Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister – broadcast on the BBC for most of the Thatcher era – has set a gold standard for political satire that has not yet been surpassed, not even by The Thick of It and certainly not by this slapdash stage version that has been touring since the general election last year.
The central dynamic is much the same, namely the struggle between Machiavellian, over-mighty Cabinet Secretary Sir Humphrey Appleby (Simon Williams) and his long-suffering Prime Minister, Jim Hacker (Richard McCabe), whose coalition government is struggling with the Pound crashing, energy shortages and rifts with the EU. The answer to all Hacker’s problems seems to be an oil pipeline deal with the government of the corrupt Soviet satellite state Kumranistan, and the play follows Hacker, Appleby and Hacker’s private secretaryBernard Wooley (Chris Larkin) as they try to piece together a deal with the Kumranistani ambassador (Kevork Malikyan) and his off-stage foreign minister, who has a penchant for underaged girls.
The dilemma that drives the plot – Kumranistan won’t sign the deal unless a suitably young prostitute is procured for the visiting dignitary – is awkward in the extreme: the audience audibly gasped when the proposition was first raised and for quite some time afterwards it didn’t seem to know whether it was appropriate to laugh or not. While the writers were (if only just) able to a eke out a few decent jokes without being distasteful – the prospective act is variously described as a “eurojob” and “horizontal diplomacy” – it’s a very heavy-handed device that does more harm than good. It also destroys the sense that you are watching something that is essentially true to life. In reality no leader – no matter how corrupt or addled – would let his need to get his end away jeopardize an £11 trillion agreement, and nor would a room full of Oxbridge-educated civil servants fail to happen upon a series of extremely obvious legal solutions to the problem, chief among them getting the PM’s youthful advisor to do the deed instead and save young the girl. This is the most problematic break with the concept of the original series – the TV show was so powerful because it was always believable; there was always a niggling sense that some version of what was being acted out was really happening in some shadowy part of Whitehall.
Problematic though it is, this plotline does at least allow the writers to ask some serious questions about the troubled relationship between politics and morality in a decent amount of depth and with appropriate sincerity. Does it matter that the government is complicit in breaking its own law if in so doing it staves off economic misery for a whole continent; does the security of millions justify the scarring of a single life? While the TV show was content in being extremely witty and clever but in a very self-contained way – avoiding the big questions about the conduct of those who govern us – Jay and Lynn should be applauded for making more of an effort this time around, even if comes at the price of a coherent and convincing plot. This is where Malikyan shines: In what could otherwise have been a relatively minor role he does an astounding job of shedding light on the cultural and social relativity of the law and of questioning our assumption that the western way of life is superior. Amidst the more throwaway witty one-liners, he has the best, most profound line in the play: “What is this young person’s momentary discomfort compared to your complicity in the deaths of children in my part of the world? They are just numbers to you – and not even that, because you don’t count them any more”.
Larkin also does a brilliant job of moving beyond his third-wheel role to become the hero of the play; the junior official caught in the crossfire whose understanding of and respect for the weight of the decisions before him allows him to come out as the only untarnished character. Together, Larkin and Malikyan completely outclass Williams – appropriately slippery but off-stage for too long, and McCabe – who massively overcooks some choice lines and appears to completely forget others.
The overriding characteristic of the TV show was its elegance in viciously and hilariously sending up the foibles of government without demeaning it, without losing sight of the seriousness and gravity of what it was satirising. In short, it trod very well the fine line between satire and farce, something which the stage version fails at. The wit and sophistication of the original version is evident only occasionally and there is far too much overacting and cringe worthy moments of excessive playing to the audience. As it is all set in the PM’s wood-panelled office in Chequers with the characters running between rooms and getting into all sorts of confusion the whole thing comes off as a sort of third-rate drawing room farce rather than the cutting parody of the powerful that it is trying to be, and once was.