Friday, 20 April 2012

Yes Minister: The Greasy Pole

Another classic bit of poking fun at Classics and Classicists from Yes, Minister. Like most Classics-based jokes in this series, much of the humour here comes from the idea that knowledge of Classics is an entry ticket into Britain's elite, but otherwise almost completely useless.

In this episode, Minister for Administrative Affairs Jim Hacker wants to authorise the opening of a new chemical plant, which will use a chemical called metadioxin. This has upset the local MP from the plant location, because the name of the chemical sounds like a toxic chemical, dioxin, of which metadioxin is an inert compound. The following conversation takes place:

Unfortunately, this clip leaves out the funniest bit, which comes just after; the MP asks what 'inert' means and Sir Humphrey replies that 'it means it's not... ert.' He explains that he doesn't know any chemistry because he went to school on a Classics scholarship (which is an interesting tidbit about Humphrey's background in itself). (I should add that my Double Science GCSE did teach me enough to have a vague idea what 'inert' means).

Hacker's non-Classics-based education at the LSE doesn't come up during this conversation but don't worry, Bernard brings it up later in the episode.

Once again, Yes, Minister demonstrates how entrenched Classics was in the functioning of the British political elite (and may still be - I like to think things have changed, but given that almost nothing in British politics has changed since Yes, Minister was made, probably not). Humphrey and Bernard, Oxbridge-educated, sneer at Hacker and his colleague over their lack of Classical knowledge and use it as a tool to reinforce their own sense of superiority. However, as always, their efforts are undercut by the complete practical uselessness of the subject. They may know all there is to know about the ablative, but they have absolutely no idea what the chemical they're planning to expose half of Merseyside to actually is.

This episode does highlight one area in which Classics is, perhaps unexpectedly, useful, though. Some years ago, I was made reserve for Birmingham's University Challenge team. University Challenge is a British quiz show in which teams from different universities (or, somewhat to the annoyance of the rest of us, just different Oxford and Cambridge colleges) compete against each other. I think the idea was to test whether university students were really learning anything, but as far as testing what you learn on a degree goes, the show is completely irrelevant, because what it actually tests is general factual knowledge. If you take an Arts and Humanities degree, you're not actually there to learn when Caesar was assassinated or how many books Charles Dickens wrote - you're learning how to read a document or novel or painting etc and analyse why it's written the way it is, how different people read it and to learn why you should never trust any supposedly accurate report of anything ever. I don't know much about Science degrees, but I assume they teach you how to formulate and test hypotheses, not just the names of all the chemicals.

Anyway, what University Challenge tests is factual knowledge. The questions are sometimes a little biased towards the Arts and Humanities, which may seem rather unfair, but there is a reason for it. Each team has only four members, so you're not likely to have someone from every field of science (though you could perhaps have, broadly, a chemist, a physicist, a biologist and a medical student or something like that). When it comes to general knowledge, a scientist is much more likely to happen to know something about Shakespeare than an English Literature student is to know something about the inert gases (see, I do remember something from my GCSEs!).

The University of Birmingham University Challenge team, 2007

There are some science-based questions though - and that's why, quite frequently, at least one member of the team will be a Classicist. It's certainly how I managed to become reserve team member. You see, sometimes, the question will ask something about a Greek letter, or about the meaning of a word made partly of Greek and Latin - and if you're a Classicist, you can make a decent guess at the answer (especially if it's 'which Greek letter is used to stand for "micro"' or something like that). Humphrey makes a bit of a hash of 'metadioxin' here, partly because he over-thinks it, and partly because in this particular case the Greek word doesn't seem to bear much relation to the thing it's naming (though presumably it is a compound including dioxin, so 'with dioxin'). But on the whole, this can be quite an effective strategy, and can cover a good few science questions even if you don't have a scientist on your team.

So the moral of the story is, Classics is not necessarily overly useful in terms of understanding how chemistry works, but it comes in handy in any kind of general knowledge-based quiz!

Yes, Minister: The Bed of Nails
Yes, Prime Minister: The National Education Service


  1. I like to think things have changed

    Rest assured that they have, in this respect at least. Senior British civil servants these days come with a wide range of degrees (heavy on the economics and social sciences) from a wide range of universities. Unfortunately, what else has changed is that the ability of a talented but not formally qualified person to join at the bottom and work their way up to the top, which still existed in Sir Humphrey's day, is dead and gone, a victim of a credentials mad establishment.

  2. Yes, all those new economics degrees have come in quite handy for extracting all the money out of the economy. Maybe some more Classicists would be an improvement; I can't imagine they could do any worse.

    I love Yes, Minister, but have not managed to watch many episodes of it, a situation I'll have to remedy. From the episodes I have managed to catch, I think one can learn just about everything there is to know about British politics from watching it (well, that and House of Cards).

    And University Challenge is one of my favourite television shows ever (I am sorely envious that you were able to even be a reserve team member!) I'm usually off at my local camera club on Monday evenings, but, thanks to the miracle of the BBC iPlayer, I am always able to catch UC (and, of course, that wonderful extra half-hour with Victoria Coren on Only Connect) later in the week!

  3. I definitely learned everything I know about British politics from Yes, Minister! And it's known for being frighteningly accurate as well. I learned everything I know about American politics from The West Wing which may be slightly less accurate, though hopefully not bad.

    I love Only Connect! I'm much better at it than UC for some reason. And Victoria Coren is awesome (though Paxman was very nice when we did UC as well)

    1. It was frighteningly accurate, but it's over 30 years old now - more than a generation. British politics changes glacially slowly, but it has changed quite a bit in that time. So watch and enjoy, but heed the health warning.

  4. I've seen a couple of episodes here and there. Nigel Hawthorne was one of a kind!


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