I had high hopes for this revival of the classic 1980s sitcom Yes, Prime Minister. Adapted by series creators Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn from their successful West End play and with a rich seam of contemporary political themes to mine, how could it fail to repeat the success of the much-loved original? Sadly, this first episode attempts to tip the hat a little too much to its forebear, and as a result comes across as a pale imitation. The bar was set high by its predecessor, and it falls well short.
In fairness, the new series has to walk something of a tightrope. It has to be mindful of and respectful to the original, while at the same time forging its own path. And while the set-up for this six-parter was promisingly topical – Hacker, the leader of a coalition government with a slender majority and delusions of grandeur, is chairing difficult negotiations to resolve Europe’s financial crisis while trying to bring in a welcome but sensitive multi-trillion dollar loan from Kumranistan – its execution was rather less slick than the oil on which the proposed loan is based.
It felt as if there was too much pandering to the fans, with passages of dialogue lifted almost verbatim from its predecessor and gags such as Hacker’s difficulty in locating Kumranistan on a globe all very familiar. A nice nod, maybe, but it also felt lazy and lacking in originality.
And too much of the episode – starting with the slightly tweaked and speeded-up opening titles (again illustrated by cartoonist Gerald Scarfe) – felt rushed, like a vinyl record being played on a turntable which is spinning at 45 rpm rather than 33. Too often jokes were fired out at machine-gun speed without subtlety rather than allowing them room to breathe and letting viewers join the dots. Which is a real shame, as many of the gags had potential, with David Haig and Henry Goodman, reprising their stage roles as Hacker and Sir Humphrey Appleby, both capable actors. Haig captures Hacker’s self-importance and desperate need for popularity well, as does Goodman as he embarks on one of Humphrey’s verbose and convoluted monologues. However, at times it felt as if the delivery from both actors felt unnecessarily exaggerated, as if we were watching a video of a theatrical performance rather than a TV show.
I was less convinced by Chris Larkin‘s Bernard Woolley. The issue isn’t so much Larkin, who carries off Bernard’s trademark pedantry well, as the characterisation. Derek Fowlds‘ original was eager but naive as he learned the finer arts of the Civil Service trade, whereas here Bernard is portrayed as much younger and more of a buffoon. It just didn’t work for me, with the character carrying all the subtlety of a neon pink sledgehammer being swung to the tune of Gangnam Style.
Nonetheless, there are some good lines in the episode, enough to raise a few – but not enough – chuckles.
Bernard: Power abhors a vacuum.
Humphrey: And we are currently led by one.
Do the writing and the performances stack up well against the original series and the magical trio of Paul Eddington, Nigel Hawthorne and Fowlds? No. As first episodes go, there was too much scene-setting exposition, not enough laughs and a lack of anything we haven’t already seen before. You can see why the BBC asked for the pilot episode which has so affronted Jonathan Lynn in recent interviews.
The new Yes, Prime Minister feels a bit out of its own time and only serves to underline just how great the original was. This new version will need to improve significantly over the coming weeks if it is to stand any kind of favourable comparison and earn a second term of office. I’m terribly disappointed.
Yes, Prime Minister continues on Gold on Tuesdays at 9pm. Repeats of the original Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister are also being shown on Gold. Check schedules for details.