Television Review: Yes, Prime Minister
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There is a world of difference between an original piece of vintage furniture, and a modern copy of the same item. The former will be a reflection of its era but, since good workmanship stands the test of time, it should still look stylish and may even seem surprisingly modern. The latter, though it may be made from modern materials and nod to current fashion, runs the risk of looking merely old-fashioned and dated.
This was the comparison which came to mind as I struggled to pinpoint why exactly the new series of Yes, Prime Minister is so annoying. I tried to stay optimistic during the opening sequences, in which prime minister Hacker gives a disastrous news interview. The scene comes across as an scene in a poor-quality sketch show, but I chalked that up to the Paxman-caricature and hoped for better when Sir Humphrey arrived.
Unfortunately, when we met Sir Humphrey, crassly telling Bernard that he doesn’t mind about a series of economic woes because he isn’t being made redundant, my annoyance truly began.
Was Humphrey this bad in the original, I wondered? Did he ever gloat about his index linked pension and comfortable career? Have I simply forgotten how disdainful he is to the PM? How mean to Bernard (who now appears to be a hapless Baldric figure, rather than the slightly naïve but wonderfully verbose foil to his boss’s machinations)?
After struggling to maintain attention through the episode, flinching at the casual racism and finding just one or two reasons to chuckle, I decided to watch an original episode to refresh my memory. Yes, Humphrey is just as patronising and yes, his schemes are just as tortuous, but somehow it all seems much more pleasant.
Perhaps it is the performances. Nigel Hawthorne plays the archetypal mandarin with restraint and seems benignly patriarchal, where Henry Goodman hams it up to create a sneeringly patronising figure. Perhaps it is the genre. I can’t remember the last time I watched a new sitcom which seemed fresh and interesting, but I don’t think it was this century. Perhaps it is the fact that, despite attempts to modernise with references to a coalition government and a token woman in Hacker’s team, the very premise of a bumbling, naïve PM no longer rings true. In an age of career politicians who often share the same privileged background as their officials, it seems incredible that Bernard’s classical references would go over the head of the PM; that there would be no ‘spads’; that the PM would be so bamboozled by Humphrey’s weasel words and oily ways.
Whatever the reason, the new series of Yes, Prime Minister has the feel of a leatherette seat trying to echo the comfort and style of an Eames chair: cheap, slightly nasty, and all a bit disappointing.
Suzannah Brecknell is senior reporter at Civil Service World.