Review: Yes, Prime Minister

The stage version of the classic comedy has acquired a darker tinge, but remains a brilliant rendering of the absurdity of life in power.

By Alex Stevenson

Some struggles never die. The politician and the civil servant are tied at the hip, in a symbiotic relationship ripe with comic potential which Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn have once again harvested. The politicians and the civil servants continue to rely on each other, one for legitimation and the other for guidance. Coming so soon after the real-life Cabinet secretary Sir Gus O’Donnell helped write the rules which ended up forming the coalition government, the relevance of the civil service could not be greater. In Sir Humphrey Appleby, not Jim Hacker, we have the supreme guider of our nation.

Having transferred from the Chichester Festival Theatre to the West End in September, the anniversary stage version of the five-series comedy series is now moving off to the provinces for its UK tour. Devotees of the show will not be disappointed. All the signature quirks which made the original programmes so popular are present and correct.

Bernard Woolley, the prime minister’s principal private secretary, is as pedantic as ever, objecting to mixed metaphors and taking everything far too literally. Hacker himself is even more exasperated than on screen, his exaggerated personality making the transfer to the stage most easily of all. Not that there an ounce of Sir Humphrey which is not smoothly-oiled and well-polished. He is brimming with self-confidence and equipoise – and gets a round of applause whenever he launches into one of his lengthy obfuscatory monologues, the mandarin’s chief tactic for throwing politicians off the scent.

The West End run saw Henry Goodman play the part with all the self-assurance of a Saville Row tailor. David Haig, as Hacker, spent much of the play looking seconds away from a stress-induced heart attack. If civil servants perspire, politicians sweat: wobbling jowls, drinks thrown around the plush set, barked recriminations, accusations and tantrums. Haig’s performance as Hacker was magnificently physical.

Much water has passed under Westminster Bridge since the last series of Yes, Prime Minister appeared on our television screens, though. Writers like Anthony Sampson have documented the shifts in British society seen over the last two generations: the decline of the academics, the rise of the City and big business, and the breaking-down of the old Establishment and its replacement with a messier free-for-all, its pressures enhanced by the demands of 24-hour news. Britain has changed. Has Yes, Prime Minister changed with it?

The answer is yes, more’s the pity. Attempting to update a programme so rooted in its time is more disorienting than it is useful. The problem is not the broad brush of the subject matter – now oil, a financial bailout and illegal immigrants are the headaches being dealt with – but a change in tone which deviates from the original show’s brand.

The main dilemma Hacker must deal with is surprisingly adult: it is initially distasteful, quickly feels out of place, and is only rescued by farcical extension which is, alas, just that – extended. A moral message about prime ministers sending troops to Afghanistan quickly casts a dark shadow of reality over the proceedings. For a period the play loses its light tones and becomes mired in the agonies faced by real prime ministers every day. It remains funny to see Hacker whining at the top of his voice, or even praying – but doing so about something so weighty, rather than just over mere face-saving, loses some of the inconsequentiality of the original. The audience doesn’t want to be troubled because the sheer momentum of the humour on display makes it inconvenient.

But that is the underlying strength of the production, which manages to keep serving up the absurdity until the very end. The old dynamic between Humphrey and Hacker is alive and well, spiced up by the addition of a ‘special adviser’ whose presence only boosts the laugh count. The original series sorely missed a spin doctor, but the play makes up for lost time. Indeed the final scene tackles the comic potential of that other great power base in 21st century Britain, the media, brilliantly.

And in the end, after all the clashes and crises, disaster is averted by the intervention of the great power-broker Sir Humphrey, allowing Hacker to take the political credit and save his career. The sense of resolution is as satisfying as ever. Its believability may have faded with time, but Yes, Prime Minister lives on with a twinkle in its eye.