Review: Sex trafficking and dago bashing? No thanks, Prime Minister

17 Apr 2012 @ 7.53 am
| Entertainment, Opinion
Are you in, Prime Minister? Sir Humphrey (Michael Simkins) turns the tables on Jim Hacker (Graham Seed). Photographs: Manuel Harlen for York Theatre Royal

Yes, Prime Minister at York Theatre Royal

If you want to achieve immortality through your art, don’t be a comedy writer. Be a painter, or a novelist, a musician or poet. Nothing dates as quickly as laughter.

Political satire dates the quickest of all. Sheer silliness endures: Laurel & Hardy and Morecambe & Wise still provoke hoots. But when That Was The Week That Was is repeated, we study it as a historic relic. And did we really fall about at Spitting Image?

Yes, Minister and later Yes, Prime Minister were clever and funny and of their time. But the Eighties, it pains me to say, were a long time ago. It’s a sitcom where the situation – politics and power – has changed completely.

That posed a dilemma for the writers. How to stage an Eighties satire in 2012? They might have preserved it as a period piece, mining for evocative gags about industrial policy and work-shy unions. This would have suited the large crowd lured to York Theatre Royal by the Bisto-like waft of TV nostalgia.

Alternatively, they could bring it bang up to date. Unfortunately they did neither.

Yes, Prime Minister is ostensibly set in contemporary Britain. But this is a modern political world with no fear of rolling news, where success or failure is judged by column inches in the papers not hits on the Mail website or Twitter trends. The Chequers inhabited by this PM hadn’t a laptop or iPad.

There was a reference to Twitter and a little business with their Blackberries (remember them?). But most of the “topical” jokes had turned stale long ago. A crucial part of the plot concerned global warming, a subject washed off the agenda the moment the wide-boy financiers burst our banks.

Graham Seed as Prime Minister Jim Hacker
Worse, the characters felt like museum pieces. It is inconceivable to imagine a 21st century PM ranting about dagos, wops and krauts in the way of Jim Hacker, played with manic bluster by Graham Seed. And the superior, Latin-quoting Sir Humphrey and Bernard have little resonance in an era far more credibly portrayed by the foul-mouthed spin doctor Malcolm Tucker from The Thick Of It, or the multi-cultural contortions on the BBC’s current political comedy Twenty Twelve.

There were laughs, many generated by Sir Humphrey, recreated with presence and terrific dexterity by Michael Simkins. Here were the greatest hits of the TV series. How Britain’s civil service should “stay free from the taint of professionalism”; the languid response to a PM quip – “very droll, Prime Minister”.

But a palpable sense of unease crept over the audience when the key plot-line was revealed. The PM had to save an oil deal by procuring a schoolgirl to have sex with an Arabic minister. Really?

Unending references to sex-trafficked Russian girls and bad jokes of the “is it better that a teenager is screwed rather than the whole of Europe?” variety upped the queasy quotient. Even crude moral arguments comparing the potential child prostitute to Iraqi children killed by British shells did not fully answer the question: what were writers Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn thinking?

Their work stands as a high-point of 1980s television comedy. And there it has stood still, watching as the audience disappeared over the horizon in search of more sophisticated fare.

Yes, Prime Minister is at York Theatre Royal until Saturday, April 21, at 7.30pm, with 2pm (Thu) & 2.30pm (Sat) matinees. Check the website for more details

See our collection of classic Yes, Minster TV clips

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