The series was about lazy, bungling, incompetent civil servants, "Number One" - Roland Hamilton-Jones (Wilfrid Hyde-White) and later Deryck Lennox-Brown (Deryck Guyler), "Number Two" - Richard Lamb (Richard Murdoch), with their dim, typo-prone, teenage secretary, Mildred Murfin (Norma Ronald), all watched-over by the lecherous, pompous, self-seeking Permanent Under-Secretary Sir Gregory Pitkin (Roy Dotrice and later Ronald Baddiley), all members of the British Civil Service based in Whitehall. The stories centered on their General Assistance Department (analogous to the "Department of Administrative Affairs" in the later Yes Minister), which helps other governmental departments. Instead of assistance, the department creates mix-ups, misunderstandings and cock-ups that lead to a telling-off from Sir Gregory, who sees his 'hard earned' Civil Service career and pension disappearing.
In one 1960s episode, "The Big Rocket", General Assistance Department is put in charge of publicity for Britain's almost non-existent space programme. With "One" out of the office and through a series of blunders by "Two", a press release reveals the launch of a non-existent British space rocket, carrying Britain's first female astronaut, Mildred Murfin. This surprises Mildred as she has that morning stormed out announcing she is "going round Ma's". The press interprets this as the rocket "going around Mars" and "One" and "Two" are faced with "bringing Mildred down to earth" while keeping their blunders from the public and superiors.
In another episode, "The Whitehall Castaways", Lennox-Brown, Lamb and Mildred row to an island in a lake in Regent's Park, General Assistance having been told to ensure the safety of a great bustard, a rare bird that is nesting there. Neglecting to tie the boat up, Lamb allows it to drift and the trio are, as Mildred puts it, "marooned", none of them able to swim to shore and Lennox-Brown having ordered the park to be closed and not re-opened "until I give the order". Spending weeks on the island, Lennox-Brown shows leadership and Lamb shows signs of mental distress, while back at the office Sir Gregory is delighted with their non-attendance and the prospect of being able to fire them, until a note cancelling an order for wooden pixies is found leading him to the conclusion that they may have taken their lives due to the shame of a blunder and his thoughts immediately turn to the effect this will have on his prospects. The trio are released by a boy and the fate of the bird and its eggs is revealed.
The characters are portrayed as inept, subject to greed, selfishness and incompetence. However, malice was never a factor and all the humour was light-hearted. There was also a little broad satire in many episodes. Later series tended to recycle older scripts, just people and places being changed.
Read more about this topic: The Men From The Ministry