The trouble with political satire is how quickly it dates. Yes Minister was a much loved TV programme throughout the 80s featuring the attempts to ouwit each other of politician Jim Hacker and obsequious but devious Civil Service mandarin Sir Humphrey Appleby. Whilst their badinage is still engaging, it lacks the sharpened edge of realistic situations and politicial personalities audiences can identify. Post-The Thick Of It, we expect a deadlier accuracy.

Original writers Jonathan Lynn (69) and Sir Antony Jay (72) have conspired to update the show – but apart from a few obvious late-inserted references to Murdoch, Coalition government and the collapsing Euro, it feels like a clutch of old episodes remoulded around a clumsy new scenario. The plot takes an inordinately long time to establish, using a drop-down projection screen and graphics to suggest that monetary crisis can be averted by a massive loan from distant Islamic republic Kumristan who wish to route an oil pipeline across Europe, and providing Britain joins the Euro.

The Kumristanian foreign minister imposes an additional condition, that he be provided with a trio of young prostitutes – one black, one white, one Asian – during his overnight stay at Chequers.  This vulgarity seems suicidally constructed to affront the core audience of middle-aged nostalgists for the TV programme.

A lot of the drama also hinges on the ‘illegal immigrant’ status of the PM’s East European cook and whether her daughter could be pressed into service as a call-girl, but this is pretty lazy research since all catering personnel at Chequers are supplied by the Armed Forces.  During the Blairs’ tenure, there was a notorious case where the head chef, a lesbian Corporal in the RAF, was alleged to have put her hand up a Wren’s skirt at a party and had to be court-martialled.  Actually, that would have made for a far more entertaining plot.

No-one expects an impersonation of either Paul Eddington or Nigel Hawthorne in the leading roles, and Robert Daws and Michael Simpkins shape a smartly sparring double-act with Daws’ trademark manic bewilderment taking the second act up a gear. Simpkins is nicely confident but I’d have preferred a more fruited and mellifluous voice for Sir Humphrey – Roger Allam is slated for the upcoming UK Gold TV re-make – and even wondered if Robert Daws would have been more comfortable as the civil servant and Simkins as his PM. Perhaps there’s an opportunity to have them alternate the roles like Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller in Danny Boyle’sFrankenstein at the National?  Keeping their clothes on, obviously.

In the television series, Jim Hacker’s twin sounding boards are his private secretary Bernard Woolley, well-played here by Clive Hayward, and his sweetly apolitical wife who often gives him the best practical advice in outsmarting Humphrey.  Unfortunately, Mrs Hacker doesn’t appear in this version, although Emily Bruni makes an angular and incisive political advisor.

Simon Higlett’s set is a very passable imitation of the Hawtrey Room at Chequers, but it’s also so alarmingly like the oak-panelled hall of The Mousetrap you expect a policeman on skis to arrive at the mullioned window at any moment.

Since updating, the Home Secretary is constantly referred to as “she” but with no reference to a husband watching porn which would identify Jacqui Smith, it can only be Theresa May – with the delicious insinuation that she’s usually drunk after 6pm. Therefore, why not also make the PM a boyish Old Etonian and introduce his fawning Coalition deputy as a comedy sidekick? Or is that too painfully realistic?

Date reviewed: Tuesday 19th June 2012
Image © Manuel Harlan

One Stop ArtsOriginally published on One Stop Arts.