If government is a risky business, then so is an updating of a much-loved national institution. ‘Yes Minister’ was a gold-plated comedy in a golden age of sitcom. The scheming, eminence-grise figure of Sir Humphrey, the civil servant who really pulls the levers of government is for all time associated with the towering performance of the late, great Nigel Hawthorn. The fictional hapless Prime Minister Jim Hacker, you may remember, was played to perfection by Paul Eddington (of blessed memory). So a decision to update the comedy series and transform it into a full-length stage play was a risky decision – was it a wise one? Like government itself, the answer is a compromise between success and failure.
On the up side, the script is by the same team that brought us the TV hits. Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn have picked up the characters twenty years on from their TV personas.
The setting of the play is the library of the PM’s official residence at Chequers. It is the present day and the PM, still Mr. Hacker (amazing longevity) leads a recently-elected coalition government, disaffected back benchers, a financial crisis in Europe, global warming and a fuel crisis (sounds familiar?). He is surrounded by ‘advisors’ – his personal secretary, the loyal civil servant Bernard, the oily slitherer Sir Humphrey (played with a kind of suave gloominess by Michael Siskins) and this being the 21st century, a special policy advisor Claire Sutton.
Jay and Lynn have clearly lost none of their sharp observational talents – the play, especially the first half, is packed with witty satirical lines, musings on the messy mechanics of government; Sir Humphrey is no less manipulative trying to wrap the poor PM around his little finger in an endless thread of obfuscation. Hayward (as Sir H) got several rounds of applause for his astonishingly verbose ‘clarifications’ aimed at thoroughly confusing his boss.
Between the many Shavian scenes where the nature of government (messy) is debated, there is a plot of sorts. A fictional Central Asian government has promised to bail out Europe with its oil money in return for allowing the EU to allow a pipeline through all 27 member states. With a Euro conference chaired by Hacker in the offing, this would seem like a much-needed triumph. There is a snag: the foreigners are demanding that the UK joins the Euro. What will Hacker do? There is more trouble to come as the foreign minister of that far-off petro-country is making some jaw-droopingly awful sexual demands that place poor Hacker in a terrible dilemma.
So far so good – the first half ended with a series of satisfying dilemmas, some excellent jokes and good old-fashioned politics bashing. But then things start to unravel. The second half was deeply disappointing, almost as if the writers had too many ideas to pull together in too short a time. There was an air of almost manic plotting that seemed unnecessary and one’s suspension of disbelief became more unwilling as the play’s first-half structure unraveled.
As an example, there was a totally unbelievable plot device of the PM ordering his advisors to kneel in prayer to find a solution to the sexual blackmail plot. Surely the writers know that as Tony Blair says, ‘we don’t do God in British politics’? There were many other dis-believable twists and turns which inexplicably took Sir Humphrey out of the action for most of the second half.
The production has another rather serious flaw: PM Hacker played by Graham Seed simply cannot escape his Nigel Pargetter character from the Archers. His Jim became an hysterical, posturing, slightly camp and one-noted character. There was none of Eddington’s weak but sympathetic politician, instead we get a silly billy who surely couldn’t be elected as a parish councillor let alone prime minister. I had the unkind thought that this party leader would do everyone a favour by falling off a roof.