A Brief History
On February 25, 1980, Yes Minister, a political satire British sitcom written by Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn, was first transmitted on BBC2. This list of fictional places in Yes Minister elaborates on the details provided in Yes Minister and The Complete Yes Minister, the diary-based novelisation of the series.
Buranda is a fictional West African less developed country, later known as a developing country, that features in the second episode of Yes Minister (“The Official Visit“) and (briefly) in Yes, Prime Minister (“A Conflict of Interest“). Formerly British Equatorial Africa, it is referred to privately by James Hacker as a “TPLAC” (tin-pot little African country), much to Sir Humphrey‘s consternation.
Buranda’s leader in both episodes is Colonel Selim Mohammed, previously Charlie Umtali prior to his conversion to Islam. The first storyline hinges on Hacker’s former association as a fellow alumnus of the London School of Economics with Mohammed, which he tries to use (on Sir Humphrey’s urging) to avoid a diplomatically-embarrassing speech to an audience including the Queen. In the second, the Burandan president and his business associates are implicated in financial improprieties that could result in a run on the British pound.
Buranda’s location is a little ambiguous: where the novelisation places it in Ghana, the actual episode (on a news report) suggests Equatorial Guinea, a former Spanish colony. Buranda’s flag is a horizontal tricolour of yellow, orange and red.
Kumran is a real place in the West Bank, near the Dead Sea. This fictional version, however, features in Yes Minister and Yes, Prime Minister as a sheikhdom in the Persian Gulf. In both series, it is characterised by various classic stereotypes (or perhaps more charitably, caricatures) of Arab States of the Persian Gulf (particularly Saudi Arabia): it is an oil-rich state that uses Sharia (Islamic) law as its civil code as well. Possession of alcohol (which forms part of the storyline for “The Bishop’s Gambit” in Yes, Prime Minister) carries a sentence of public flogging and imprisonment, and adultery (also mentioned) is punishable by stoning.
Kumran is first mentioned when the fictional Minister for Administrative Affairs James Hacker is sent to lead a British government delegation to the state. Hacker is appalled when Civil Service delegations from almost every department are sent, even though the meeting is only to finalise a contract for electronics exports that Britain received, it later emerges, through bribery. Hacker and Sir Humphrey, with the help of Bernard Woolley, later conspire to smuggle alcohol into the reception and violate Islamic law using an emergency communications room as a cover. Hacker, unsurprisingly, becomes drunk; Sir Humphrey is dressed as a Bedouin and is on first-name terms with his Kumrani counterparts (who seem to have earned the privilege of calling him by his Civil Service nickname “Humpy”). Later on, the Minister and his wife are embroiled in a controversy over the Kumranis’ gift of a priceless vase, which the Minister’s wife wants to keep but is prohibited from doing so as, ironically, it would look like bribery.
In Yes, Prime Minister, Kumran is featured for threatening to flog a British nurse found in possession of bottle of whisky. A clergyman adversary of Humphrey’s is sent to Kumran to intercede her behalf, putting him in line for a bishopric. The Reverend Christopher Smythe is said to be interested in only cricket, Islam and steam engines; in fact, when asked about the Bible, he referred to it as “a Christian version of the Qur’an“. Kumran is, according to Sir Humphrey, valuable to the British because they give Britain intelligence on Arab-Soviet relations and host a British listening post, as well as providing a steady flow of oil by sabotaging OPEC agreements.
In both the Yes, Prime Minister stage play and 2013 television revival, the name is revived (as Kumranistan) for an oil-rich republic formerly part of the British Empire and the Soviet Union, somewhere between Russia and the north-west of Kazakhstan. An oil pipeline running through every member state of the European Union from Kumranistan was proposed to resolve the Financial Crisis in Europe but came to nothing.
St George’s Island & East Yemen
St George’s Island is the subject of the Yes, Prime Minister episode “A Victory for Democracy“, where it is a democratic Commonwealth nation under threat of invasion by the People’s Democratic Republic of East Yemen, a neighbouring fictional Middle Eastern country. It is apparently modelled on the Maldives, though the specific plot of the episode is based on the US invasion of Grenada in 1983.
Little is stated about the country’s history, except that it was one of the few islands in the Indian Ocean to stay in the Commonwealth of Nations. It was granted independence in the 1960s, approximately twenty years before the Yes, Prime Minister series was set. Unlike India, Cyprus, Palestine and Ireland, the country was not partitioned, causing misgivings by Sir Richard Wharton, the Permanent Secretary of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. He cynically believed that partitioning the former colonies caused civil wars, making the people of these countries spend all their time and energy fighting each other, rather than someone else. After all, “it saved us [i.e. the United Kingdom] having a policy about them.”
Although the size and exact location of the island are never given, certain geographical features are revealed as clues. Firstly, Sir Richard tells Sir Humphrey that there are “Marxist guerrillas in the mountains.” He also discusses a British contract to build a proposed airportand harbour installation.
Hacker and Bernard look at a globe and discuss the exact location and strategic importance of the island, while being watched over by the weaselly character of Luke, another Private Secretary from the Foreign Office. It is located somewhere in the Arabian Sea near the Persian Gulf, making it important that the Russians never fulfil their wish to gain a “warm water port.” Jim later tells his Defence Secretary that it is located “halfway between India and Africa.”
The actual whereabouts of the island and the main characters’ ignorance of its location is a running joke, suggesting that a great deal of fuss is being made over an otherwise geographically insignificant country, whose only relevance is political and ideological. The novelization suggests it lies between Oman and India, to the south of Pakistan, at around 21 degrees north, 64 degrees east.
As well as gaining independence from Britain in the 1960s and remaining in the Commonwealth, the politics of the island remain ambiguous. Jim requests his Foreign Secretary to arrange for the “President of St George’s Island” to invite an airborne battalion on a goodwill visit; however, the island also has a Prime Minister, which would be typical of a Westminster system republic such as India. Moreover, the island is spoken of as remaining in the “Royal Commonwealth” (see Commonwealth realm) at one point in the episode, although this may simply be a grandiose reference to the entire Commonwealth.
The Marxist guerrillas in the mountains were also Soviet and Libyan backed, which meant that the Foreign Office was “staying right out of it”. East Yemen’s full name was “The People’s Democratic Republic of East Yemen”. It was also mentioned that it often conducted military raids against its neighbour, West Yemen (another fictional country). East and West Yemen appear to be based on South Yemen and North Yemen, respectively, as despite their names, North and South Yemen were predominantly geographically West and East of each other until unification in 1990.
Taking the above hints into account, the fictional St. George’s Island appears to be based on the island nation of Maldives, which is located in the Indian Ocean to the south of Pakistan and, like the fictional island nation, lies roughly between Oman and India. The Maldives became independent from the UK in 1965 while remaining a presidential republic within the Commonwealth, and the nation had a Prime Minister until the office was abolished in 1975. Tamil revolutionaries with links to Marxist groups attempted a coup d’état in 1988 which was put down with assistance from the Indian military (the reference made by Sir Humphrey is ironic considering the Maldives is geographically among the lowest-lying nations in the world).
The fictional island may also be based on the island nation of Grenada which was a Commonwealth country that had experienced a Communist coup before the United States invaded it on 25 October 1983 and restored the previous government. One of the justifications given by the Reagan Administration for the invasion was the evacuation of American medical students studying in Grenada’s capital city of St. George’s.
In addition, the parody of the defence of an island about which many British citizens (including even government ministers) know little, is likely a reference to events surrounding the Falklands conflict which had taken place in 1982, just four years prior to the airing of the episode.
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For more information, please see…
Jay, Antony and Jonathan Lynn. The Complete Yes Minister. BBC Books, 1989.
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