The Challenge (Yes Minister)

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"The Challenge"
Episode no. Series 3
Episode 2
Written by Antony Jay
Jonathan Lynn
Produced by Peter Whitmore
Original air date 18 November 1982
Guest actors
Episode chronology
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"The Skeleton in the Cupboard"
List of Yes Minister and Yes, Prime Minister episodes

"The Challenge" is the sixteenth episode of the BBC comedy series Yes Minister and was first broadcast 18 November 1982.

Plot[edit]

Jim Hacker is on the radio, being interviewed by Ludovic Kennedy. His department, the Department for Administrative Affairs, is about to enjoy an expanded remit, with local government bureaucracy being added to its responsibilities. Kennedy puts it to Hacker that his department is more interested in increasing red tape than reducing it. The Minister responds that they have had to "take on more staff in order to reduce staff". He says that he is looking forward to the challenge, but is unable to give any detailed proposals.

The next day, Sir Humphrey Appleby is at lunch with the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Arnold Robinson. The latter remarks on Hacker's recent interview, in particular the fact that he regarded his new duties as a "challenge". Sir Arnold makes it clear to Sir Humphrey that he would have never given this task to the DAA if he thought the Minister was actually going to do anything about it, and would prefer it if the status quo is maintained. The reason is that efficiencies that are successfully enacted in local government usually rebound on Whitehall departments, which are then also forced to implement them. Sir Humphrey is fully seized of Sir Arnold's aims, but is advised — if things get tricky — to draw the Minister's attention to civil defence: the one area in which national government has little interest.

Hacker concludes a meeting in his office, and is approached by one of the participants, Dr Cartwright, an Under-Secretary who has become an expert in local government (and therefore shall rise no higher in the civil service). He proposes to the Minister that any future local authority projects must list their criteria for failure before they are given the go-ahead. Hacker is immediately interested and instructs Bernard, his Principal Private Secretary, to make this paper his top priority reading for the weekend. They are joined by Sir Humphrey, who is apprised of Hacker's new plan and is completely startled, labelling it "dangerous nonsense". Hacker impresses upon his Permanent Secretary the urgent need to bring forward proposals. Sir Humphrey falls back on Sir Arnold's advice and tells his minister that civil defence is the one area of local government which would be a "vote winner". These words have the desired effect and Hacker is curious. Sir Humphrey convinces him that there is a real public interest and mentions in passing that Ludovic Kennedy is in the process of preparing a documentary on the subject. In the meantime, the London borough of Thames Marsh spends less on civil defence than any other authority: he suggests a ministerial visit. Bernard points out that the particular borough is run by Ben Stanley — a firebrand who is subject to frequent censure by the press. Hacker asks Bernard to ensure that there be plenty of journalists in attendance for his trip.

Hacker meets with Ben Stanley and is accompanied by Dr Cartwright. The Minister tells Stanley about his authority's poor commitment to civil defence, but the councillor responds that to increase expenditure in that area, other necessities would have to be forfeited. However, Dr Cartwright reads Stanley a list of items (including a fact-finding mission to Jamaica and a gay bereavement centre) that could be safely removed from the authority's current budget. Stanley is unimpressed, and states that even if they could afford it, his borough is unilateralist and will not invest in nuclear fallout shelters — despite it being government policy. However, Bernard draws the Minister's attention to the fact that there is indeed a fallout shelter under the town hall, exclusively for the use of Stanley and his colleagues. The councillor insists that he was persuaded that his preservation was a necessity to local ratepayers.

Sir Humphrey once again meets with Sir Arnold and discusses Hacker's visit, which seems to have been a publicity triumph. However, Dr Cartwright's initiative still looks likely to be implemented — and Sir Arnold is horrified. He remarks that if it goes ahead, Whitehall would enter the "squalid world of professional management." He states that Hacker must be stopped, and, after Sir Humphrey tells him of the next Ludovic Kennedy interview, proposes that the Minister be provided with a dossier on local civil defence expenditure.

During the interview recording, Hacker tells Kennedy of Stanley's reserved place in the Thames Marsh fallout shelter and his refusal to build them for others. He believes that such places should be for essential citizens, such as doctors, nurses and ambulance drivers, rather than "mere politicians". However, Kennedy asks Hacker if he has approached the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary on the subject, since they are both able to avail themselves of the government shelter in Whitehall. Hacker manages to deflect the question, but not entirely successfully. He then tells of a trip by one authority to California to examine fallout shelters, which itself ended up costing the borough's entire civil defence budget for three years.

Later, the Minister is back in his office. He is unsure that things are going smoothly, and tells Sir Humphrey of the recording. It then transpires that the California visit was undertaken by a council that is in the PM's own constituency. The Minister is alarmed and instructs Sir Humphrey to stop the broadcast. Alas, all his time is being taken up with implementing the failure standards scheme, but if that wasn't so urgent, he may be able to help. As it happens, Sir Humphrey is lunching with the BBC's Director of Policy: he invites Hacker along.

During the lunch, the BBC's man states that there is no question of the Corporation giving in to government pressure. However, Sir Humphrey provides a raft of evidence for so-called anti-government bias within the BBC's output, along with a number of photographs of senior BBC executives enjoying certain hospitality. The pair also convinces the Director of Policy that Kennedy's interview contains some "factual errors" and security issues.

Back in Hacker's office, Sir Humphrey informs the Minister of the BBC's decision not to proceed with the transmission. In turn, Hacker now decides to leave local government as it is, due to the above incident having made him acutely aware of the fine line that must be negotiated in dealing with local government by Whitehall, much to Sir Humphrey's relief.

Reception[edit]

Armando Iannucci wrote in the Daily Telegraph that "it was in an episode from Series 3 called The Challenge that we saw how the Government succeeds in exerting pressure on the BBC by applying the best twisted logic the executive machine can deliver... If all that seems depressingly relevant, it's easy to forget how revolutionary the programme was when it first went out."[1]

Episode cast[edit]

Actor Role
Paul Eddington Jim Hacker
Nigel Hawthorne Sir Humphrey Appleby
Derek Fowlds Bernard Woolley
John Nettleton Sir Arnold Robinson
Ian Lavender Dr Cartwright
Doug Fisher Ben Stanley
Moray Watson BBC Director of Policy
Stuart Sherwin Permanent Secretary
Frank Tregear TV Floor Manager
Ludovic Kennedy Himself

Character notes[edit]

  • The character of Ben Stanley is, in both name and appearance, a thinly veiled reference to Ken Livingstone, who himself attracted criticism for his left-wing views and generally being a thorn in the side of Britain's Conservative government.

References[edit]

  1. ^ Iannucci, Armando (7 February 2004). "Yes, Minister: nothing changes". Daily Telegraph. Retrieved 2 October 2009. 

External links[edit]

"The Challenge" at the Internet Movie Database