"Yes, Prime Minister..."

Updated: Jan 20, 2020

Hello all. This week saw the sad news of the passing of Derek Fowlds, who played the part of Bernard Woolley, Personal Secretary to the PM in the 80s sitcom Yes, Prime Minister.

His death marks the passing of the last of the great triumvirate of actors who portrayed the programme's main characters. The programme focused upon the relationship between the Prime Minister Jim Hacker (played by Paul Eddington) and the chief civil servant Sir Humphrey Appleby (played unforgettably by Nigel Hawthorne), Hacker's on-going attempts to have his policies implemented being continually and surreptitiously undermined by the Machiavellian Appleby. Fowlds' character Personal Private Secretary Bernard Woolley frequently acted as the foil to the two, often being called upon to deliver the pay-off punchline to the programme's razor-sharp dialogue.

Derek Fowlds (right) as Bernard Woolley in the BBC TV series Yes, Prime Minister

Nearly 40 years' on, Yes, Minister / Yes, Prime Minister now feels rather quaint, more like a televised stage play than a modern drama. At the time however, it was essential viewing, with expertly-drawn characters played by actors relishing the crackling dialogue and rewarding roles. Growing up a teenager in a provincial town in the 1980s, I found its portrayal of Westminster life fascinating. Many of the jokes and references were no doubt above my head, but I was drawn in by the quick wits and intelligence of its characters, and wanted to understand more about its world. My decision to study Politics at university may well have been subconsciously influenced by it.

At the core of Yes, Prime Minister was a belief that it was the civil service, not the politicians, who really exercised power in Westminster. Politicians might be elected to carry out the wishes of the public, but it was in the delivery of their promises as government policies where the civil servants took hold of affairs, translating what they saw as ill-conceived and unworkable promises into sensible decisions.

Is politics really like this? Does it genuinely make any difference who is elected, if the real power lies behind the scenes? The belief certainly persists today, from voter cynicism in the UK to the fanciful "Deep State" theories espoused by the US alt-right. But for most of us, it's clear we believe the politicians we elect do have the ability to make a difference to our lives; if this wasn't the case, politics would be a far less controversial and emotional business than it is today.

And indeed, despite my love of Yes, Prime Minister, the Prime Minister in Number Ten will have the power to influence policy - after all, it wouldn't be much of game otherwise! If anything, the PM in Number Ten will have far more power over real events than any real life Prime Minister, as the real fun lies in being able to take the country and do whatever you want with it. Sure, it might be unrealistic to be able to declare war on Germany, while at the same time outlawing the monarchy, raising Income Tax to the hilt and implementing CCTV everywhere, but it would be fun to try it and see just how long you could last in power before the public have had enough and rioting breaks out...

As you might guess, this week has been focused very much on the detailed design of policies, voter concerns and opinions and how these various items interact with each other. One of the most common responses I've received when I've told folk I'm developing a politics game is, "how are you going to build the game engine to calculate how policies affect things?" This week has seen the start of detailed design on that engine, or "the hub of the Death Star" as I sometimes refer to it. Some of the key factors by which I see the success of the finished game being judged are, do a player's actions actually have an effect upon the course of the game? Are the effects appropriate and proportionate to the actions? And is the difficulty curve of the game such that the game is initially easy enough to master while then becoming difficult enough for players to maintain an interest in the challenge? If the answer to all these questions is yes, I'll know I've got the design right.

And on that note, I'll get back to work. Catch up soon!


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