An Article about The London Production – May 7, 2010
Yes, Prime Minister: The Greatest Comeback Since The Lib-Dems
Jim Hacker and Sir Humphrey have returned. Why?
One of the writers who created them explains…
They say that whoever you vote for the Government always gets in. That was the running joke behind Yes, Prime Minister, the Eighties comedy that did its eloquent bit to undermine our faith in the possibilities of political change. And now, whoever we voted for yesterday, Yes, Prime Minister is itself back, this time as a play receiving its first previews in Chichester next week.
It has been a while. The last time the vacillating politician Jim Hacker feuded with Sir Humphrey Appleby, his not very loyal civil servant, was January 1988. After 40 episodes of Yes Minister and its less credible Downing Street successor, the writers Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn abandoned their Amstrad keyboards, having concluded every last laugh had been extracted from the sorry business of government. In any case, Paul Eddington, who played Hacker, was becoming ill with the skin cancer that would kill him. Nigel Hawthorne, who was his Sir Humphrey, would die five years after him, in 2001.
I was tremendously upset, because I was tremendously fond of both of them, Lynn says. A biggish man dressed in a leather jacket, he is sipping a glass of red wine in the Waldorf, having returned from rehearsing the revival with his new leading men, Henry Goodman, who plays Sir Humphrey and the equally outstanding David Haig, who is the new Hacker. But now we feel sufficient time had passed to have other actors. Watching Henry and David has been a total pleasure. They are not doing impressions. They are playing it differently, and very well.
After Yes Minister Lynn, now 67, moved to Los Angeles to direct comedies such as The Fighting Temptations and My Cousin Vinny. But his latest film, Wild Target, which opens here next month, brought him back to Britain and, as usual when visiting, he made the trek to the Somerset farm where Jay, now 80, lives. They began talking. They began lunching sources.
The Whitehall gossip whetted their appetite. Although both were dubious about returning to the scene of a triumph, the lure of becoming perhaps the world’s oldest debut playwrights was strong. They gave themselves nine days to see if something occurred, on the understanding that if nothing did that would be fine too.
We started work in the morning and by lunch we had the bones of the story. Two days later we pretty much had the complete story. It was as if, after 24 years, we had never stopped writing, Lynn says.
Extracting from him the plot of the new Yes, Prime Minister is about as easy as squeezing an official secret from a secretive cil servant. What he will say is that the action takes place at Chequers. Europe is in financial meltdown; Britain’s wounded leader clings to power after a close election; the Prime Minister needs help from dubious new allies …
But the play’s fundamental premise is clear from talking to him. The British Government is still botched together by ideologically exhausted elected representatives with no job security on the one hand and, on the other, permanent officials who have all the arrogance that a job for life can confer.
One thing has changed during the Major-Blair-Brown years and that is British comedy, and nothing emblemises the transformation more than the arrival to BBC Four in 2005 of The Thick of It. Armando Iannucci’s alternative comic vision of the governing classes might be the bastard son of Yes Minister. Without claiming paternity, Lynn says he has seen episodes and liked them: Much more vicious, but very funny.
Jay is equally generous, although he points to differences between the projects. The Thick of It is almost all about politics and we were almost all about government.
But to a viewer the striking difference is the dialogue. Both specialise in baroque speeches, but they sound so different it is hard to believe that the same audience could enjoy both. A brilliant example of the dialogue that helped Hawthorne to win prizes might be: The identity of the official whose alleged responsibility for this hypothetical oversight has been the subject of recent discussion, is not shrouded in quite such impenetrable obscurity as certain previous disclosures may have led you to assume. Not to put too fine a point on it, the individual in question is, it may surprise you to learn, one whom your present interlocutor is in the habit of defining by means of the perpendicular pronoun. It is I.
An example of his modern counterpart Malcolm Tucker’s eloquence might be: We should use the carrot and stick approach. You take a carrot, you stick it up his f***ing arse, followed by the stick.
I wonder, however, if there is not a more fundamental difference between Thick of It and its silver-tongued prototype. Iannucci writes satire, whereas Jay and Lynn wrote situation comedy. The central relationship in Yes Minister conforms to a very old comedic trope that dates back through Up Pompeii and Jeeves and Wooster 97 the servant who outsmarts his master. We are talking Plautus, not Juvenal. Lynn is insistent on this point. Satire is humorous literature written with the intent of changing society. We are not trying to change society. . All we are doing is observing what we see and reporting it.
Nevertheless, it was to the great embarrassment of the original Yes Minister that it became known as Mrs Thatcher’s favourite programme. Lynn would not have minded if it had been as widely quoted that Tony Benn, who wrote to them saying he had given up critiquing the Civil Service because Yes Minister did it better than he did, was also an ardent fan.
It became received wisdom that we were talking about a Tory Government and a Thatcher Government in disguise, Lynn says. In fact, we wrote the first series when James Callaghan was PM. Jim Hacker is a centrist figure of the Heath-Callaghan type. He is not like Thatcher. We modelled him as across between Roy Hattersley and Jim Prior.
Graham Greene would have called him a whisky priest. He went into politics because he believed he could change things for the better. I think most politicians do that. By the time you have reached the top of the greasy pole, however, you have made so many compromises and swallowed so much you no longer recognise who you really are.
I insist that we play a little game to see how many of our postwar prime ministers have actually been Jims. Attlee? No, Lynn concedes. Eden? He was deranged. Macmillan was sort of Jim: first into Suez and first out. Douglas-Home was a posh Jim. Wilson was Jim. Heath was Jim. Callaghan was Jim. Thatcher, no; she was a conviction politician. Major had an element of Jim about him.
Until Iraq, Blair was a form of Jim. And Gordon Brown? Yes, I think he is a Jim, don’t you? He lost himself somewhere along the way. I think he is a tragic figure. I think they all are.
I ask Jay whether Hacker had not been replaced by a type even more terrifying, the zealot PM: not just Thatcher and her punk economics but Blair and his foreign policy, idealogical battles that defeated Whitehall conservatism. When they focus on one thing, he replies, politicians often manage to do it. But hundreds of things are going on and it usually means that they abandon all of them.
The search for political meaning in Yes Minister was always secondary to whether you considered its version of politics as drawing-room farce hilarious or complacent. Of its two progenitors, however, Jay’s sympathies are the easier to read. He wrote speeches for Thatcher and continues to pen papers advocating a smaller role for the State. He is also an enthusiast for public choice political analysis, a perspective that doubts that the State is capable of acting in the wider public good.
Lynn, the more liberal of the two, has not voted in Britain since 1964 (for Wilson). Having met John Gummer and Michael Howard in the Cambridge Union and been horrified by their pomposity, he took to heart his doctor father’s favourite quotation: Put not your trust in princes, nor your faith in kings.
He cannot have been thrilled that Jay wrote for Thatcher? I wasn’t entirely happy but that was Tony’s choice. We discussed this once. I said: “Why does this work so well when we don’t agree about some things?” And Tony said: “Because we see the same problems even if we do not necessarily see the same solution”.
Yes, Prime Minister is at the Chichester Festival Theatre
(May 13 to June, 5 2010)