Just as Americans are sometimes mystified by European enthusiasm for certain of our countrymen—Jerry Lewis/France, David Hasselhoff/Germany, etc.—the reverse can be true as well. Case in point: the immense popularity in America of the BBC television series Yes Minister (1980-84) and Yes, Prime Minister (1986-88), whose creator and cowriter, Antony Jay, died last week at 86.

The appeal of various costume dramas (Downton Abbey), sitcoms (Keeping Up Appearances), and police procedurals (Inspector Morse) on this side of the pond is not difficult to discern, since they add a British accent to certain time-honored theatrical formulas. But Yes Minister was not only set in precincts unfamiliar to most Americans—the corridors of power in official Whitehall—its running joke was peculiarly British as well: the manipulation of an earnest, slightly clueless, cabinet minister (the Rt Hon. James Hacker, played by the late Paul Eddington) by a smart, smooth-talking civil servant (Sir Humphrey ­Appleby, played by the late Nigel Hawthorne).

In Washington, the permanent civil service wields nothing like the power of its British equivalent, which is why ­reformers over here ­lament the interference of politicians in government. In London, it's the other way around: Politicians, elected by the people, face a permanent civil service that is perceived as all-powerful, obstructionist, wedded to the status quo. Of course, the perception is not always true; but when Britons refer to ubiquitous "Sir Humphreys" in government, everybody knows what they mean.

The genius of Antony Jay, and his cowriter Jonathan Lynn, was to convert the abstruse problem of politics vs. bureaucracy into pure comedy—and instructive, not to say timeless, comedy at that. They owed part of their success to the actors involved—Eddington was the master of appearing both stupid and statesmanlike; Hawthorne had the requisite Machiavellian charm—but the stories and, especially, the rapid-fire dialogue in the series cast the eternal power plays and tugs-of-war, as well as the contradictions and hypocrisies, of politics in terms that required no special knowledge of British government.

Like the comedies of classical Greece and Rome, Yes Minister and Yes, Prime Minister owed more to the foibles of mankind than to the transient follies of the press, or diplomacy, or labor unions, or that other bureauc­racy in Brussels.