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“The Key” is the fourth episode of the BBC comedy series Yes, Prime Minister and was first broadcast 30 January 1986.

"The Key"
Yes, Prime Minister episode
Episode no.Series 1
Episode 4
Written byAntony Jay
Jonathan Lynn
Produced bySydney Lotterby
Original air date30 January 1986
Guest appearance(s)
Episode chronology
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"The Smoke Screen"
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"A Real Partnership"
List of Yes Minister and Yes, Prime Minister episodes



Jim Hacker is in the Cabinet Room in 10 Downing Street and is visited by his political advisor, Dorothy Wainwright. She is unhappy that she has been moved from her office, which used to be next door and is now a waiting room, and assigned new quarters in the attic. The Prime Minister had apparently acted upon advice from the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Humphrey Appleby. Dorothy tells Hacker that the civil service has been trying to relocate her for three years. She makes the case that her room is of strategic importance,as it enables her to observe all comings and goings, and overhear ministers who may be keeping things from the PM. Hacker is immediately swayed by her argument and orders Bernard to move Dorothy back.

Outside the Cabinet Room, as Bernard makes a call to relay his instructions, Sir Humphrey enters and commands him to stop. He vigorously makes the point that they have striven to remove the “impossible woman” from her office, as she makes Hacker doubt everything that his officials tell him. Dorothy joins them and Sir Humphrey is quick with the flattery, calling her “dear lady.” Dorothy counters by demanding to know why he isn't in the waiting room (i.e., her old office). He swiftly changes the subject and chastises Bernard for allowing someone into Number 10 without a relevant security pass. He stresses that this is mandatory even if they are known to the police officer at the front door. Dorothy is more concerned with her office and tells Sir Humphrey that she is to move back right away. The mandarin disagrees angrily and goes into the Cabinet Room to see the PM.

With a typically loquacious argument, Sir Humphrey persuades Hacker that Dorothy really does need to remain upstairs. He assures the PM that he can have her written or verbal advice whenever he needs it. Hacker caves in and asks Bernard to send Dorothy back in. The PM tells her hesitantly that he has changed his mind, but she suspects that Sir Humphrey is behind it. She points out that the Cabinet Secretary wants to be the only channel of communication to the PM, and Hacker once again alters his view. They discuss how Sir Humphrey's wings might be clipped. He is also Head of the Home Civil Service, but responsibility for pay and rations rests with the Permanent Secretary to the Treasury, Sir Frank Gordon. Dorothy suggests giving all of Sir Humphrey's duties to Sir Frank. Hacker invites Sir Humphrey back in and tells him that Dorothy will be moved back once and for all. The civil servant is reluctant to refuse in her presence, but still won’t give a straight answer. Dorothy then leaves and the PM advises Sir Humphrey that he is considering relieving him of some of his professional burden. In addition, since Sir Humphrey works in the Cabinet Office, an adjoining but nevertheless separate building to Number 10, Hacker tells him he will be sent for if and when needed.

Sir Humphrey is troubled by this new authority coming from Hacker, especially since this new policy could upset the balance of power between his Cabinet Office and Sir Frank's Treasury Department.

The PM sits down with Sir Frank Gordon, but instructs Bernard beforehand that they are not to be interrupted. Hacker starts discussing his plan of transferring Sir Humphrey's HCS responsibilities to the Treasure, much to Sir Frank's delight. Meanwhile, outside the room, Sir Humphrey has arrived unannounced and Bernard informs him that, from now on, the PM would like a prior phone call to check if his visit is convenient. Sir Humphrey seethes and bullies Bernard into telling him who is in with the PM. He then ignores Bernard's pleas and looks into the Cabinet Room, where Sir Frank alerts Hacker that they have company.

Sir Humphrey meekly asks if he can be of service, and when the PM declines his offer and asks him to shut the door, he does so from within the room. Hacker orders Sir Humphrey to leave and terminates his interview with Sir Frank. He angrily shouts for Bernard and orders him to confine Sir Humphrey to the Cabinet Office by locking the communicating door and taking the key. When Bernard objects, Hacker reminds him that he, the Prime Minister, is giving him the power to act. Amazed, Bernard starts to gain confidence.

Later, Sir Humphrey rings Bernard and requests an audience with the PM. When this is denied, he states that he's coming anyway, and appears in an instant, obviously in the possession of a duplicate key. He insists that Bernard tells him the location of the original, but, summoning up his courage and looking his boss in the eye, the Principal Private Secretary stands his ground. Sir Humphrey falls back on veiled threats to his subordinate's professional future, but Bernard still demands the second key. When he refuses and leaves, Bernard gets back on to security: he tells them to change the lock and give him all the keys.

Sir Humphrey chairs a meeting of his Permanent Secretaries and afterwards, asks Sir Frank about his meeting with the PM. Sir Frank is noncommittal, but points out that there is "nothing for ME to worry about". Sir Humphrey sees through this and indignantly contacts Bernard. Once again, he tells him that he's on his way through to Number 10, whether Bernard likes it or not. However, the lock has been changed and no amount of banging on the door and cursing will make it yield. Sir Humphrey sets off outdoors and walks from the Cabinet Office into Downing Street and up to the PM's front door. He seeks admittance, but even though he is recognised, his security pass does not relate to Number 10 and the policeman on guard, acting on Humphrey's own orders, refuses him entry. Sir Humphrey heads back to his office, and once inside, climbs out of the window and on to the balcony.

Back in the Cabinet Room, Hacker is meeting with Dorothy and Bernard when a bedraggled Sir Humphrey appears on the balcony outside. He manages to get their attention and tries to enter via the exterior doors, but sets off the intruder alarm, causing an immediate panic and several security men to rush in. Sir Humphrey is now distraught and entreats the Prime Minister to let him have his key back. Hacker does so, but not before he has got his way over Dorothy's office. Sir Humphrey then asks if he is still Head of the Home Civil Service, but the PM is uncommitted. However, he makes it clear that it will be his decision, and Sir Humphrey acquiesces, growling "Yes, Prime Minister."


The Key marks a defining moment in the Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister story arc. Throughout the series, Sir Humphrey has been largely unbeatable, which may have made his character somewhat tedious. In this episode, Sir Humphrey is driven to the lengths of having to break into Number 10 due to Hacker and Woolley standing up to him, and much of the bureaucratic inertia which has been felt throughout the series is lifted. The greater pressures on Sir Humphrey become more recurrent in the remaining Yes, Prime Minister episodes.[1]

Real life inspirationEdit

The defining event of the episode, the locking of the internal door between the Cabinet Office and 10 Downing Street, was partly based on reality. The internal connecting door was created in 1963 during renovations to Downing Street, and the new access and proximity to the Prime Minister improved the power of some senior civil servants in the Cabinet Office.[2]

Access to the door was periodically restricted. During the Second Wilson Ministry, on occasions then Cabinet Secretary Sir John Hunt (whose tenure in office was an inspiration for the character of Sir Humphrey Appleby) was periodically refused immediate access to Downing Street by the Prime Minister's adviser Bernard Donoughue, who relished taunting Hunt, who was one of the more powerful cabinet secretaries, with this ability to refuse access.[3]


  • Hacker: "Sir Humphrey! To what do we owe this pleasure?"
  • Sir Humphrey: "Prime Minister, I must protest in the strongest possible terms my profound opposition to a newly instituted practice which imposes severe and intolerable restrictions upon the ingress and egress of senior members of the hierarchy and which will in all probability, should the current deplorable innovation be perpetuated, precipitate a constriction of the channels of communication and culminate in the condition of organisational atrophy and administrative paralysis which will render effectively impossible the coherent and coordinated discharge of the function of government within Her Majesty's United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland!"
  • Hacker: "You mean you've lost your key?"

Episode castEdit

Actor Role
Paul Eddington Jim Hacker
Nigel Hawthorne Sir Humphrey Appleby
Derek Fowlds Bernard Woolley
Peter Cellier Sir Frank Gordon
Deborah Norton Dorothy Wainwright
Victor Winding Policeman


  1. ^ "Yes, Prime Minister". BBC Entertainment. Retrieved 7 November 2009.
  2. ^ Seldon, A. (2016) The Cabinet Office, 1916-2016, London: Biteback Publishing, pp. 150-151
  3. ^ Seldon, A. (2016) The Cabinet Office, 1916-2016, London: Biteback Publishing, pp.190-192

External linksEdit