Page last updated at 08:09 GMT, Thursday, 13 May 2010 09:09 UK

'Yes, Prime Minister' back on stage after 23 year gap

By Nigel Wrench
Culture reporter for Radio 4's PM Programme

Actors Henry Goodman (l) and David Haig (r)
The action fortuitously focuses on a hung parliament

Onstage at Chichester Festival Theatre, there is a remarkable case of art impeccably imitating life.

It is the first- stage version of Yes, Prime Minister, written by the creators of the hit 1980s TV sitcom.

It has been updated to take in a minority government, a coalition and a European financial crisis.

In one scene, Sir Humphrey Appleby - then as now the quintessential senior civil servant - says of a hung parliament: "Hanging's too good for them."

"We're not writing a play about Cameron and Clegg and Brown," says Jonathan Lynn, co-writer with Sir Antony Jay.

"We're writing a fictional play that's relevant to what's going on in the world at the moment," he adds.

New lines

Lynn lives mostly in Los Angeles now, working as a screenwriter.

He and Sir Antony wrote this play, set at Chequers, the Prime Minister's official country residence, last summer.

"We seem to have anticipated roughly what was going on in the real world," says Lynn.

"[But] bear in mind that our play is about a prime minister who has been in power for a long time, Jim Hacker, and Sir Humphrey has been cabinet secretary for a long time."

He adds with a laugh: "I think I put in one line yesterday. I'm not going to tell you [what it is] you'll have to come and see the play!"

Sir Antony has relished writing with his old friend again.

"When Jonny and I got together to do this, we hadn't written together for 23 years," he says.

"But it was as if it had been 23 days, it just carried straight on, it was absolutely extraordinary."

Prescient work

He has no doubt that civil servants up and down Whitehall are relishing having new political bosses.

Sir Antony becomes Sir Humphrey for a moment.

"It's lovely to have a new government, because you can get rid of all the stuff that they were doing that you didn't like, and bring forward all the stuff you wanted done that they refused and start again.

"And you're dealing with people who know practically nothing about it and who you have to give all the information to and they are dependent on you for just about everything."

Chichester Festival Theatre has a fine record of prescient work.

Paul Eddington and Nigel Hawthorne
The classic hit TV show ran for 38 episodes

It was the place that Lucy Prebble's play Enron began before becoming a West End hit, laden with awards, before a brief run on Broadway.

There are no plans - yet - to take Yes, Prime Minister on the road, or to a West End theatre.

Ticket sales are said to be brisk, ahead of the preview performances and press night next week.

But Jonathan Lynn is quick to rule out any more stage plays - or another TV series.

"I very much doubt it. I think this is it," he says.

And asked if David Cameron should direct the prime ministerial Jaguar towards Chichester, he says with another laugh: "I think he's got other more pressing matters to deal with at the moment.

"I don't know how much he knows. I suspect not as much as he needs. I don't know if anyone who becomes Prime Minister knows anything like enough for the job."

Yes, Prime Minister starring Henry Goodman and David Haig is at the Chichester Festival Theatre from 13 May to 5 June.



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