The Whisky Priest

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"The Whisky Priest"
Yes Minister episode
Episode no.Series 3
Episode 6
Written byAntony Jay
Jonathan Lynn
Produced byPeter Whitmore
Original air date16 December 1982
Guest appearance(s)
Episode chronology
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"The Bed of Nails"
Next →
"The Middle-Class Rip-Off"
List of Yes Minister and Yes, Prime Minister episodes

"The Whisky Priest" is the twentieth episode of the BBC comedy series Yes Minister and was first broadcast 16 December 1982. The title refers to the term "whisky priest".


Jim Hacker and his wife, Annie, are at their London flat. The Minister receives a visit from an army officer, Major Saunders, who has some information that he wouldn't divulge over the phone. Saunders stresses that what he has to say is highly confidential, and that he is telling Hacker on a personal level and not in his capacity as a minister. Saunders goes on to explain that Hacker once wrote an article for Reform, deploring the sale of British arms to foreign despots and dictators. Now, Saunders reveals, computerised bomb detonators are being exported legally from the United Kingdom and being sold to Italian terrorists. He wants Hacker to investigate the matter and take immediate action.

The next day, Hacker is in his office with Sir Humphrey Appleby and Bernard Woolley. He brings up the issue, and asks about the procedure for exporting arms. Sir Humphrey explains that a dealer would have to provide an end-user certificate, which should contain the signature of a party who is approved by HM Government. He also says that contracts for smaller weapons are subject to "meticulous scrutiny", which signals to Hacker that it is indeed a facade. The Minister tells Sir Humphrey what he learned the previous evening. The mandarin affects an air of indifference, believing it to be another department's problem: nothing to do with the DAA. Hacker tries to convince him that innocent lives are being put at risk, but Sir Humphrey responds, "Only Italian lives, not British lives, Minister." Hacker is set on pursuing the matter, but the civil servant begs him not to. The pair argue over the morality of the practice, but Sir Humphrey is adamant that it is not his job to care: he is there to carry out government policy ("frightfully well" as it happens). Hacker now sees that his Permanent Secretary is only committed to means and not ends, and states that he is a "moral vacuum". He asks Bernard to make an appointment for him to visit the Prime Minister: he intends to fully inform him, despite Sir Humphrey's advice. After Hacker leaves, Bernard confesses his doubts to Sir Humphrey, and asks if he should believe in the policies that the civil service is asked to carry out. His superior notes that if he had believed in all the opposing policies of the eleven governments that he has served, he would be a "stark-staring raving schizophrenic." They must come up with a plan to stop Hacker from telling the Prime Minister in case he lifts the lid on a can of worms. After some prompting, Bernard decides the best course of action is to arrange for the Minister to be intercepted by the Chief Whip.

Hacker reaches the PM's office, and finds it occupied by Vic Gould, the Chief Whip, who explains that the PM is busy and asked him to have a preliminary conversation with the Minister. Hacker tells of his concerns, but Gould also strongly recommends they do nothing, citing the outcome of the inquiry that would have to take place if the PM is informed. Hacker's story may be the tip of the iceberg and, if so, other government departments could be seriously embarrassed. The Minister is nevertheless convinced that right is on his side and his conscience dictates that he should tell what he knows. Gould becomes irate and bullies Hacker with several counter-arguments: it could lead to severe job loss; the contracts are placed in marginal constituencies; the PM is about to sign an anti-terrorist agreement. In the end, with his political future threatened if he goes ahead, and the possibility of him becoming Foreign Secretary if he doesn't, Hacker agrees to drop the matter.

That evening back at the flat, Hacker finds himself debating the issue with Annie, except that now he has to defend his new position. However, he is still conflicted and confesses that he can see no easy way out, short of tendering his resignation — which would put him out of a job and the Italian terrorists still in the possession of British munitions. Furthermore, Major Saunders has written to him welcoming the action that he is fully expecting Hacker to take.

The next day, Hacker asks his officials for advice. He is trapped: if he doesn't tell the PM, Saunders will go to the press. Bernard recommends the "Rhodesia solution". This involves informing the PM, but not explicitly. Sir Humphrey expounds on this by dictating a sample letter to Bernard speaking not about terrorists, but rather, 'certain irregularities under section 1 of the Import-Export and Customs Powers (Defence) Act 1939', followed with statements that someone else do something about it and that even if they did, they would find little of relevance. The letter would then be delivered to the PM on the day he leaves for an overseas conference, allowing the whole thing to be written off as a breakdown in communication.

Later, a drunken Hacker is back in his flat, lounging on the sofa, glass in hand. He ruminates on the nature of government and morality. He believes that he too has become a "moral vacuum". However, Annie reassures him that he is more a whisky priest: unlike Sir Humphrey, at least he knows when he has done the wrong thing. Hacker then removes another bottle from one of his red boxes saying, "Who said nothing good ever came out of Whitehall... do you want one?" To which Annie replies, "Yes Minister." This is the only time Annie ever says "Yes Minister" in the whole series.


Sir Humphrey: Bernard, I have served eleven governments in the past thirty years. If I had believed in all their policies, I would have been passionately committed to keeping out of the Common Market, and passionately committed to going into it. I would have been utterly convinced of the rightness of nationalising steel. And of denationalising it and renationalising it. On capital punishment, I'd have been a fervent retentionist and an ardent abolitionist. I would've been a Keynesian and a Friedmanite, a grammar school preserver and destroyer, a nationalisation freak and a privatisation maniac; but above all, I would have been a stark, staring, raving schizophrenic.

Sir Humphrey: You say – Bernard, write this down – My attention has been drawn, on a personal basis, to information which suggests the possibility of certain irregularities under section– (snaps)

Bernard: –section 1 of the Import, Export and Customs Powers (Defence) Act 1939c.

Sir Humphrey: Thank you, Bernard! You then go on to suggest that someone else to do something about it. "Prima facie evidence suggests that there could be a case for further investigation, to establish whether or not enquiries should be put into hand." And then you smudge it all over. "Nevertheless, it should be stressed that available information is limited and relevant facts could be difficult to establish with any degree of certainty."

Hacker: I see.

Sir Humphrey: Then if there were an enquiry, you would be in the clear, and everybody would understand that the busy PM might not have grasped the full implications of such a letter.

Hacker: They certainly would, that's most unclear.

Sir Humphrey: Thank you, Minister!

Episode cast[edit]

Actor Role
Paul Eddington Jim Hacker
Nigel Hawthorne Sir Humphrey Appleby
Derek Fowlds Bernard Woolley
John Fortune Major Saunders
Diana Hoddinott Annie Hacker
Edward Jewesbury Vic Gould

External links[edit]

"The Whisky Priest" on IMDb