Two years after it premiered at the Chichester Festival, Anthony Jay and Jonathan Lynn’s quintessentially British comedy Yes, Prime Minister is still going strong. Directed by co-writer Lynn at Trafalgar Studios, the nation’s original TV political satire is now fittingly housed on Whitehall, right in the heart of political London.
The script has been rewritten and is very much up-to-date. Prime Minister Jim Hacker (Robert Daws) leads a coalition government, which causes him many headaches. The economy is in the doldrums, the environment is on the brink, austerity measures abound, and Britain and the EU are at loggerheads – it’s alarmingly current. But Yes, Prime Minister is not about the doom and gloom. In best West Wing style, fictional country Kumranistan (somewhere “over there”, between Russia and the other ‘-stans’) enters the frame when the Kumranistani Foreign Minister arrives for a visit to Chequers. He comes bearing an offer that will save the Euro, give the government lots of dosh, and make Hacker the knight in shining armour he longs to be. There’s just one small catch – Britain must join the Euro. Haughty civil servant Sir Humphrey Appleby (Michael Simkins) thinks he can manage the deal; he just needs the PM to sign on the dotted line. Surely nothing can get in the way – or can it?
Theatrical Whitehall mirrors political Whitehall as Civil Service and elected politicians fight it out for supremacy using every means at their disposal. Sir Humphrey bosses the PM’s private secretary Bernard Woolley (Clive Hayward). The Prime Minister relies on the advice of his Special Advisor Claire Sutton (Emily Bruni), who has helped him draw up a Civil Service Reform Bill that will slash Sir Humphrey’s index-linked pension and from which he cowers like Superman from kryptonite.
The longevity of the original idea and the success of the current play are as much a tribute to the long-standing British love of taking the piss as they are to the skills of the writers. Piss-taking is something we British do quite well and, it seems, something we just cannot get enough of. After the success of Yes, Minister in the early ’80s (it was allegedly the favourite TV show of then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who spent much of her time battling with the Civil Service), there came Yes, Prime Minister. Several episodes from the series were used for radio shows and it has also been adapted in a number of countries, including Portugal and India. Before it was reinvigorated for the stage in 2010, young upstart Armando Iannucci borrowed Lynn and Jay’s satirical feathers and filled the void by providing the nation with the next foul-mouthed step upwards (or downwards, depending on how you see it) in the shape of Malcolm Tucker, political spinner and manipulator extraordinaire in The Thick of It.
For one raised mainly on Tucker’s unusual people-management techniques and creative approach to profanity, Yes, Prime Minister is generally a rather gentler specimen. It still works, though – the issues are current, the performances are sharp and, most importantly, it’s still funny. Bear with it at the start as it’s a bit slow to get moving, but by the end you’ll have thoroughly enjoyed your evening. You’ll also be thinking up new and inappropriate uses for Her Majesty’s helicopter on your way home – but that’s another story.
Yes, Prime Minister is playing at the Trafalgar Studios until January 2013. For more information and tickets, see the Trafalgar Studios website.