Politics of Approval – The Age
A GENERATION ago, Yes Minister conquered the earth. It was television that made you think that British comedy was still coming from the team that brought you Wilde, Sheridan and Shaw.
Margaret Thatcher adored the show. Malcolm Fraser and Bob Hawke were Australian prime ministers when the show governed our sense of politics. In the 1980s Doug Anthony, the deputy prime minister and leader of the Nationals, reported he and Fraser used to watch Yes Minister with the head of the prime minister’s department. Anthony said to Fraser: ”Did you notice we laughed at different bits?”
Yes Minister – and Yes, Prime Ministeras it became – began in 1980 and ran until 1987. It was satire of the highest kind.
The starring duo was Paul Eddington as the hapless, cowardly, blundering Minister/Prime Minister Jim Hacker and Nigel Hawthorne as the worldly and machiavellian civil servant Sir Humphrey. The brilliance of the script by Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn is timeless, partly because the creators of Yes Minister were so nifty in capturing the way in which the bureaucrats supposedly serving politicians ensure that they never get in the way of the business of running the country, an approach that is by definition unscrupulous, opportunistic and secretive.
It helps in the TV series – and presumably in the play that Jay and Lynn have put together on its basis – that the authors are so inward with the palaver of politics. Sir Humphrey consistently perverts intelligence with verbal dexterity while Hacker’s burbling decency is thwarted and his spinelessness and base self-preservation are encouraged.
Could a political comedy from 30 years ago still have legs as a stage show? The play Yes, Prime Minister started life at the Chichester Festival in 2010 and was a hit. It starred David Haig as Hacker, Henry Goodman as Sir Humphrey and Jonathan Slinger as Bernard, and toured the country for months (with a different cast) before returning to the West End.
Now we have an Australian production led by Mark Owen-Taylor as Hacker and Philip Quast as Sir Humphrey. Quast is one of the best-known Australian actors of his generation. His stage work has ranged from Mary Poppins to Edward Albee’s The Goat to Les Miserables.
It will be interesting to see what Quast makes of the high comedy of Sir Humphrey just as it will be interesting to see if Owen-Taylor’s experience in everything from The Way of the World ) to Play School and A Country Practice produces a Hacker to rival Paul Eddigton’s immortal incarnation.
Melbourne audiences will recall it was on the strength of his Hacker that Eddington came to Australia to play Sir Joseph Porter, the hapless ”ruler of the Queen’s navee” in HMS Pinafore as well as the Major-General in The Pirates of Penzance.
It’s interesting, too, that Eddington, who once said he was trained to do Shakespeare and spent his life doing comedy, also did a popular radio series based on A History of the English-Speaking Peoples by Sir Winston Churchill, the man he brilliantly impersonates during his Yes Minister daydreams.
It’s obvious from the scripts of the show that, just as Eddington could be Churchillian if he chose, Jay and Lynn might have been dazzling political speechwriters. After all, Don Watson went from writing the political satire of The Gillies Report to become Paul Keating’s moulder of words.
The play Yes, Prime Minister is updated to 2011, with all the contemporary trappings – the financial crisis in Europe and the phone-hacking scandal – but the updating hardly matters. The other night I watched the episode in which the newly installed PM Hacker tries to abolish the Trident nuclear weapon and it was a bit like what Nick Clegg was saying before the 2010 election.
Everybody in British comedy is likely to be a knave or a fool. Remember Richard Vernon as the banker who knows about nothing but banking but wants to be appointed to a quango? Remember the portrait of the church when Hacker has to appoint a bishop? Not to mention the Foreign Office, which is willing to have a British woman flogged in order to secure a deal with a dodgy Middle Eastern country.
There’s no reason Yes, Prime Minister shouldn’t work as a play. The BBC rejigged it for radio with great success and there’s a sense in which the world of Hacker, Sir Humphrey and Bernard is always going to be part of life – as long as there’s an England and as long as we’re secure enough with the Westminster system to laugh at aspects that mock our dreams of democracy.
?Yes, Prime Minister is at the Comedy Theatre from February 2. Yes Minister and Yes, Prime Minister are available on DVD from ABC Shops.