Monday, 26 September 2011

Review: "Yes, Prime Minister"

"Yes, Minister" and "Yes, Prime Minister" were among my favourite TV shows when I was younger, and have continued to be so. When I heard that there was a stage play being produced, again written by Anthony Jay and Jonathan Lynn, I knew I had to make an effort to see it.

After all, what could go wrong?

Quite a lot, as it happens...

[trigger warning: child sexual abuse]

The play is in 2 acts and lasts approximately 2 hours. There are approximately four scenes (or three scenes, one cut in half by the interval), all set at the PM's office at Chequers. The programme talks about the changes in the process of government since the original series was written, and the decline in the power of the civil service due partly to MPs bringing in special advisors - SPADs - represented in the play by the character of Claire Sutton, and partly to the efforts of Thatcher and later Blair to break their entrenched power.

The first scene sets up a typical situation, easily recognisable in the style of the original series. Hacker has organised a conference between EU states to discuss the economic crisis, and it's not going well. However, help is at hand, as the oil-rich fictional former Soviet state of Kulmenistan is offering a multi-trillion Euro loan, in exchange for the construction of an oil pipeline and the future purchase of their oil.

The conflict between Sir Humphrey and Jim Hacker appears out of this - Sir Humphrey has tried to hide in the loan terms British entry into the Euro, which Hacker strongly opposes. Bernard's conflicted loyalties to his two bosses are well characterised, and Claire's entry as the special advisor helping Jim get the better of both Humphrey and the press seems to be setting up further inter-character conflict, and introduce a new source of humour.

In the second scene - and the third scene which continues it after the interval - however, things take a very different turn. This is the "darker and edgier" Yes, Prime Minister ... and it all goes very wrong.

As the conflict between Jim and Humphrey grows, and the BBC phone with requests for Hacker to appear on a "Government in crisis" TV programme, Bernard rushes in with bad news - the Kulmenistan foreign minister, staying overnight at Chequers, has demanded [trigger warning] to be given an underage girl to rape1, with the strong implication that the loan deal - and with it the European economy - will be dead if he doesn't get his way.

So ... the next hour or so is mostly jokes that are either directly or indirectly about rape. That - as well as being generally unpleasant - distracts from the satirising of political life. There were plenty of other issues the writers could have used to convey the moral dilemma - can you secretly and illegally sacrifice an unwilling individual to save a country - which would have fitted more closely into the atmosphere of the first scene.

It's at this point that the characterisation falls apart. Bernard - having been established to be torn between his loyalties to his bosses - never has to make that decision again in the entire play. Claire's antagonism with the civil servants, too, is forgotten, and her brief appearances in the first scene have to suffice for her character development. Since even long-term fans of the series will never have met her before, she ends up unable to rely on merely re-establishing an existing character, and becomes rather 1-dimensional as a result.

Hacker - portrayed in the TV series as well-meaning, but rather out of his depth at times among the civil servants and press - is exposed in the play as solely concerned for his career, and incredibly misanthropic. The original Hacker was trying to do the best for the country - the Freedom of Information Act, for instance - and the corruption of power, and trying to avoid press scrutiny, came with that. He was naive and frequently outclassed, but not incompetent. The new Hacker is solely interested in being Prime Minister so that he can be Prime Minister - he appears to have no particular goals in mind other than that. He's arrogant and ruthless - but also incompetent: the complete opposite of the old Hacker. Is this complete personality reversal Claire's doing? If so, that didn't really come across.

Now, admittedly, there are quite a few professional politicians whose sole goal seems to be self-perpetuating electability - it's not unrealistic as such - but it doesn't work here. Unless you can sympathise with Hacker, and view him as someone who is trying to do good despite the situation he's in, then why should you care when Humphrey foils him, or cheer on the rare occasions he gets a small victory?

Humphrey himself seems hopelessly outclassed by this new ruthless Jim Hacker, and unable to defend himself against Hacker's repeated - and monotonous - threats of bringing in a Civil Service Bill. Surely after the first time he'd have started considering ways to counter this "ultimate weapon" of Hacker's? Why does he even continue helping Hacker at this point, rather than taking the rather obvious opportunity to rid himself not only of Hacker but of Claire Sutton too, in exchange for a more pliable PM?

Meanwhile, the focus of the show shifts from character-driven conflict between the four principal characters, to them working together to decide whether or not to provide the foreign minister's victim, and having decided fairly quickly to do so, considering the logistics of doing so and getting away with it. In the end, the foreign minister gives up on them and goes to sleep long before they themselves give up on the idea.

Then, of course, there's Kumranistan itself. You keep hoping for some kind of twist ending, where the foreign minister and ambassador were testing their host's moral courage - but no, everything is exactly as it originally seemed in that regard. The country could easily have been called Generistan (they're all interchangeable anyway, right?) - it's a simple caricature of an eastern Islamic dictatorship.

Where the characters - mainly Hacker - used racist slurs, they were generally called out on it by the other characters. Unfortunately the same can't be said about the setting details and plot, or the rest of the character's interactions. The inconsistency of calling out slurs but condoning treating foreigners lives' as worthless2 may theoretically have been an intentional point - but given how unsubtly most of the other hypocrises and moral issues the play raised were highlighted, that seems unlikely.

The eventual solution to the original problem of the failing conference - distract the press from it with an unrelated policy announcement - does return to the show's roots quite well, in a short few minutes in the final scene, but this could have happened at the end of the first scene with no real loss of continuity. It's as if the writers, having written a good 40-minute show, that would have made an excellent start to a new TV series, realised that they needed to fill in an extra 80 minutes of play, and lacking any better ideas filled the majority of it with rape jokes that went precisely nowhere.

Near the end, Bernard laments that he thinks he has lost his moral compass. The play's problem is that it does the same. A promising start very quickly hit the bottom and kept digging.


1 The characters, despite spending most of the play talking about or around the topic, of course never use the 'r'-word. Not even Bernard, who is the most uncomfortable of the four with the idea, and attempts to discourage it, will call it what it is.

2 Hacker's remaining moral issues with providing the foreign minister's rape victim are resolved when he realises that she doesn't have to be British, and suggests finding a trafficked foreign prostitute instead. He then without a second thought or a hint of moral conflict has the girl he was considering sending to the foreign minister arrested by the military police as a terrorist suspect, solely to save his own career.