The Smoke Screen

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"The Smoke Screen"
Yes, Prime Minister episode
Episode no. Series 1
Episode 3
Written by Antony Jay
Jonathan Lynn
Produced by Sydney Lotterby
Original air date 23 January 1986
Guest actors
Episode chronology
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List of Yes Minister and Yes, Prime Minister episodes

“The Smoke Screen” is the third episode of the BBC comedy series Yes, Prime Minister and was first broadcast 23 January 1986.

Plot[edit]

Sir Humphrey Appleby is meeting with his subordinate Sir Frank Gordon, Permanent Secretary to the Treasury. Sir Frank is worried about Jim Hacker’s proposal to use some of the savings from his “Grand Design” for a £1.5 billion tax cut. They both agree that the whole system of government depends on them controlling the Prime Minister and the Chancellor respectively, and ensuring a degree of mistrust between them. Sir Frank points out that the notion of a tax cut is the one thing that unites the politicians and he had great difficulty getting the Chancellor to eventually oppose it. Sir Humphrey advises that low productivity within the economy could be seen to be more important. However, according to Sir Frank it is the fault of the British worker for being “fundamentally lazy". Sir Humphrey then dashes off to catch up with an England cricket match.

A drunken Sir Humphrey relaxes in his box at the cricket match, courtesy of the British Tobacco Group. He chats to Gerald, one of BTG’s directors, and asks a favour on behalf of the Royal Opera House, which needs more funds. Gerald is happy to oblige and mentions that he happens to be meeting the Minister for Sport later that afternoon. Sir Humphrey asks if Dr Peter Thorn, the Minister for Health, will be attending, but Gerald tells him that he has refused, apparently because he has sided with the anti-smoking lobby.

Sometime later, the PM is in his office, lamenting the Chancellor’s refusal to agree a tax cut. Sir Humphrey explains that the Treasury does not like giving money back out of principle, and he elaborates on this. Traditionally, taxes aren’t raised by measuring the government’s financial needs, but by levying as much as it can before deciding what to spend it on. The Cabinet Secretary leaves as Hacker has a meeting with Dr Thorn. The latter has come up with a radical plan: he wants to progressively eliminate smoking by banning all forms of tobacco advertising and implementing steep tax rises over the next five years. He points out the number of lives lost each year to smoking-related illnesses. The PM sympathises but knows that the tobacco tax raises revenue of £4 billion a year and that the Treasury would dismiss Thorn’s proposal. He can’t support Thorn publicly, but nevertheless can see a way of using his scheme to force the Treasury’s hand. For the time being, Hacker asks the Minister to keep pushing the argument and to make some speeches on it.

Sir Humphrey comes back in to enquire about Hacker’s meeting, and laughs at Thorn’s plan. However, he changes tack when the PM tells of his support for it. Sir Humphrey points out that there is a counter-argument for Thorn’s statistics. If those who die of smoking were to live to an advanced age, then it has been proven that they would cost the Treasury more in terms of pensions and benefit payments than it currently pays out in medical expenses. So in financial terms, he argues, it makes sense that they “continue to die at about the present rate”. He also puts the case for tobacco sponsorship of major sporting events. The PM is coincidentally to meet the Minister for Sport that afternoon, and since he is a member of the tobacco lobby, Hacker is suspicious.

Hacker meets Leslie Potts, the Minister for Sport, at the House of Commons. Potts is a smoker himself and has the cough to prove it. He has got wind of Thorn’s paper and warns the PM that if it progresses any further, it’s not just sporting events that will suffer: there are many marginal seats with workers in the tobacco industry. Hacker pointedly asks Potts if he was once a paid consultant to BTG. The Minister admits this, but stresses it has nothing to do with his opposition to the plan.

Sir Humphrey meets with Sir Frank and Sir Ian Whitchurch, Permanent Secretary of the DHSS. They agree that there is definitely a moral principle involved, but with £4 billion of revenue at stake, morality is a luxury they can ill afford. Sir Humphrey remembers that during Hacker’s time at the DAA, they would both regularly visit events at Lord’s, Wimbledon, and Glyndebourne as guests of BTG. The PM is therefore implicated in receiving a great deal of hospitality at the company’s expense.

Hacker is back in his office and is pleased that everything is going well, but Bernard asks if he will withdraw his support for Dr Thorn once he gets his tax cut. The PM states that he will simply “rearrange his priorities.” Sir Humphrey joins them and tries his BTG hospitality gambit, but Hacker is unmoved: as he points out, enjoying drinks at the Russian embassy doesn’t make him a spy. Sir Humphrey is now on the ropes and can think of nothing, but when the PM reminds him of his desired tax cut, he begins to take the hint and leaves to make some phone calls.

Meanwhile, Dr Thorn is back to see the PM, brimming with confidence over the amount of support he’s been getting. However, Hacker tells him that the Treasury is causing problems. Thorn counters that he is serious about his proposal and will publicly resign if necessary. While Thorn waits outside, Sir Humphrey comes back in with news that the Treasury can encompass the PM’s tax cut, with the proviso that the anti-smoking policy is shelved. Hacker agrees, but tells him of Thorn’s threat. Sir Humphrey suggests that Thorn be promoted to a vacancy at the Treasury. After Thorn is placated by his rapid elevation (with the promise that his proposal isn’t dropped) the position of Minister for Health is given to Leslie Potts, whose smoker’s cough prevents him from expressing his agreement.

Episode cast[edit]

Actor Role
Paul Eddington Jim Hacker
Nigel Hawthorne Sir Humphrey Appleby
Derek Fowlds Bernard Woolley
John Barron Sir Ian Whitchurch
Clive Merrison Dr Peter Thorn
Peter Cellier Sir Frank Gordon
Bill Wallis Leslie Potts
Brian Hawksley Gerald

Notes[edit]

Dr. Thorne's proposals, which include a ban on cigarette sponsorship and advertising and a ban on smoking in all public places were adopted over the twenty years after the programme was first broadcast.

Public Finance Balance of Smoking in the Czech Republic is a real report commissioned by tobacco company Philip Morris, the idea in which is similar to Humphrey's.

External links[edit]

"The Smoke Screen" at the Internet Movie Database