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Review of ‘Yes, Prime Minister’

By Peter Yolland

‘Yes, Prime Minister’ developed from the satirical BBC programme ‘Yes, Minister’ written by Sir Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn. The stage play by the same writers was produced in 2010.

Set principally in the private office of a British Cabinet minister in the (fictional) Department of Administrative Affairs in Whitehall, Yes Minister followed The Rt Hon Jim Hacker MP, played by Paul Eddington, in his various struggles to formulate and enact legislation or effect departmental changes that are opposed by the British Civil Service, in particular his Permanent Secretary, Sir Humphrey Appleby, played by Sir Nigel Hawthorne. His Principal Private Secretary, Bernard Woolley, played by Derek Fowlds, is usually caught between the two. The sequel followed the events of the premiership of Jim Hacker after his unexpected elevation to Number 10. A huge critical and popular success, the series received a number of awards and was the favourite television programme of Margaret Thatcher.

The play is set at Chequers and introduces a new character, Claire Sutton, as the head of the policy unit at Number Ten. The plot revolves around the PM trying to get a new oil pipeline agreement among his European partners with Kumranistan. The two civil servants try to hide certain issues, by concealing the treaty in the very bottom of Jim’s pile of red boxes. Fortunately, Jim and Claire are wise to this and discover the money isn’t going into the Bank of England. To get Sir Humphrey to agree to his proposal on the funding, Jim threatens to introduce a new bill to restrict the salaries for civil servants. The BBC telephone and ask Jim to comment on certain issues and he ends up committing himself to a live broadcast.

As the evening’s negotiations proceed, Bernard announces to Sir Humphrey and Jim that the Foreign Secretary of Kumranistan expects to be provided with prostitutes. They talk through the options of such a request and enlist the advice of the Ambassador of Kumranistan, an old public school friend of Sir Humphrey’s. His carefully proffered advice doesn’t really help get the situation resolved. Then the Director General of the BBC visits and Jim puts pressure on him to change the scheduling by discussing future BBC budgets.

There is an added predicament when it’s discovered that the cook is an illegal immigrant and matters escalate when her daughter is approached by Claire to have sex with the ambassador. But, mistakenly, she thinks it’s with the PM and contacts the media about it. Humphrey saves the day by getting them arrested. Jim decides that with the oil agreement gone, the summit still needs to achieve a successful treaty and is inspired to suggest an agreement on climate change. The play ends with a triumphant Jim talking to the BBC reporter in the live broadcast on his great achievement of bringing about this climate change treaty and selecting Humphrey to lead the commission.

Under Paul Campion’s skilful direction the writers’ lines were delivered with clarity and timing. Bob Etherington clearly showed all the PM’s characteristics; clever, frustrated, naïve, needy and forceful. In one scene I thought he became almost Basil Fawlty-like in his frustration at the events of the evening.

Bruce Wallace clearly demonstrated the manipulative tactics of Sir Humphrey, making the audience burst into applause when he spoke at great length in typical Sir Humphrey manner, using obscure and complicated language to confuse others.

Bernard Woolley was wonderfully played by Kerrin Roberts, anxiously trying to please both the PM and Sir Humphrey and not commit any criminal acts whilst doing so.

Claire Sutton, played by Angie Brignell, was the personification of a confident and knowledgeable female working in a senior civil servant role. In my day job, I work with similar women, as well as ‘Bernards’ and ‘Sir Humphreys’.

The smaller roles were equally well portrayed with Jim Ward playing the Ambassador with a sense of being aloof from those seeking his assistance. As Jeremy Burnham, the BBC Director General, Steve William’s pained expression at times seemed like Alan Yentob being asked about his knowledge of Kidscape. Finally, Phil Cairns as the TV presenter Simon Chester clearly conveyed his disappointment at being thwarted in his attempts to show the PM in a bad light.

It was satisfying to hear a gasp from several members of the audience when expressing their surprise as the secret door was opened. The efforts of the set team including lighting, sound and wardrobe were, as always, to a high standard.

Finally, did this performance do justice to the writing and acting in the legendary television series? Well, from this individual, all I can say is ‘Yes, Director’!