Bernard Woolley

Sir Bernard Woolley, GCB, MA (Oxon) is one of the three main fictional characters of the 1980s British sitcom Yes Minister and its sequel, Yes, Prime Minister. He was portrayed originally by Derek Fowlds, with Chris Larkin taking on the part for the 2013 revival.

Sir Bernard Woolley
GCB, MA (Oxon)
Derek Fowlds as Bernard Woolley in Yes, Prime Minister
First appearance"Open Government"
Last appearance"The Tangled Web"
Portrayed byDerek Fowlds (Original)
Chris Larkin (2013 revival)
OccupationPrincipal Private Secretary, Permanent Secretary

Fictional biography

He is the Principal Private Secretary to the Minister for Administrative Affairs (fictional governmental dept.), then Prime Minister, James "Jim" Hacker. However, his loyalties are split between his Minister and his Civil Service boss, Sir Humphrey Appleby. Whilst he is theoretically accountable to Hacker personally, it is Sir Humphrey who writes his performance reviews and apparently wields influence over Bernard's future in the Service, leading to difficult situations for the young civil servant. When Hacker once asked his Private Secretary where his loyalty would lie when the chips were down, Woolley replied, "Minister, it's my job to see the chips stay up."

His background is not something revealed to any great extent, though we do find out (scattered throughout the very last episode) that Woolley, like Sir Humphrey, is an Oxford graduate. In Episode 4 of Series 3 of Yes, Minister, Woolley is shown wearing a Magdalen College, Oxford tie, suggesting that he may have attended Magdalen College, Oxford. (The novelisation, in an apparent mistake, refers to Bernard at one point as a graduate of Cambridge, but later follows the series in confirming that he attended Oxford. There is, however, no problem in suggesting that he attended both.) In addition, several areas of specialist knowledge surface from time to time: one example arises in "The Greasy Pole" where, while discussing the possible political dangers of building a chemical facility in Liverpool (to manufacture the fictional compound "metadioxin"), Woolley is quick to remind Sir Humphrey that Greek, unlike Latin, has no ablative case (Bernard may, like Sir Humphrey, have read Literae Humaniores, but equally a basic knowledge of Greek and Latin may merely suggest a standard classical schooling).

As with the other principal characters in the series, both actor and character have the same date of birth. This means that Bernard is in his mid- to late-forties during the series. Bernard is also married: in the Yes, Prime Minister episode "The Key", he declares that he does not give the key to his house to his mother-in-law. However, his wife never appeared in the series.

Woolley, like the Minister and Sir Humphrey, progresses through the series, especially in his understanding of political mastery. In the last scene of "The Tangled Web", the final episode of Yes, Prime Minister, Woolley of his own accord both saves Sir Humphrey from public embarrassment and gives Hacker a lasting weapon to use against him, by acquiring a tape of Sir Humphrey describing the British public in many unpleasant ways, spoken off the record after a radio interview. This act of service to the Prime Minister can be seen as the final result of many series' wrestling between the two competing loyalties. Throughout both series, Bernard is the only civil servant portrayed with any sense of conscience, seeking constantly to justify his actions to himself. In the final episode, therefore, he realises that his principal loyalty must be to the (Prime) Minister, and his intervention in the crisis is crucial in saving Hacker's political reputation and in ensuring that the Cabinet Secretary, like any other civil servant, remains a "humble functionary".

Later career

In the novelisations of the series, it is stated that Bernard eventually rose to the post of Head of the Home Civil Service and was appointed a Knight Grand Cross of the Most Honourable Order of the Bath (GCB).[1] The novels take the form of diaries written by Hacker and the so-called Appleby Papers. Bernard himself contributes in interviews with the authors.


Woolley is always quick to point out the physical impossibilities of Sir Humphrey's or Hacker's mixed metaphors, with almost excessive pedantry. He can occasionally appear rather childlike, by making animal noises and gestures or by acting out how such an analogy cannot work. Even so, on many occasions Sir Humphrey describes Woolley as a "rising star" and "high flier" of the Civil Service, though it is not entirely clear how to interpret Sir Humphrey's remarks—that is, whether with sincere deference to Bernard's capabilities or with indignation at such a term being applied to a subordinate. Indeed Sir Humphrey once questions whether Bernard is "a high flyer or a low flyer supported by occasional gusts of wind."

Woolley plays an important role in many episodes in helping Hacker. For example, in "Doing the Honours", it is his idea that leads to Hacker proposing a scheme that links national honours to departmental economies (and he is quick to remind the Minister that he didn't suggest it, if asked). He seems to have studied past civil service actions in-depth, occasionally recommending historically proven responses (such as the "Rhodesia Solution" for a potential arms scandal in "The Whisky Priest").

Woolley is often the source of much exposition, serving in some ways as a proxy for the audience. His common sense views lead him to ask apparently sensible questions of Sir Humphrey, which are generally used to demonstrate his superior's rather more counter-intuitive view of the situation. Much of the satire comes from the fact that Sir Humphrey's views are not just shared by other experienced civil servants, but are taken completely for granted. Bernard's naïve questioning is the perfect way of bringing this out for the audience. In one such conversation, in "The Devil You Know", Bernard will simply not let the matter rest and eventually homes in on the heart of the issue. He begins the sentence, "But surely, in a democracy..." and is immediately dismissed by an exasperated Sir Humphrey. In "A Victory for Democracy", Bernard is genuinely outraged when he learns that the Foreign Office is conducting its own policy with little regard for the Prime Minister's wishes.

On the other hand, we frequently see Bernard forced to hide something, at which point he tries to mimic Sir Humphrey's distinctive style of confusing never-ending sentences in order to play for time with the Minister. An example of him attempting to "walk the tightrope" in this way occurs in "The Skeleton in the Cupboard", when he has to conceal a betrayed confidence from Hacker. Although he becomes slightly more adept at this over time, he is clearly much less proficient. At other times, he is the one explaining to the Minister how the civil service machinery works. When asked by Hacker if "...all this is to prevent Cabinet from enacting its policies?", Woolley casually and earnestly replies, "Well, somebody's got to."

See also


  1. Lynn, J.; Jay A. (1989). The Complete Yes Prime Minister. London: BBC Books. p. 8. ISBN 978-0563207733. We are especially grateful also to Sir Bernard Woolley GCB, formerly Hacker's Principal Private Secretary at Number Ten Downing Street and eventually Head of the Home Civil Service
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