“With ‘Pastygate’, George Galloway getting elected in Bradford and the crisis at the petrol pumps, that’s three episodes without even getting out of bed,” says Michael Simkins.
The actor is coming to York with the stage version of Yes, Prime Minister, a show based on the hit 1980s television show which is set for a small screen revival. Simkins thinks, with British politics in a state in which it is virtually beyond parody, Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn have more than enough material for a new version of their hit television show.
“The stage version is set in this strange world where there is a coalition Government under threat of collapse, the country is facing financial meltdown, there is double-dealing and incompetency everywhere and the promise of salvation comes from a dubious Middle Eastern power,” says Simkins. “So just another day in Downing Street.”
Jay and Lynn were the creators of the original television show Yes, Minister and its sequel Yes, Prime Minister. The first series arrived in 1980 and heralded something bold and new in British comedy.
Every decade lays claim to being the Golden Age of television comedy, the 1970s more than most, but when you examine the facts, the 1970s were pretty safe in terms of the TV comedy offer.
Then sitcoms focused on the lives of ordinary folk – The Likely Lads, Terry and June, The Good Life. Fawlty Towers came closest to pricking the bubble of pomposity, but Basil was the butt of most of the jokes. We still weren’t in a position to poke fun at our “betters” and certainly not at our elected leaders.
Which is why Yes, Minister was so extraordinary. Nothing ages faster than satire though, and the television series looks a little dated now, but it is worth remembering that it appeared at the swell of what became the alternative comedy wave of the 1980s.
Jay and Lynn were there at the beginning of a new type of comedy that dared to not only challenge authority and look it in the eye, but laugh at it too.Simkins plays Cabinet Secretary Sir Humphrey Appleby in the stage show, the character who was famously played by Nigel Hawthorne and is a master of obfuscation and manipulation.
“I saw the show when it was first in London a couple of years ago with David Haig and with Henry Goodman playing the part of Sir Humphrey,” says Simkins. “When I met with Jonathan, who was also directing the show, I was really pleased when he asked me if I wanted to go on the road with it. Because I’d seen the show I didn’t have any of those concerns that you might have with a play like this that’s based on an existing television series – concerns that it might not work or that audiences won’t warm to it. I knew it worked, there really was no question about that. While it is about the same characters that existed in the television show, it’s a brand new script that Jonathan and Antony have written together and it moves them forward and brings them into present day politics.”
Since 1980, the world of political satire and television comedy has moved on light years. Chris Morris’s The Day Today, The Office, and the perfect combination of the two, The Thick of It, have seen political television comedy take on a much sharper, profane edge. As loved as Sir Humphrey and Prime Minister Jim Hacker were, can they really cut it in this fast-paced world?
TV executives clearly think so – Yes, Prime Minister is set to return to television screens later this year after a new series of the programme, the first since 1988, was commissioned by UKTV for TV channel Gold.
Simkins says the revival of both the television show and the national tour of the stage show are perfectly timed.
“With the stage show we are just reaching the point where people who remember the show, who were in their 30s at the time, will be heading into their sixties and might like to see the stage play for the fond memories they have of the television show and to see those characters again,” says Simkins. “But the writing manages to appeal to a new audience who don’t really know anything about the show or characters, because it is about things that are happening now.
“I can’t really speak for the television series, but I will say that when Antony and Jonathan were writing it, it was in the last days of the Callaghan government when a coalition fell apart,” says Simkins. “I think they are in a perfect position to be writing about politics today. Nothing ever changes.”
Yes, Prime Minister, York Theatre Royal, April 16 to 21. 01904 623568, www.yorktheatreroyal.co.uk