PM Jim back in the old routine

Prime Minister Jim Hacker (Richard McCabe, left) is suitably confused by the comforting advice of Sir Humphrey Appleby (Simon Williams)


Yes, Prime Minister arrived on the stage of the Hippodrome this week with our nation's leader Jim Hacker  boldly leading the nation in any direction Sir Humphrey Appleby wishes him to go – which is usually a journey which starts and ends somewhere around the status quo. Creators Sir Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn explain why they decided to bring politics' best known double act back twenty three years after they left our screens.


WHEN Yes, Minister first arrived on our TV screens in 1980 it was not only gloriously funny, after all everyone delights in sticks being poked through the bars at politicians, but it was a revelation to most of the population.

"Is Government really like that?" "Well I never. They must know something to write it, mustn't they" seemed to be the general reaction, between the laughs, of all those who watched it.

Well perhaps not quite all. Journalists who dealt with politics could have told readers about a world where words may or may not mean what you think they do, and would mean something else a week later.

A world where votes or agreements are not necessarily for the matter in hand but are payment for some concession three weeks ago or even yet to come.

A world where a ten minute answer does not even come within hailing distance of the question asked and often, when read back says nothing at all while out and out lies are merely misunderstandings or something an unfortunate journalist has misquoted.

It is called politics and journalists could have told people but no one would have believed them – this is until Yes, Minister blew the lid off the cosy inner sanctums of Whitehall where whichever party formed the Government  found it only governed with the consent of the collection of Sir Humphreys who ran the club where MPs and ministers had been granted temporary membership.

Derek Fawlds, left, as Berard, Paul Eddington as Jim Hacker and Sir Nigel Hawthorne as Sir Humphrey outside No 10 in the original BBC TV series .

 Yes, Minister  and Yes, Prime Minister had more than a grain of truth about the power plays in politics with Paul Eddington as Hacker and the brilliant Sir Nigel Hawthorne as his permanent secretary Appleby ensuring his minister did not stray too far off the leash with Derek Fowlds as Bernard Woolley, the Principal Private Secretary, hovering in the middle.

The shows, written by Sir Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn, ran for 37 half hour episodes with a one hour Christmas special in 1984 and was nominated for a host of BAFTAs, picking up seven – four went to Sir Nigel for best light entertainment performance – and was voted sixth in a poll of best sitcoms. When it ended in January 1988 Jim and Sir Humphrey were in deep trouble after Jim was caught inadvertently lying to the House.

For younger readers who thought that was now the norm for ministers and MPS, in 1988 lying to the House was still seen as a heinous crime which had ended the careers of a number of leading politicians.

So, we were left with Jim Hacker facing the prospect of back bench anonymity and Sir Humphrey taking his pension, and no doubt a few lucrative city directorships, off into the sunset – until last year that is when the writers decided he should have another shot at the power game.

Thankfully they resisted the idea of cobbling together four old YPM episodes -  the fate of too many TV sitcom to stage conversions - and instead gave Jim and Sir Humphrey a whole now political world and full length play in which to exercise their battle of wits.

Lynn explains: “I suddenly thought: why don't we bring them back? Everyone thinks politics is different, but Tony and I don't think it has changed at all. So we thought: let's take some of the world's increasingly appalling current events, set the show in the present day and see if it can work with different actors.”

Now Los Angeles-based and better known as a director of such Hollywood hits as My Cousin Vinny and The Whole Nine Yards, Lynn, 67, started life as an actor and is thrilled to be back, writing and directing the new Yes, Prime Minister play. Jay, meanwhile, is over the moon finally to be working in theatre after a life-time of broadcasting.

 “My father was an actor and my mother was an actress so I grew up with the assumption that the most honourable thing human beings could achieve was to give work to actors,” says the octogenarian. “I never imagined I would first have something on the stage after my 80th birthday!”  

Sir Nigel Hawthorne's Sir Humphrey in full flow in the BBC TV series

“I`m no spring chicken either,” chips in Lynn. “Between us we're probably the oldest duo ever to be making our playwriting debut!”

As it turns out, the idea of adapting Yes, Prime Minister for the stage was first floated while the show was still on TV. “Paul and Nigel couldn't commit for long enough though,” recalls Jay, “and we couldn't have anyone else in those days. It had to be Paul and Nigel, or nothing.”

Only after both actors had died [in 1995 and 2001 respectively] and stage versions of TV started to become popular that Lynn and Jay were approached about adapting some old episodes. “We thought about it and realised we'd rather do a completely new play.”

A new story is one thing. But new actors playing such iconic roles? It was a big risk, but happily one that paid off. David Haig and Henry Goodman received rave reviews when the play premiered at Chichester Festival Theatre this summer and again for autumn West End transfer. Lynn has high hopes for his new touring cast, too. “Although they are new faces and the characters were much beloved in their previous incarnation, we've found the audience accepts them within minutes,” he marvels.

 “Strange as it sounds, I was inspired by the fact that Daniel Craig has been an even more successful Bond than Sean Connery. It made me think: perhaps Jim and Humphrey aren't defined by the actors playing them, but by the characters themselves.”

And what characters! Jim, power-hungry like all politicians, but so keen to do right and so capable of going wrong. And Sir Humphrey, omniscient, omnipresent and never shy of using a Greek word where an English one would do. When Lynn and Jay started work on the new script at Jay's Somerset farmhouse last year, even they were surprised by how quickly the characters came back to them.

“I don't think we ever lost them,” says Jay. “I've always been the guardian of Humphrey's soul and Jonny the guardian of Jim's. So when we were trying to work out a scene, I'd say: ‘Jim would do this.' And Jonny would be able to say: ‘No, he wouldn't'. And vice versa. 

 The thing evolved like role play.” Lynn laughs: “I think it's fair to say that Tony is like Sir Humphrey: a classicist from Cambridge, who became the equivalent of a civil servant in his job at the BBC. I, on the other hand, am like Jim Hacker, an idealist who fails to live up to my ideals, what Graham Green called a ‘whisky priest'. But I try."
The pair first met in the mid 1970s through Video Arts, the company Jay set up with comedian John Cleese to produce light-hearted management training films. “In a way, Yes, Minister episodes were training films for politicians,” he says now.

“Only, we didn't show the right way to do things; we got all the fun we could out of showing the wrong way! The idea of making fun of politics wasn't new but there was no satire of this sort on TV. You have to remember that back in the 1980s, no one knew what was going on behind all that red tape. The idea that Whitehall had more power than Westminster was a revelation.” 

David Haig, right, and Henry Goodman in the original stage production

Lynn nods in agreement: “The public knew nothing and the reason? The Official Secrets Act. Our first source book for the show were the diaries of Richard Crossman, Minister for Housing in Wilson's government from 1964-70. On the very first page, Crossman notes that when his private secretary says: ‘Yes, Minister', what he actually means is ‘No, Minister'. That was our title right there! The government tried to censor the book. But the Sunday Times took the case to court and won the right to serialise it. And then we came along!”

Now that the Official Secrets Act has been all but superseded by the Freedom of Information Act and a new Coalition government has been installed in the Commons, has the Whitehall-Westminster dynamic at the heart of the show changed? “In degree rather than type,” answers Jay.

"Most politicians are still absolutely focused on getting re-elected rather than running the country or achieving the kind of society we should have. There's plenty of spin of course, but as Yes, Minister showed, there always was. I don't think the fundamental relationship has changed, no. If anything, the preoccupation with power has become more naked and all-consuming.”

The show still works, says Jay, because Jim and Humphrey are universal types. “People's behaviour is formed by their circumstances and by the rewards and punishments given out to them. Humphrey and Jim are conditioned both by what they are trying to achieve and what they are trying to avoid. You can move the thing forward in time, with everyone holding blackberries and talking about global warming. But they're still Jim and Humphrey, the same characters they were 30 years ago.”

Of course, adds Lynn: "Jim has been in power for quite a long time now so he's a little more in control. He also has a special advisor, or SPAD, in the character of Claire Sutton, which reflects a new reality in Whitehall. SPADS exist to prevent the civil service making ugly mistakes. Only as it turns out, Claire makes the worst mistake of all!”
To reveal that boo-boo would be to spoil Lynn and Jay's intricately constructed plot. But do the pair see writing for the stage as different from writing for the small-screen? 

 The current satirical coalition of Sir Humphrey Appleby (Simon Williams) and  Jim Hacker (Richard McCabe) taking politics to the people

“Hardly at all," says Jay. "You have to remember the show was originally filmed in front of a studio audience. So we always wrote for laughs."

The main issue, according to Lynn, is how to maintain a story that is two hours long, rather than 28 minutes. “It's like switching from short stories to a novel! At first it seems as though there are all these different strands, from the BBC to global warming to gas lines to a foreign minister's dodgy request. But all these things are interwoven as the play reaches its conclusion. What we needed was a story that sustained itself, not just a collection of episodes.”

Famously, the original Yes, Minister was Margaret Thatcher's favourite TV show and this new play is proving no less popular with Parliament now. Why does it hold such appeal for Westminster? Says Jay: “Politicians like hearing things about themselves. It makes them feel important. Also, I know that for an awful lot of Labour politicians, really all they knew about government when they started in 1997 was what they'd seen on Yes, Minister.”

But what of the general public, who would never tune into BBC Parliament but flock to this show in droves? “We stumbled across a timeless comedy formula when we created these characters,” reasons Lynn. “That formula is the master who is less able than the servant. It's the same as Jeeves and Wooster, the same as Carlo Goldoni's Servant of Two Masters. It goes back through the ages and people identify with it. People are also sick to death of hearing politicians lying or telling half-truths, and they love to see that ridiculed.”

A fact others have played on since, notably Armando Iannucci in his corruscating satire The Thick of It, which the Daily Telegraph called a “Yes, Minister for the Labour Years.” Which is not to say Lynn and Jay's original was about the Tories.  Jim Hacker's party allegiance was always kept willfully opaque.

What, in any case, do they make of Iannucci's show and his self-confessed debt to their script. “It's really funny but completely different from what we do,” says Lynn. “It's the system that we're satirising, not the individuals. We're not Spitting Image either. But I'm gratified by his comments and I'd like to think he's been inspired by us to do his own thing.”

“One of the things that distinguishes us from The Thick of It,” adds Jay, “is that we actually like our central characters. You don't feel that Iannucci really likes Malcolm Tucker, but we're very fond of Jim and Humphrey and if we were in their position, let's face it, we'd pretty much be doing what they're doing. Our motivation with Yes, Prime Minister isn't to change the world, it's to point out its absurdities. We just want people to have a good laugh.”
Roger Clarke

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