Having been left with a distinctly unfavourable first impression by the opening show of Gold’s new version of Yes, Prime Minister, was it worth sticking with it for the full six-episode run? The answer: a qualified yes, but like the coalition government headed up by this contemporary version of Jim Hacker, it’s hard to escape the feeling that the series’ future is equally rocky.
Expanded from the recent West End play, the series is based around a weekend at Chequers in which the Prime Minister must attempt to secure a pipeline deal from oil-rich Kumranistan which will solve European’s financial crisis at a stroke. Aided, as ever, by Cabinet Secretary Sir Humphrey Appleby, his own Principal Private Secretary Bernard Woolley and Claire Sutton, head of his policy unit, Hacker finds the deal hinges on his ability to solve the moral dilemma of whether he should allow the procurement of three call girls for the Kumrani Foreign Minister to oil (pun intended) the wheels of diplomacy.
Hit and miss
The opening three episodes provide a slow and meandering set-up before the second half deals with Hacker’s dilemma. There are plenty of contemporary themes explored here which bring the series up to date, such as why the UK remains resolutely out of the Euro, the financial and political burden of the European debt crisis and the issues inherent in a coalition government. However, the narrative is too slow and too many gags are lifted almost verbatim from its 1980s predecessor. There’s a real sense of waiting for something – anything – new to happen.
However, the closing three episodes are a significant improvement on the first half, with each being more of a self-contained story compared to the open-endedness of the previous three. A Diplomatic Dilemma sets up the moral dilemma of whether it is right for the Prime Minister to break the law in order to seal the deal, with several laugh-out-loud moments combining with some trenchant observations about the, ahem, extra-curricular activities of Silvio Berlusconi, Dominique Strauss-Kahn and Bill Clinton.
The crisis is finally resolved in the concluding half-hour, A Tsar Is Born. Hacker faces his darkest nightmare of the story reaching the press before Humphrey provides a face-saving solution in the nick of time, securing himself a lucrative post-retirement job in the process.
Sandwiched in between the two we have an obviously tacked-on layer of filler, but the stand-alone Scot Free was nonetheless a strong episode. Featuring a guest turn by Robbie Coltrane as a Scottish Nationalist Deputy Prime Minister, the episode delivers good verbal gags and some close-to-the-bone arguments both for and against Scottish independence.
More original and with much better pace, the concluding episodes make for a confident end to this first season.
If you can’t ignore facts, Prime Minister, you’ve got no business being in government.
There was a distinct improvement in quality over the course of the six episodes, with the second half vastly superior to the first without ever quite touching the heights of the original at its best. If the opening three instalments felt like watching a ‘greatest hits’ compilation of the original series, only performed by a bad tribute band, the concluding three at least had a greater degree of innovation to them (even if they were largely retreading the play’s main plotlines).
However, some problems remained consistent throughout the run, The canned laughter grated constantly, and as I noted in my review of the first episode the actors’ delivery often made it feel like we were watching a video of the stage play rather than a TV show.
My biggest problem, though, was the portrayal of the three original principals. It’s always tough to follow in the footsteps of an iconic show, but Henry Goodman‘s Sir Humphrey comes across as too much of a wide boy, almost like a Civil Service Arthur Daley. Goodman’s recitation of the character’s trademark long and convoluted monologues lack the charm and subtlety of Nigel Hawthorne, who brought a silky elegance to Humphrey’s words which Goodman’s blank delivery lacks. It’s difficult to warm to the character, who for all his Machiavellian machinations needs to come across as sympathetic.
Paul Eddington‘s Hacker was often befuddled but the political cunning and good intentions which had propelled him to power in the first place were always evident. However, David Haig‘s version, while initially seeming to have the better of Humphrey’s tricks and tactics, descends into ranting, drunken idiocy, at one point sinking to his knees and praying earnestly to God for intervention. Similarly, Chris Larkin retains all the pedantry and occasional buffoonery of Derek Fowlds‘ Bernard, but without any of the intellect (or, indeed, charm) which would have been required to elevate him to the role of PPS in the first place. Each of the characters has recognisable elements of their original counterparts, but exaggerated in a one-dimensional fashion which renders them mere caricatures – and implausible ones at that.
Will enough viewers have stuck with Yes, Prime Minister to re-elect it for a second run? While it was Gold’s number one or two-rated show for each of its first four episodes (ratings for the final two episodes were not available at the time of writing), audiences have tailed off rapidly. Around 400,000 viewers watched the opening edition, but by episode four the number had halved. Is that enough to justify the expense of a second season when repeats of David Walliams and Matt Lucas’ Come Fly With Me are pulling in more viewers? A recount may be in order …
Personally, there was just enough in the final episodes to persuade me to give any future episodes a go. But I’m unconvinced that we will – or indeed should – get any. In truth, this second incarnation of Jim Hacker was a pale, functional imitation of a classic show which should perhaps have been left to lie in its rose-tinted glory.