Yes, Prime Minister at Leeds Grand Theatre

EVEN with recent history delivering us the gripping political eras of Thatcher and Blair, none have delivered quite the same level of intrigue as the current government.

Under a Liberal Democrat/Conservative coalition the need for private political ping-pong to be played out in 'the national interest' has never been more pertinent.

But it was never more entertaining than when it was brought out in the open in the form of the pure televisual indulgence that was Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister.

The writing team behind the masterpiece – Jonathan Lynn and Sir Antony Jay – enjoyed a 10-year run in which they tore open the dusty curtains of Westminster and shed some light on backroom powerplay.

This was embodied in the tug of war between the Rt. Hon James 'Jim' Hacker MP and his cabinet secretary, Sir Humphrey Appleby, brilliantly portrayed by actors Paul Eddington and Nigel Hawthorne.

When the final episode aired in 1988, its protagonists seemed destined for the Commons back-benches and a civil service pension respectively.

Until this year, that is, when their creators decided to give them that rare opportunity in politics: a second chance.

"I suddenly thought: why don't we bring them back?" says Lynn. "Everyone thinks politics is different, but Tony and I don't think it has changed at all.

"So we thought: let's take some of the world's increasingly appalling current events, set the show in the present day and see if it can work with different actors."

Now Los Angeles-based and better known as a director of such Hollywood hits as My Cousin Vinny and The Whole Nine Yards, Lynn, 67, started life as an actor. He's thrilled to be back, writing and directing the new Yes, Prime Minister play. which comes to Leeds Grand Theatre next month.

Jay, meanwhile, is over the moon finally to be working in theatre after a life-time of broadcasting.

"My father was an actor and my mother was an actress so I grew up with the assumption that the most honourable thing human beings could achieve was to give work to actors," says the octogenarian. "I never imagined I would first have something on the stage after my 80th birthday!"

"I`m no spring chicken either," chips in Lynn. "Between us we're probably the oldest duo ever to be making our playwriting debut!"

As it turns out, the idea of adapting Yes, Prime Minister for the stage was first floated while the show was still on TV.

"Paul and Nigel couldn't commit for long enough though," recalls Jay, "and we couldn't have anyone else in those days. It had to be Paul and Nigel, or nothing."

Only after both actors had died (in 1995 and 2001 respectively] and stage versions of TV started to become popular, were Lynn and Jay approached about adapting some old episodes. "We thought about it and realised we'd rather do a completely new play."

A new story is one thing. But new actors playing such iconic roles? It was a big risk, but happily one that paid off.

David Haig and Henry Goodman received rave reviews when the play premiered at Chichester Festival Theatre this summer and again for autumn West End transfer. Lynn has high hopes for his new touring cast, too.

"Although they are new faces and the characters were much beloved in their previous incarnation, we've found the audience accepts them within minutes," he marvels. "Strange as it sounds, I was inspired by the fact that Daniel Craig has been an even more successful Bond than Sean Connery. It made me think: perhaps Jim and Humphrey aren't defined by the actors playing them, but by the characters themselves."

And what characters! Jim, power-hungry like all politicians, but so keen to do right and so capable of going wrong.

Then there's Sir Humphrey, omniscient, omnipresent and never shy of using a Greek word where an English one would do.

When Lynn and Jay started work on the new script at Jay's Somerset farmhouse last year, even they were surprised by how quickly the characters came back to them.

"I don't think we ever lost them," says Jay. "I've always been the guardian of Humphrey's soul and Jonny the guardian of Jim's. So when we were trying to work out a scene, I'd say: 'Jim would do this.' And Jonny would be able to say: 'No, he wouldn't'. And vice versa. The thing evolved like role play." Lynn laughs: "I think it's fair to say that Tony is like Sir Humphrey: a classicist from Cambridge, who became the equivalent of a civil servant in his job at the BBC.

"I, on the other hand, am like Jim Hacker, an idealist who fails to live up to my ideals, what Graham Green called a 'whisky priest'. But I try."

The pair first met in the mid 1970s through Video Arts, the company Jay set up with comedian John Cleese to produce light-hearted management training films. "In a way, Yes, Minister episodes were training films for politicians," he says now. "Only, we didn't show the right way to do things; we got all the fun we could out of showing the wrong way! The idea of making fun of politics wasn't new but there was no satire of this sort on TV. You have to remember that back in the 1980s, no one knew what was going on behind all that red tape. The idea that Whitehall had more power than Westminster was a revelation."

The show still works, says Jay, because Jim and Humphrey are universal types. "People's behaviour is formed by their circumstances and by the rewards and punishments given out to them. Humphrey and Jim are conditioned both by what they are trying to achieve and what they are trying to avoid. You can move the thing forward in time, with everyone holding blackberries and talking about global warming. But they're still Jim and Humphrey, the same characters they were 30 years ago."

A fact others have played on since, notably Armando Iannucci in his corruscating satire The Thick of It, which the Daily Telegraph called a "Yes, Minister for the Labour Years". Which is not to say Lynn and Jay's original was about the Tories. Jim Hacker's party allegiance was always kept willfully opaque. What, in any case, do they make of Iannucci's show and his self-confessed debt to their script. "It's really funny but completely different from what we do," says Lynn. "It's the system that we're satirising, not the individuals. We're not Spitting Image either. But I'm gratified by his comments and I'd like to think he's been inspired by us to do his own thing."

"One of the things that distinguishes us from The Thick of It," adds Jay, "is that we actually like our central characters. You don't feel that Iannucci really likes Malcolm Tucker, but we're very fond of Jim and Humphrey and if we were in their position, let's face it, we'd pretty much be doing what they're doing. Our motivation with Yes, Prime Minister isn't to change the world, it's to point out its absurdities. We just want people to have a good laugh."

Feb 14 to 19, Leeds Grand Theatre, New Briggate, Leeds, 7.30pm, Wed and Sat mat 2.30pm, 12.50 to 28.50.

Tel: 0844 8482705.

www.leedsgrandtheatre.com

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