Yes, Minister

A new documentary gives the women behind Number Ten their due.

I have a fondness for behind-the-scenes, what-the-secretary-saw style stuff, like the recent piece by Madoff's secretary, or that rather disappointing Downfall about Hitler's final days as seen through his secretary's eyes. (Oh, and if you ever run across 1962's My Thirty Years Backstairs at the White House, grab it.) So obviously I was psyched when Radio 4 announced a documentary on the so-called "Garden Room Girls," the "elite band of secretaries" who serve at number 10, Downing Street.

Named for the view of the garden their office affords rather than any horticultural associations, the Garden Room Girls continue to keep things running, albeit discreetly. For their documentary, the BBC reunited a group of secretaries from prior eras, who were presumably more free to share their memories. While several of them tell of weekend trips to the Duke of Norfolk's castle and Concorde flights - "I had to take dictation from one civil servant whilst I was being fed canapés by another to keep me going" - it was often far from glamorous. Wartime employees recall the barrack-like overnight accomodations, the iron beds and cold water. And then, of course, there was Churchill. Says Ann Finchett,

"He had a budgerigar which used to fly about his bedroom," [which] would land in her lap and start nibbling the edges of the paper. "I often wondered what ministers made of the letters they used to get with bits taken out of them," Ann adds.

The full documentary broadcasts 1100 BST tomorrow on Radio 4; don't worry, it'll be archived. (Also, never image-search "Garden Room Girls"; the results are highly artistic.)

Secrets Of No 10's Garden Room Girls [BBC]

Related: What the Secretary Saw [Vanity fair]
Lillian Parks, 100, Dies; Had 'Backstairs' White House View [NY Times]