First among equals

Richard McCabe as Jim Hacker and Simon Williams as Sir Humphrey Appleby in Yes Prime Minister
Richard McCabe as Jim Hacker and Simon Williams as Sir Humphrey Appleby in Yes Prime Minister

Much-loved TV sitcom Yes, Prime Minister has been revived on stage and updated. Ian Soutar talks to the new Prime Minister

AS the updated stage version of classic BBC television situation comedy, Yes, Prime Minister, approaches on tour with Simon Williams as Sir Humphrey Appleby and Richard McCabe as Jim Hacker, some people have remarked that you might well have expected the casting of the lead characters to be the other way round.

In these days of an old Etonian at No 10, the upper-class credentials of Williams (Upstairs, Downstairs, Holby City) might seem to qualify him for the highest office in the land but, as with the TV series, the play is careful not to suggest any allegiance to a particular party.

Once you see the play it makes absolute sense as Williams’ suave pinstriped civil servant crosses swords with McCabe’s man-of-the-people premier.

Although probably most readily recognised by the public at large as Nyberg, the laconic pathologist assisting Kenneth Branagh’s Wallender in the BBC’s Swedish cop series, Richard McCabe is primarily an Olivier-nominated classical actor and has been an Associate Artist of the Royal Shakespeare Company since 1997.

A Hamlet and a Iago in his time, he has performed in a string of notable productions for the RSC and the National Theatre and appeared in the West End and regionally. Last summer he was at the Chichester Festival Theatre in Bingo: Scenes of Money and Death alongside Patrick Stewart and the double bill of Tom Stoppard’s The Real Inspector Hound and Richard Sheridan’s The Critic.

And indeed that’s how he first came across Yes, Prime Minister.

“I was at Chichester in the Minerva (the studio theatre) when Yes, Prime Minister was in the main house and there was crossover between the two companies,” he recalls. “ I thought then it would be rather fun to do. Fast forward a year and here I am. When I was offered it, I thought why not, it’s a really fun night out.”

It is not just a rerun of the Eighties sitcom, he insists. “The characters of Sir Humphrey and Jim Hacker are instantly recognisable but Jonathan and Antony (Lynn and Jay, writers of both the original sitcom and the play) have taken it into the 21st century. For the first half-hour you might be watching an episode of the sitcom and then it goes into a completely different area. There’s a moral dilemma at the heart of it.”

The Prime Minister and his aides face leading the country into financial meltdown for which the only solution comes from a dodgy deal with the country of Kumranistan, whose foreign minister is making some distasteful personal demands. If the characters are recognisable, have Simon Williams and Richard McCabe attempted to impersonate Nigel Hawthorne and Paul Eddington?

“What we are doing with the play is a reinvention of the same characters,” he explains. “My Jim Hacker is very different from Paul Eddington’s although I can’t help hearing his voice sometimes.

“Part of the challenge was trying to make it my own. In fact it was harder to be different from David Haig (who played the role last year), than Paul Eddington. Jonathan says I am completely different so that’s all right. And you have to remember a whole generation of people who haven’t seen the TV series are experiencing it for the first time.”

As with the TV series, the play has quite a sophisticated humour. “It doesn’t talk down and it assumes a certain knowledge on the part of the audience. It’s a rare combination of being brilliantly inventive and very silly. It becomes a farce and goes into an area very different from TV.”

To do farce requires “ a well-oiled machine” says the actor, along with sticking to the rhythm of the dialogue and the timing of movement. “Depart from that and you can lose it.”

Since the TV heyday of Yes Minister and Yes Prime Minister, we have become used to seeing politics satirised more head-on in programmes like The Thick of It. Is there any danger of this seeming a tad old-fashioned?

“The Thick of It is about spin doctors, whereas this is about government and the struggle between the legislative and the executive – the politicians who want to get things done and the civil servants who try to stop it,” he says

It’s a power struggle that ebbs and flows. “Jim Hacker is no fool. You find in the play it’s pretty evenly matched and the strange thing is thay cannot live without one another.”

Yes Prime Minister also manages to remain topical.

“The amazing thing about it is there are so many things that are relevant today and yet Jonathan and Anthony wrote the play one-and-a-half years ago,” he says, citing references to control orders which became a hot issue during the run of the play.

“Jonathan said an interesting thing about this. We never chase the news, it chases us.”

lYes, Prime Minister is at the Lyceum from Monday to Saturday.