Sunday, 7 June 2009

Yes Minister: The Bed of Nails

Since the news is full of nothing but MPs at the moment, I thought I'd blog about Yes, Minister, a sitcom which often seems to be talking about the exact same things that are in the news, despite the fact it was made nearly 30 years ago.

(I wanted to look at some of the Classics-inspired Original Series Star Trek episodes, but apparently only Americans are allowed to watch them online. I don't have them on video, and being a cheapskate, I only have 5 TV channels, and they're not on. So those will follow as soon as I manage to beg, borrow or steal the episodes!)

Jim Hacker has been offered a job working on Transport issues and Sir Humphrey is explaining to him why its a completely terrible idea (thanks to Wikiquote):
Hacker: Sir Mark thinks there might be votes in it, and I do not intend to look a gift horse in the mouth.
Sir Humphrey: I put it to you, Minister, that you are looking a Trojan horse in the mouth.
Hacker: You mean if we look closely at this gift horse, we'll find it's full of Trojans?
Bernard: Um, if you had looked the Trojan Horse in the mouth, Minister, you would have found Greeks inside. Well, the point is that it was the Greeks who gave the Trojan horse to the Trojans, so technically it wasn't a Trojan horse at all; it was a Greek horse. Hence the tag "timeo Danaos et dona ferentes", which, you will recall, is usually and somewhat inaccurately translated as "beware of Greeks bearing gifts", or doubtless you would have recalled, had you not attended the LSE.
Hacker: Yes, well I'm sure Greek tags are all very well in their way, but can we stick to the point?
Bernard: Sorry, sorry, Greek tags?
Hacker: "Beware of Greeks bearing gifts." I suppose the EEC equivalent would be "Beware of Greeks bearing an olive oil surplus".
Sir Humphrey: Excellent, Minister.
Bernard: No, well, the point is, Minister, that just as the Trojan horse was in fact Greek, what you describe as a Greek tag is in fact Latin. It's obvious really: the Greeks would never suggest bewaring of themselves, if one can use such a participle (bewaring that is), and it's clearly Latin, not because timeo ends in "-o", because the Greek first person also ends in "-o" – although actually there is a Greek word timao, meaning 'I honour' – but the "-os" ending is a nominative singular termination of a second declension in Greek, and an accusative plural in Latin, of course, though actually Danaos is not only the Greek for 'Greek'; it's also the Latin for 'Greek'. It's very interesting, really.
An extended clip is on YouTube, here, and is worth watching for the completely dumbfounded look on Hacker's face, and even Sir Humphrey starts edging away from Bernard as he really starts to warm to his theme.

Picking apart everyone's metaphors is one of Bernard's defining character traits (along with looking wide-eyed and saying 'Gosh!') so this is an exaggerated version of his character's usual behaviour - never use any kind of similie or metaphor when Bernard is around. Like Lister (see the previous post on Red Dwarf), Bernard has been thinking about the whole issue of whose horse it is and what we should really take away from this story, but with a somewhat fuller knowledge of Greek and Latin to back it up (so far as I can tell, everything Bernard says is correct). Beranrd's smile when he says its all very interesting is brilliant - he obviously thinks it is, while Hacker is completely lost and Humphrey just wants to get back to the point.

The joke about how Hacker would have recalled this if he hadn't gone to the LSE is, of course, indicative of the cultural hole many of us are trying to drag Classics out of. In Bernard's world, you can go to private school/some grammar schools (though not mine!), learn Latin and Greek, go to Oxbridge etc - as he and Humphrey have done - or you can go to a state school, not learn any Latin or Greek, and go somewhere else. (I don't remember them ever mentioning where Hacker went to school, but he is often mocked for having gone to the LSE rather than Oxbridge). Classics becomes something valued only by the upper and some upper middle classes and everyone else despises it, and the study of Classics slowly dies.

What many of us want to see is Latin and Greek reintroduced into *all* schools and everyone being able to study Classics if they're interested. This is partly what initiatives like Minimus are about. Eventually, the hope is, jokes like Bernard's would become obsolete and no one would get it any more.

OK, I promise I will try really hard not to start going off on one about the British educational system in my next post!


  1. Ancient Greek is the norm in all Greek Highschools and Lyceums from age 12 onwards (ancient Greek from the original, believe it on not). That is 6 years of ancient Greek in School education plus 4 years at least for those who do humanities in academia. I love the review. x

  2. I've made it a personal goal to read all your posts...Your Yes Minister ones are becoming my favorites!

  3. Thanks! :) I love Yes Minister/Yes Prime Minister, so intelligent but so hilariously funny! Will post again if I ever find any more classical references in them.


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