The Men from the Ministry: Cricket in France

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BBC Radio 7, 3 February 2011

This 1962 episode of the long-running comedy series was inspired by Britain’s fruitless attempts to join the European Economic Community (as it was known then), when the French premier De Gaulle steadfastly rejected all overtures from the then Prime Minister Harold McMillan. The two bungling civil servants (Wilfrid Hyde White and Richard Murdoch) were invited to the SCIATICA conference in Paris, an event designed to promote cooperation between the various European nations. By some plot-contrivance, they were told to bring their cricket kit, as it was vitally important that they should introduce the game at the conference. In the end they managed to persuade the German and Italian delegations to participate in an impromptu game, which only ended when an expansive drive from Hyde White smashed a window. There was a subplot of sorts, involving two Russian agents (Roy Dotrice, Betty Marsden), who believed that the cricket kit was some kind of sophisticated spying device that they had to obtain by fair means or foul. The two civil servants were invited for a night of ‘wine, women and song,’ designed to relieve of them of their inhibitions, as well as the bag; but the night ended with the four of them playing another game of cricket in a Parisian hotel room. The episode ended with the civil servants returning home, with No. 2 (Murdoch) being taken to hospital after having inadvertently sat on a brass reproduction of the Eiffel Tower.

The episode rehearsed familiar anti-European prejudices characteristic of that period – the French ate frog’s legs and spent most of their time seducing women, while no Russians were to be trusted under any circumstances – while celebrating the bungling Brit, who emerges triumphant despite his reluctance to learn foreign languages or engage with a foreign culture. More interestingly, writer/ director Edward Taylor showed how the game of cricket proved an ideal means to further Britain’s colonial or territorial interests: the countries of the former Empire (Australia, India, South Africa) had already been conquered; now it was time to show the Europeans how effective the game could be. Through the simple strategy of sending two civil servants and an old-fashioned cricket bag, Britain once again ruled the waves.

While the episode was chock-full of the kind of doubles entendres characteristic of the Carry On films, it was redeemed to a large extent by Hyde White’s and Murdoch’s fruity style of delivery. Their brand of faux-upper class humour has largely died out now; it was nice to hear it once more.