The Greasy Pole

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"The Greasy Pole"
Yes Minister episode
Episode no.Series 2
Episode 4
Written byAntony Jay
Jonathan Lynn
Produced byPeter Whitmore
Original air date16 March 1981
Guest appearance(s)
Episode chronology
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"The Death List"
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"The Devil You Know"
List of Yes Minister and Yes, Prime Minister episodes

"The Greasy Pole" is the eleventh episode of the BBC comedy series Yes Minister and was first broadcast 16 March 1981. In this episode, the final "Yes, Minister" is uttered by Bernard Woolley. The episode's title is an allusion to a famous quotation by Benjamin Disraeli: "I have climbed to the top of the greasy pole". In Disraeli's case, it referred to achieving high political office while being of Jewish parentage.


Sir Humphrey Appleby is meeting in his office with Sir Wally McFarlane, Chairman of the state-owned British Chemical Corporation, which is on the verge of securing a massive contract from the Italians for the manufacture of propanol at their plant in Merseyside. However, Sir Humphrey is stating the government's concern that the propanol will contain "metadioxin", an inert compound—unlike the toxic dioxin. The government has set up the Henderson Committee to examine the matter, but Sir Wally is confident that his company will be given the all clear. Sir Humphrey agrees and is sure that his Minister, Jim Hacker, will raise no objection, providing the proposal is communicated to him tactfully.

Later, Sir Humphrey is doing just that, and Hacker is in favour of the proposition, which, with its employment and export potential, seems too good to be true. His Permanent Secretary allays his fears over metadioxin and all is well so far. Then Joan Littler (Brenda Blethyn), the MP for Liverpool South West, arrives. She is also the Prime Minister's Parliamentary Private Secretary and the chemical plant in question is in her constituency. She is worried about the rumours regarding public safety and seeks the Minister's assurance that a full public inquiry will be held. Hacker is about to agree but Sir Humphrey talks over him and tells the MP that there is no need. However, she insists on knowing the difference between dioxin and metadioxin. Nobody around the table can help as they haven't studied chemistry — Sir Humphrey making this abundantly clear by defining an inert compound as one that isn't "ert" (to which Bernard mutters "Wouldn't 'ert' a fly"). Despite their reassurances that the proposal will not go ahead unless it is given a clean bill of health, Ms Littler is not satisfied and leaves. Hacker now confesses to Sir Humphrey that he still has doubts, but he is told that if the Henderson Committee does not produce a favourable report, the government will use another one instead, leave Henderson's unpublished and discredit it via means of press leaks. Sir Humphrey goes on to explain in detail the standard practice in such circumstances, while Hacker takes notes. Then Bernard informs the Minister that the BCC contract will be featured in a report on the next news bulletin. They watch it, and it becomes apparent that there is a large body of public opinion against the scheme, due to the fatal release of dioxin in the Seveso disaster in 1976. Immediately afterwards, the Prime Minister calls Hacker and convinces him not to go ahead. But Sir Humphrey has no intention of carrying out the Minister's wishes and, after Hacker has left the office, calls the editor of The Times.

Sure enough, the report's positive conclusions are leaked and the next day, Hacker is left with no escape route. Sir Wally McFarlane calls in to see him, with Sir Humphrey hot on his heels. The Minister informs the Chairman that he is still not prepared to commit to allowing the contract, and Sir Wally leaves in disgust, threatening to resign his position if Hacker doesn't change his view. Sir Humphrey castigates the Minister over his stance, but Hacker states that his hands must be kept clean. His Permanent Secretary remarks on the difficulty of doing this when climbing "the greasy pole" and he too exits the office. Hacker confides in his Principal Private Secretary and asks Bernard for his advice: he will be censured by the press whether he gives the contract the go-ahead or not. He decides to meet Professor Henderson himself by "coincidentally" dropping into King's College, Cambridge when the report's author is due to visit there.

Hacker meets Henderson, and by rigorously adopting Sir Humphrey's discrediting procedure as outlined to him earlier, successfully convinces the Professor to doubt his findings.

The Minister watches the next evening's news bulletin with Sir Humphrey and Bernard. It reports his decision not to proceed with the contract and his resulting triumphant visit to Merseyside. His Permanent Secretary is disgusted, and can't fathom how Henderson came to his ultimate conclusion. Hacker nearly lets slip that he met him, but covers his faux pas just in time.

Episode cast[edit]

Actor Role
Paul Eddington Jim Hacker
Nigel Hawthorne Sir Humphrey Appleby
Derek Fowlds Bernard Woolley
Brenda Blethyn Joan Littler
Freddie Earlle Sir Wally McFarlane
Jerome Willis Professor Henderson
Geoffrey Toone Lord Crichton
Robert Dougall Newsreader
Sheila Fay Woman Protester
Maureen Stevens Lady Crichton
Lindy Alexander BBC Reporter

External links[edit]

"The Greasy Pole" on IMDb