30 September 2010

A new stage version of Yes, Prime Minister has just arrived in the West End. Does it recapture past glories? And what can it tell us about government today?

Yes, Prime Minister is one of those rare television programmes that shaped the way we look at the world. For many people, the experience of governing is still defined by Sir Humphrey's scheming and Jim Hacker's spluttering. And it was superbly, wickedly, funny.

After a glittering career, the show retired in 1988. Now, on its 30th birthday, a stage version has opened in the West End. But is this a triumphant return to the frontbench, or another reminder that all political careers end in failure?

New trimmings

Sadly, the latter seems more accurate. From the very start, the play sets itself up as contemporary satire rather than period piece: the opening scene pointedly references coalitions, financial crises and climate change.

Yet it becomes obvious that the show has invested in new trimmings rather than a full refurbishment: everything still hangs on the relationship between Jim, Bernard and Sir Humphrey. This set-up, the original show’s greatest strength, now feels dated.

The premise of the Prime Minister dealing with a major crisis accompanied by just two civil servants and a solitary special adviser feels naggingly inauthentic – not least because the latter seems more like a grudging nod to modernity than a real character.

A missed opportunity

The limited cast list is not just a question of realism: it also squanders comic potential. Moving to the stage offers a real opportunity to crank up the farcical elements, while still preserving the wit that made the show famous. Consider the how much fun it would be to see a situation escalate as hordes of advisers and civil servants mill around, leaving a trail of blunders and muddles in their wake.

The best moments point towards this possibility, as when David Haig builds into a Fawlty-esque rage at the stupidity that surrounds him. But mostly the stage is static and the direction sluggish. Tedium often ensues – astonishing for a show founded on its sharp, sparkling dialogue.

Easy targets

In truth, the show is neither silly enough for farce nor acerbic enough for satire. Rather, we get a series of routines on easy targets – the BBC, the European Union – that lack the incisiveness and observation of good satire. In particular, the climactic routine on global warming comes across as lazy, rather than bitingly iconoclastic.

Having said that, the script does score some hits: Sir Humphrey’s observation that a ministerial post is "the only top job that requires no experience" identifies a serious issue that the Institute's learning and development programme aims to solve.

Translating a 30 minute television show to a two hour play was always going to be a challenge. But, on this evidence, Jim Hacker may be spending a lot more time with his family soon.


Final assessment will have to await seeing the revived TV show being performed tomorrow night, or the edited version premiered on UKGold.

I agree that it suffered from trying to stretch a half hour format (just think of the movie-length versions of sitcoms from the 60s and 70s). I thought that I spotted a further structural weakness, in that the central triangular relationship between Sir Humphrey, Bernard and the (Prime) Minister had been weakened by adding the fourth, underdeveloped, character of the SPAD.

Tellingly, audience reaction was polite applause, not laughter.

If you've missed Jonathan Lynn's brilliant handbook/autobiography 'Comedy Rules', you have a treat in store for you.

From evidence of seeing the first show in the new run recorded (with a totally different cast from the current stage version), it seems that the elements which were rushed in the off-West End version will be longer-running plots and subplots in the new series. The SPAD appeared in a single brief scene.

John Sergeant was the unlikely warm-up man at the recording and gave a running commentary as cameras were reset; a diffident - and nearly spherical - Jonathan Lynn won rapturous applause when he appeared on set at the end of the recording of the show.


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