Yes, Prime Minister
Last night I met my quiz-teammates from the Bank of Friendship Thursday night pub quiz to attend the stage production of Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn’s famous 1980s political sitcom Yes, Prime Minister. The TV version, now regarded as a modern comedy institution, solidified the fame of Paul Eddington, who appeared as the hapless Minister (and later Prime Minister) Jim Hacker, and gave rise to a classic comedy performance by Nigel Hawthorne as the archetypal Whitehall mandarin, Sir Humphrey Appleby. With much residual goodwill from the success of the TV series, would the stage version live up to the high standards of the earlier incarnation?
The play updates the characters to 2010 with a quick nod at the current coalition environment, and throws in a Blackberry joke or two. But it’s the same grand game of indecision and obfuscation that viewers enjoyed onscreen 25 years ago. Hacker is still alarmingly less on top of the political game than he should be; Sir Humphrey is still effortlessly disarming and fond of lengthy and verbose orations signifying absolutely nothing; and the long-suffering Bernard tries to skirt the perennial middle course between the two competing worldviews of his political boss and his bureaucratic boss. A new character is introduced, Claire, the PM’s special adviser, to feed Hacker handy hints to undermine Sir Humphrey’s machinations.
The stage performance is enjoyable, and there’s plenty of humour inherent in the continual ramping-up of crises onto Hacker’s shoulders as he flails for a solution to all his many problems. Chief among these is the general economic downturn and the impending failure of a European summit that he has called, but which is spiralling to failure. A dodgy Central Asian oil deal might rescue matters, but comes with plenty of strings attached. The oil deal contains what is perhaps the best visual joke of the play, when the pan-European solution for an oil pipeline route is displayed on a huge projection screen, with the route snaking endlessly through every single EU nation, thereby ensuring plenty of pork-barrel political dividends for all concerned.
The cast does a good job with the material, if seldom attaining the polished excellence of the TV cast. Henry Goodman is appealingly smooth as Sir Humphrey, and pulls off his signature soliloquys with aplomb. Experienced theatre actor David Haig, perhaps best known for his small role as Bernard the groom in Four Weddings and a Funeral, is very different in delivery to Paul Eddington, offering a more frenetic portrayal as the pressure mounts, but as a bald man he does get to utter the treasurable line, ‘I lost my hair in the service of my country’. RSC actor Jonathan Slinger does well with the betwixt-and-between Bernard, and acts as the moral compass of the piece. He has a moment of delightful physical comedy when the PM instructs him rather firmly that ‘we’re all casual here’, and Bernard reluctantly swings his suit jacket over his shoulder and pretends to be relaxed. (Sir Humphrey refuses to go even that far; he merely pops his pocket handkerchief down in his suit pocket, out of view, in the merest concession to informality). Emily Joyce, who appeared opposite Ardal O’Hanlon in My Hero, is assertive and striding as the political fixer Claire, offering Hacker the confidence and know-how he seems to lack. Claire’s lack of moral scruples is a useful if potentially risky counterpoint to Bernard’s comparative morality.
The substance of the play follows the same story arc as the TV episodes conformed to, with the smokes and mirrors of policy-making and political horse-trading to the fore. But while the TV series wore its cynicism lightly and benefitted from a skilled comic touch that imparted sympathetic qualities in all its main characters, the 2010 version of Yes, Prime Minister, is darker fare. The central dilemma that Hacker must decide upon is the demand of the Central Asian republic’s foreign minister for an under-aged girl for the night, which is a subject matter far removed from the spirit of the TV version. Perhaps the writers have become more cynical since the 1980s, or perhaps they have been influenced by the brilliant if nihilistic portrayal of the political sphere of The Thick Of It and In The Loop, in which anything goes and matters of right or wrong are eternally fluid, particularly if you can get away with something on the QT. I’m not so naive as to believe that this sort of political crisis doesn’t happen in real life, but its inclusion paints a much bleaker picture of the characters than the TV series, and ultimately undermines the ability of the audience to sympathise with them.
Similarly, an outburst of curious climate-scepticism from Sir Humphrey is unquestioningly treated as gospel, when the writers are clearly aware that such theories have little scientific merit. It’s convenient as a plot point, so for the purposes of the play global warming is a hoax. Which is taking something of a liberty with the facts!
Fans of the TV series will welcome the opportunity to delve back into the world of Yes, Prime Minister, and as one of those fans I can recommend it as an enjoyable evening’s entertainment, despite my qualms. Perhaps, despite the stated inclination of the writers not to go through the TV writing process again, the play will even generate enough interest to spawn another incarnation of the sitcom on British screens. Certainly the public’s view of the political environment is every bit as cynical as it was in the 1980s, so audiences may be receptive. If it does, perhaps Jay and Lynn would do well to remember that the original series worked so well because it was in essence an affectionate behind-the-scenes portrait of the political environment, rather than a cynical critique.
Notes to the Principal Private Secretary (Sir Humphrey blogs)