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.


Prime Minister Jim Hacker, Cabinet Secretary Sir Humphrey Appleby, and Bernard Woolley are watching a news report about Fiona McGregor, a British nurse who has been detained in the Islamic state of Qumran. She has been charged with possession of a bottle of whisky, a crime punishable by 10 years imprisonment and 40 lashes. The PM asks if anything can be done to save her. Sir Humphrey tells him that the Qumranis assist Britain by sabotaging OPEC agreements and helping MI6 spy on the KGB in Baathist Iraq. Therefore, the Foreign Office's advice is to do nothing. Hacker protests that doing nothing will make him look both heartless and feeble. When he snaps that the Foreign Office's job is to protect British nationals, the Cabinet Secretary corrects him: its purpose is to protect British interests.

That evening, Sir Humphrey attends a dinner at his alma mater, Baillie College, Oxford University with the Master and the Bursar. They wish to sound him out about succeeding the current Master upon his retirement (which will coincide with Sir Humphrey's retirement from the civil service). The only obstacle is the Dean, who hates Sir Humphrey. The only way that he can be removed from Baillie is to offer him a bishopric in the Church of England, and Bury St Edmunds has just fallen vacant.

However, Sir Humphrey sadly informs him that the job is taken. Although it's officially the PM's, decision the Church Commissioners always put up an impossible second candidate in order to force his hand. The Dean will therefore have to perform some sort of public service to have chance of getting a Diocese. Commenting that he is a scholar of the Koran, Sir Humphrey suggests sending the Dean to Qumran to negotiate on behalf of Fiona McGregor.

The next day, Hacker meets with Peter Harding, the spokesman for the Church. Harding provides background information on the two candidates for Bury St. Edmunds. The favoured nominee is Canon Stanford, educated at New College, Oxford, a theological modernist, and whose "eminently suitable wife" is the daughter of the Earl of Chichester. The second is a Dr Harvey, whom Harding denigrates for his increasing criticism of State control of the Church. Although Hacker is inclined to pick Harvey, Harding reminds him that the Queen would be unhappy if an opponent of State control were appointed as Bishop. After Harding departs, Bernard warns Hacker against nominating Stanford and leaves to fetch Stanford's career details.

While Bernard is away, the PM asks Sir Humphrey to define "Modernist". The Cabinet Secretary explains that, in Ecclesiastical circles, "Modernist" is code for an Atheist. "An Atheist clergyman," he elaborates, "couldn't continue to collect his stipend. So when they lose their faith in God, they just call themselves Modernist."

Stunned, the PM demands to know why the Church would recommend an Atheist for Bishop of Bury St. Edmunds. Sir Humphrey explains that the Church of England has nothing to do with Christianity -- it's "part of the rich social fabric of this country" and the ideal Bishop is "a cross between a socialite and a socialist". Then, Bernard returns with Canon Stanford's record -- the prospective Bishop is not only an Atheist, he is also a Marxist and a militant opponent of the Cold War. What is worse, being Bishop of Bury St. Edmunds will give Canon Stanford a platform in the House of Lords. Calling the Canon "a political troublemaker", the PM announces that he doesn't want to approve either candidate. Bernard and Sir Humphrey, however, explain that that would not be advisable.

That evening, Hacker's wife, Annie expresses concern about Fiona McGregor and asks why the Foreign Office doesn't do something. Her husband sarcastically remarks that the principal function of the FO is to explain why they can't do anything. Then Bernard arrives with news that the Dean of Baillie College is proposing to be sent as an emissary on a "faith to faith meeting". The FO wants him to block the visit, but Hacker tells Bernard that he supports the move.

After he leaves, Annie inquires about Bury St. Edmunds and recoils when told of Canon Stanford's Atheist and Marxist views. Equally disgusted, Hacker complains that he can't refuse to appoint the Canon because it "will look political". The devoutly Anglican Annie suggests that, since Canon Stanford does not believe in heaven, hell, the divinity of Jesus Christ, or the Virgin Birth, Hacker can refuse to nominate him on religious grounds. Hacker is overjoyed.

Later, Sir Humphrey discusses the news with the Permanent Secretary to the Foreign Office -- Sir Richard Wharton. To Sir Richard's outrage, the Dean of Baillie has convinced the Qumranis to free Fiona McGregor. Sir Richard complains that the PM should have taken his advice -- Fiona McGregor would have been quietly locked up and soon forgotten by the British press and public. Now the FO looks incompetent. To "take the heat off", he decides to leak to the press that the Dean set off for Qumran at the PM’s insistence. After he leaves, Sir Humphrey tells the Master of Baillie that Canon Stanford has been denied the Bishopric of Bury St. Edmunds and that the Dean now has a fighting chance.

The next morning, all the front pages are devoted to the PM’s "mercy mission", much to Hacker’s delight. Bernard reminds him that the Queen is still awaiting his selection for the Bury St. Edmunds Diocese. There are now two new names from which to choose: one is the Dean of Baillie, and the other is Canon Stephen Soames, a theological conservative whom the Church Commissioners hate and whom the PM favours.

However, Sir Humphrey describes Soames' vocal opposition to birth control, abortion, violent television, and pornography. Horrified, the PM explains that these are subjects his Government is determined "to have no policy" about.

Sir Humphrey then warns that the Dean of Baillie may soon tell the press that his mission to Qumran was not the PM’s idea. Knowing this would humiliate his Government, Hacker decides to appoint the Dean as Bishop to keep him quiet.

Then, however, Hacker recalls Sir Humphrey's Baillie connections and asks whether this is another patronage job. Sir Humphrey explains that he and the Dean detest each other. Deeply impressed, the PM praises Sir Humphrey for giving efficient, impartial, and selfless advice in the "best traditions of the civil service." Sir Humphrey smiles and responds, "Yes, Prime Minister."


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