Seeing Yes, Prime Minister on my seventieth birthday with Stephen Ramsey, with whom I wrote The True Believers, and John Bell, for whom I co-wrote The Legend of King O’Malley, after some antipasto with Denny Lawrence, with whom I wrote Goodbye Paradise and Shakespeare In Italy, and seeing on stage Phillip Quast, for whom I co-wrote two unproduced musicals, and Tony Llewellyn-Jones, with whom I invaded the Hawke-Keating Economic Summit in 1983, a formative experience, in a play about the backroom of politics, where I have spent (thus far) eighteen years, was a satisfyingly affirmative septuagenarian experience, and the show even more so.
It had elements of a Restoration comedy, a Wilde, a Shaw, a Hare, a Stoppard, a Monte Python, a P.G. Wodehouse, a Gilbert and Sullivan, a Somerset Maugham, a William Douglas-Home, a Ray Cooney, an episode of Fawlty Towers, an episode of The West Wing, and almost every Shaftesbury Avenue play of the 1950s. Yet it was about global warming, asylum seekers, child prostitution, the economic meltdown, the Special Relationship, the death of God, Middle East oil politics and CIA assassinations.
And, of course, that educative Shavian comedy series Yes, Minister, by the present writers Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn, which Bob Hawke once said was the closest equivalent of what he went through each day as Prime Minister that a drama had brought to him, and of which Kevin Rudd had said, ‘I have been Bernard. I have been Sir Humphrey. I have been the Minister. And I am the Prime Minister.’
I myself wouldn’t go quite that far — I rate The West Wing and The Ides Of March and Frost/Nixon and The Queen higher — but it echoes life in a Leader’s office very closely. The great man’s tantrums. The BBC’s nudgings and proddings. The informed and paranoid scuttering little guy, Bernard, who was around in Plautus and flourishes still in the Michael J. Fox roles in The American President and Spin City. The Jeeves-Bertie dialogues that so resemble Wedderburn and Carr, Lance Worrall and Mike Rann, Freudenberg and Whitlam, Gerard Henderson and John Howard.
All this in a show that runs a hundred and three minutes, and never leaves Chequers or suffers anything worse than a thunderstorm and a testing BBC interview. And feels a little slight and shallow, in the end, though it deals with wit and guile and profundity the moral choices that afflict world politics lately.
Like whether or not to get into surplus by providing the Kumranistan Foreign Minister with an underage prostitute — not a virgin, that would be morally wrong — and securing a trans-Eurasia oil pipeline deal which would save the euro, a currency Jim Hacker detests but fears he must now join, the child whore brought in from Soho on the Queen’s helicopter, a misuse, it could be argued, of taxpayers’ money, though it could be seen, too, as a great patriotic adjustment to modern necessities.
To Sir Humphrey Appleby Philip Quast, unfussed possessor of three Laurence Olivier Awards, has added, in a sort of declaration of independence, a moustache; and the unintended effect, a close resemblance to Clark Gable, is to add a sexually attractive quality Nigel Hawthorne always lacked to a role that is, of its essence, a malevolent eunuch. And this, plus the addition of Caroline Craig, a dish, as Claire Sutton, to the Prime Minister’s backroom, selectively available for ministerial rogering on pertinent weekends, does harm, though not terminal harm, to the lofty chessmaster’s vengeful strategies which lie at the heart of the show’s chaste ongoing amusements in this, its thirty-third year.
All the cast is very, very fine, Tony Llewellyn-Jones not least as the Director-General of the BBC, both baffled and conniving, and Alex Menglet as the amoral Balkan-sounding Kumranistan Ambassador,a righteous, moustached equivalent of Paul Cox. John Lloyd Fillinghan is remarkably agile, like a wounded ferret, as the spinmaster Bernard, and Caroline Craig a sumptuously accoutred muse — and mistress perhaps — for Hacker in his bunker in his final days of power.
But it is Mark Owen-Taylor who narrowly filches the honours from Quast, a perfect Jeeves to his Bertie, and Fillingham, the hyperactive rodent. His rare combinations of stupidity and shrewdness, amoral multinational sexual tolerance and dim bigotry, suicidal despair and boyish sunniness, simmering lust (he nearly kisses Claire once, then stays his fumbling hand) and traditional English boarding-school-bred frigidity, put one in mind of Derek Nimmo, with a splash perhaps of Jophn Cleese. Or David Cameron. The set by Shaun Gurton is fantastic and the direction by Tom Gutteridge very fine.
There are two more performances in Sydney, then others in Brisbane with Lewellyn-Jones (what a coven of hyphenates the cast list is) as Humphrey, and you should see it if you can.