We may elect our politicians every few years, but what they get up to once in office is to some extent a mystery, and it certainly may not be what they told us they would do when they asked us to vote for them. In government, politicians are aided and abetted by the unelected Civil Service, a self-perpetuating workforce who owe allegiance only to the current government, and themselves. It's the interactions between the elected and unelected that this play homes in on, giving us a taste of what might be going on behind the closed doors of Whitehall.
'Yes, Prime Minister' started off life as a TV sitcom back in the early 1980s. In its original format it was simply entitled 'Yes, Minister', because it focused on a minister getting to grips with the reigns of power, rather than the PM. Later the format developed as the minister became the leader of his party. In the TV series, Paul Eddington played Jim Hacker, the politician, Nigel Hawthorne played Sir Humphrey Appleby, the Permanent Secretary in Hacker's department, and Derek Fowlds was the Principal Private Secretary who found himself serving two masters.
The old writing team of Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn have assembled this new version, and their up-to-date material encompasses developments in government such as the SPADS (Special Advisers), the omnipotent Blackberry, and financial instability. Prime Minister Jim Hacker (played by David Haig) has a slim majority and thus only a slim chance of staying in power. An oil-rich state has offered to lend Europe a gargantuan sum of cash which will solve Hacker's problems, but there are strings which Sir Humphrey only reveals after some arm-twisting. It's a day that is going to get worse for the PM as the visiting minister from Kumranistan demands to have sex with a 'schoolgirl', and the PM and his aids are expected to arrange it, otherwise the loan deal will be ditched. That twist in the plot, sent a few shivers of concern down one's spine. It seemed as if we had wandered into the rather unsavoury domain of paedophilia. In fact, this aspect of the plot really serves as a political and moral dilemma, and as such is, thankfully, merely a device. The BBC comes in for some political 'stick' as the Director-General is, more or less, blackmailed into allowing Hacker an unplanned interview, giving the lie to media independence.
David Haig's Hacker is more frantic and emotional than Paul Eddington's PM, and there are times when he, almost, loses control. But he regains his composure in order to bring Sir Humphrey and the Director-General smartly into line. Henry Goodman has more in common with Nigel Hawthorne's Sir Humphrey, with the ability to wrap any argument in bureaucratic gibberish, preventing discussion and, therefore, any decision that might work against him or the Whitehall 'machine'. The Haig-Goodman team is convincing and provides the same self-serving tension in the relationship, but there's more originality in David Haig's exhausting characterisation of Hacker.
There's good support from Jonathan Slinger as Bernard Woolley, the PM's Principal Private Secretary, who is again torn between loyalties. And Emily Joyce makes good work of the new role of the politically correct Special Adviser who stands side-by-side with the PM against the conniving forces of the Civil Service.
I'm not sure I ought to like a play that is based on Margaret Thatcher's favourite TV show. The former PM even acted in a special sketch with the stars in 1984. Still, I suppose it demonstrates that even the Iron Lady had a sense of humour. This version doesn't pack quite the same hilarious punch as its parent series, mainly because many of us have already experienced the banter between PM and the Civil Service types, so we know what's coming. Better in the second half as the momentum ramps-up, it is nevertheless very funny at times thanks to satirical writing which is as sharp and witty as ever.
"Reduced me to helpless hilarity."
Charles Spencer for The Daily Telegraph
"There’s a delightful stream of one-liners to sustain dramatic tempo and audience spirits."
Fiona Mountford for The Evening Standard
External links to full reviews from popular press