I have to start with some full disclosure: Yes, Minister and its successor Yes, Prime Minister are my favourite sitcoms of all time, bar none. In my view they are still, even thirty years on, some of the best and most sharply observed comedies that I’ve ever seen. My appreciation of how accurately and acutely the show managed to skewer the Westminster scene was only enhanced when I had the opportunity to work in the central government civil service myself for a period, at which point the programme felt less like a comedy than it did a fly-on-the-wall documentary and how-to survival guide for my day to day activities.
So it was with some trepidation that I watching the brand new version of the show that debuted on UK Gold last night, with new stars and scripts updating the stories of Prime Minister Jim Hacker (David Haig), Cabinet Secretary Sir Humphrey Appleby (Henry Goodman) and Principal Private Secretary Bernard Woolley (Chris Larkin). Would it be any good? If it wasn’t, would it tarnish my memories of the original in any significant way? Would I be able to judge it objectively and not just go into a sulk by comparing it with the 1980s version?
The good news is that there is no question of it impacting memories of the original. The bad news is that the reason it won’t tarnish it is that the new show is in a different and vastly inferior galaxy, quality-wise. That said, I’m prepared to concede that my initial markedly dim view of this reboot might be coloured by my total love of the original show, and also that I’m judging it so far on a single maiden 30 minute episode rather than the full body of work that comprised the 1980s series; shows often have shaky starts and find their feet, after all.
But even with that consideration, this was very shaky, surprisingly so given the pedigree of the team making it: original writers Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn supply the script, and Haig and Goodman reprise their roles from the highly successful stage version that had been in the West End and touring nationally before this new series got the green light. (It even looked like the single set had been imported direct from the theatre production – it certainly looked amazingly cheap and artificial under the harsh gaze of studio lights and HD cameras.)
It’s possible that it’s the stage show that’s the root cause of the major problem here, which is to do with overall tone: Haig and Goodman (excellent actors in many other roles) seem to be stuck in theatre mode, exaggerating their performances into larger-than-life territory and playing for the belly laughs in exactly the way that the sublimely dry and subtle original show never did. Virtually all of the cast seem to playing their roles with a big wink to camera as if to say, “we’re not taking this seriously, just having fun!” whereas the success of the 1980s series was that it was broadly played very straight with the moments of high comedy and farce beautifully judged and held back for the precise moment of maximum hilarity.
Here, Haig’s performance as Hacker seems permanently set on ‘bellow’ with a side order of ‘bluster’; Goodman’s Sir Humphrey seems to be the result of genetically splicing an estate agent with a second hand car salesman, and he’s so outrageously rude and obnoxious toward the Prime Minister that there’s not a chance he would have risen to high status in the civil service; and Larkin’s Bernard Woolley is seemingly based on a lobotomised Boris Johnson, complete with dishevelled hair. The cast is topped off with a terrible Paxman-esque interviewer who feels fresh out of an unimaginative ‘hilarious’ sketch show, and by Zoe Telford who gets limited time in the opening episode as Hacker’s political advisor Claire Sutton – which is a shame as she’s quite the best in the cast at blending a believable ‘straight’ performance with the necessary comedy edges and is therefore quite the funniest character despite only being on screen for a couple of minutes.
Jay and Lynn’s quality writing is still in evidence, even though it does sometimes rather resemble a collection of highlights from the original 1980s scripts rather than a brand new 21st century effort. I believe that the script also stems from the stage play, and the six-episode series is a reworking of the theatre production which means it has a single through-story at a weekend retreat in Chequers during a crucial EU summit. That robs the individual episodes of a central purpose: whereas each instalment of the original series forensically dissected and satirised a specific political topic (the NHS, the honours system, plans for a national ID database), the first episode of the new series is much more scattershot and all over the place in its targets, and then after 30 minutes it simply ends almost in mid-scene with an implied ‘to be continued’ over the sudden fade-out.
But of course, there are still some individual funny lines – even if the best of them have an eerily familiar quality from three decades ago. One of the best sequences is an attempt to explain the structure of the various EU councils and presidencies, but this is weirdly fumbled: it starts off with a quite sparkly bit of dialogue from Bernard which works well, but a couple of minutes later Sir Humphrey starts up all over again on the same subject but in more detail and it’s far less funny second time around.
Naturally Sir Humphrey must have one of the long impenetrable discourses designed to baffle Hacker that is a hallmark of the character and which Nigel Hawthorne made so much a part of his own portrayal. Either the writing in this new version is inferior, or Goodman’s delivery of it is off, because all it does is crystalise what it was that made Hawthorne’s performance in the role so transcendent. In the original, even the most verbose obfuscatory monologue was delivered in such a clear way that it lingered in the mind, and if you thought about it for a couple of minutes you could untangle it and realise that it really did make complete sense. But with Goodman’s Sir Humphrey, it’s just an avalanche of words that babble and blast us until our brains shut down. In other words: the original series made it possible for you to experience both Humphrey’s erudition and Hacker’s bafflement, putting us exactly in the middle of the battle; but the new series just leaves us baffled and treats us as being as dim-witted as Hacker. It’s not a pleasant feeling, and really takes the edge off what should be a comedy highlight.
Ahh, but the live studio audience enjoy it. My goodness, they enjoy everything. I wonder if the production team flooded the TV studio with nitrous oxide? The audience is howling with laughter at every half-funny line and cackling with mirth at every pantomimed theatrical gesture. Seriously, this is the most violently intrusive and awful laugh track that I can recall since the 1970s when they were outlawed by Geneva convention. It actually worked to the show’s detriment, since lines that I might have otherwise chuckled at were received with hysteria by the audience that was so disproportionate it just killed the chance for humour altogether as far as I was concerned.
If this hadn’t been Yes, Prime Minister and was just another sitcom, I would have stopped watching at the first commercial break. The show’s history and pedigree kept me watching to the end, and my willing the show to be a success might even make me try and swallow the second episode in a week’s time – but it’s not a pleasant experience at this point. Maybe it will get better and find its feet.
After the first episode aired, it was followed by a special 75-minute programme which was part celebration of the original show, and part behind-the-scenes feature on the new version. An interesting section of it was a ‘Select Committee on Comedy’ in which various political luminaries such as Lord Heseltine, Alastair Campbell and former Cabinet Secretary Gus O’Donnell got together to discuss their memories of the show and their ideas for what a modern day version should include in an era of coalitions and social media. They came up with some great material – genuinely, I would be interested to see the show that they end up spinning and can see some great comedy gold in their suggestions. But all it did was emphasise that this kind of modern day thinking was entirely missing from the new show, which despite some surface updating to include talk of the Euro and the credit crisis really didn’t seem to have moved on at all since the 80s.
So here’s the paradox: the new Yes, Prime Minister already feels old and slightly behind the times, seemingly setting itself in the period in 2008/9 when the credit crunch erupted, and it learns no lessons at all from The Thick of It which has claimed the political comedy crown for itself in the meantime. By contrast, the original episodes of Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister actually still feel fresh and current, succeeding in coming across as up-to-the-minute thanks to being perennially timeless from the start.
It’s an funny thing indeed when a show from 30 years ago feels fresher and more immediate than its 21st century reboot. Really quite the funniest thing about the entire show, in fact.
Yes, Prime Minister continues on UK Gold with new episodes airing at 9pm on Tuesdays. The DVD is available from February 25 2013.