or the Virgin Birth, Hacker should decline the nomination on religious grounds.

Later, Sir Humphrey is in the Cabinet Office with the Permanent Secretary to the Foreign Office, Sir Richard Wharton. They watch a television news bulletin that announces the Dean of Baillie has succeeded in convincing the Qumranis to free Fiona McGregor. (The Dean of Baillie College, as depicted on the news bulletin, bears a marked resemblance to Terry Waite, who at the time of the episode’s broadcast was the Archbishop of Canterbury’s special envoy.[citation needed]) Sir Richard is appalled that his department’s advice has been ignored and now it looks like the Church has succeeded where the FO has failed. He suggests telling the media that the Dean set off for Qumran at the PM’s personal insistence, which should take some of the heat off. After he leaves, Sir Humphrey takes a call from the Master of Baillie. He apprises him that the bishopric of Bury St. Edmunds has not yet been filled, and the Dean may be in with a chance.

The next morning, the front pages are devoted to the PM’s “intervention” in Qumran, much to Hacker’s delight. Bernard reminds him that he must make his selection for the Bury St. Edmunds diocese, and there are now two new names from which to choose: one is the Dean of Baillie, and the other is a Stephen Soames, whom the PM favours. However, Sir Humphrey points out that Soames is also the candidate preferred by the Church Commissioners. This alerts Hacker that he may not in fact be suitable, and indeed Sir Humphrey lists a number of controversial views held by Soames that could prove uncomfortable for the government. He then helps the Dean of Baillie’s chances by notifying Hacker that the Dean intends to go to the press and tell them that his mission was not the PM’s idea. Hacker can now see the sense of making a swift appointment. He questions Sir Humphrey about his Baillie connections, but the mandarin in reply asks, how could there be any personal gain involved since the Dean personally dislikes him?

Episode cast[edit]

Actor Role
Paul Eddington Jim Hacker
Nigel Hawthorne Sir Humphrey Appleby
Derek Fowlds Bernard Woolley
Frank Middlemass Master, Baillie College
William Fox Bursar, Baillie College
Ronnie Stevens Peter Harding
Donald Pickering Sir Richard Wharton
Diana Hoddinott Annie Hacker
Sue Lawley Herself

External links[edit]

"The Bishop's Gambit" at the Internet Movie Database