I’m Sorry Prime Minister I Can’t Quite Remember – new play the ‘last hurrah’ for Prime Minister Jim Hacker and Humphrey Appleby
I’m Sorry Prime Minister I Can’t Quite Remember is a new play written and directed by Jonathan Lynn who, along with the late Antony Jay, created the classic situation comedies, Yes Minister and its follow-up Yes, Prime Minister, two masterpieces of the genre detailing the professional lives of government minister – later Prime Minister – Jim Hacker and his permanent secretary – later cabinet secretary – Sir Humphrey Appleby.
Speaking to the Cambridge Independent via a Zoom video call from his home in New York City, where he’s been living for the past nine years or so (before that he lived in Los Angeles, moving to the United States in 1989), Mr Lynn, 80, sitting in front of a very well-stocked bookcase, reveals that this is almost certainly the final chapter in the Jim and Sir Humphrey saga.
“Yes, it is, I’m sure there won’t be any more,” says the alumnus of Pembroke College, Cambridge (his writing partner, who was 13 years his senior, also attended the university, graduating from Magdalene College), “because I’m as old as they are; I’m in my 80s and I think this’ll be the last time I write about them!”
Elaborating on the play, the highly successful writer and director continues: “In general terms, it’s about old age, loss, and friendship.
“The plot is about two elderly men, now private citizens, Jim Hacker, who used to be Prime Minister, and Sir Humphrey Appleby, who used to be cabinet secretary, and many years have gone by since they were in power.
“And I found myself thinking, ‘What happens to people who have enormous power and control and everyone hangs on their every word, what happens when they’re suddenly out of power? And what happens to them as the years go by and people take even less notice of them?’
“It seemed to me that this was a universal thing because it’s a heightened version of what most people feel when they retire.
“I think most people when they retire want three things: I think they want safety, I think they want some joy in their lives, and I think they want to feel youthful.
“And I think if you’re lucky enough to have those things, then old age can be very nice. But I think if you haven’t – and if you feel rejected and humiliated and still angry that you were pushed out of power and so forth – then I think it’s hard to deal with.
“I can only think of one Prime Minister who resigned voluntarily, and that was Harold Wilson. All others in living memory have been pushed out, either by the voters or by their own parliamentary party.
“So I found myself wondering what that was like, and because I’d already written about these two people extensively, it was an easy way for me to approach the subject.”
In the play, produced by the Barn Theatre, Cirencester, and starring Clive Francis as Sir Humphrey Appleby and Christopher Bianchi as Jim Hacker, former Prime Minister Hacker – played by Paul Eddington in the original television series – longs to see out his days from his grand Master’s Lodge at Hacker College, Oxford. The College Fellowship and students have very different ideas and eviction looms large.
Holed up in his new home, and “utterly bewildered by the modern world” (the writer’s words, not mine), Jim finds himself, as ever, in the midst of a set of problems mainly of his own making.
Unsure of how to cope, he calls on his old and not-so-loyal permanent secretary, Sir Humphrey Appleby, played by Nigel Hawthorne in the original series. Hawthorne won four BAFTA awards for his portrayal of the character.
Yes Minister ran for three series between 1980-84, while Yes, Prime Minister ran for two series from 1986-88. Following a successful Yes, Prime Minister West End stage play in 2010, a televised version of the play was shown in 2013 on Gold, this time starring David Haig as Hacker and Henry Goodman as Sir Humphrey (Paul Eddington had died in 1995 and Nigel Hawthorne in 2001).
I’m Sorry Prime Minister I Can’t Quite Remember marks the first time Lynn has written for these much-loved characters on his own, following the passing of Antony Jay in 2016.
“Well of course I miss him,” says the former artistic director of the Cambridge Theatre Company. “We wrote together, on and off, for many years and we were very good friends. On the other hand, I think he would have been extremely encouraging about this; he would have liked the idea.
“As soon as I finished the play, I showed it to his widow, Jill, who loved it. We always used to write all the characters… I mean it wasn’t like he wrote Humphrey and I wrote Jim, or something – we wrote them all. I think it was interesting doing it without him and perfectly all right.”
Yes Minister, which came in at number six when the BBC ran a poll to find Britain’s Best Sitcom in 2004, is being repeated on TV at the moment, every Tuesday on BBC4 and, while times change, it somehow still seems relevant as people, I suggest, have always enjoyed political satire.
“Yes, I think they do to some extent,” observes Lynn. “Actually I would never have described it as political satire…
“With political satire in Britain, I think people mean party political and it wasn’t party political, there was no way of knowing which party Jim belonged to.
“He had views that could have been held by right-wing Labour people or left-wing Tories, and we were very careful never to be specific which party he was – and for that reason we never mentioned the Prime Minister by name.
“At the time the shows were going out, the Prime Minister was Mrs Thatcher, but we didn’t want to say that and nor did we want to call the Prime Minister ‘he or she’, so we just always called that person ‘the Prime Minister’.
“That was when Jim was a minister, when he became Prime Minister, of course, that was different.”
Not only was the series adored by much of the British population, Margaret Thatcher also famously cited it as her favourite programme.
“Yes, I’m afraid it was,” smiles the left-leaning Lynn (Antony Jay, on the other hand, was a great supporter of Mrs Thatcher). “I take no responsibility for that! You can’t pick your audience.”
Asked why the series has remained so popular to this day, its co-creator replies: “I’m probably not the right person to answer that question… but I would suppose that it’s because nothing has ever really changed.
“Titles have changed – the secretaries and assistant secretaries are called something else nowadays, and special advisors have had more power recently, and less power with other administrations, but apart from those kind of things, the system itself is the same as it always was.
“Nothing has changed, really, not just since we wrote, which was the ’80s, but nothing since at least the ’50s – and I think probably before that...
“Government institutions have tremendous power because of their history and because the same truths that we were writing about remain.
“Ministers are shuffled around so fast that they can never get control of their department – even if they were good enough to get control of their department, which most of them aren’t.
“It’s impossible if you’re only there for a year or something. Imagine being made head of some gigantic corporation for a year, you couldn’t possibly get to grips with it.
“Ministers inevitably know less because they’re in the job for such a short time, before they’re moved on to another job, or fired, whereas the permanent secretary of the department has been in the civil service in that department for probably 30 years and knows it all, inside out.
“So I think it’s the formula [of the series] that keeps it so exciting, which is the same as Jeeves and Bertie Wooster, or [1957 film] The Admirable Crichton – the formula is the servant who is more able than the master.
“So that and I think the fact that we didn’t go for cheap jokes, we didn’t write about personalities – there were no ‘real people’ in the show.
“Other so-called political satire in Britain names current politicians and public figures, we never did that. This was a world of fiction so it doesn’t date in the same way.”
Lynn was a fan of The Thick of It, an Armando Iannucci-penned sitcom clearly influenced by Yes Minister. “I thought it was very funny,” he says.
“It’s very different from Yes, Prime Minister, and it doesn’t really analyse and criticise the system, but it’s a very funny show and I know that the creator of it used to tell people that Yes Minister and Yes, Prime Minister had made The Thick of It possible, which I think is probably true.”
Aside from his work on Yes Minister and Yes, Prime Minister, Jonathan Lynn is also a renowned director, helming well-known films such as My Cousin Vinny, The Whole Nine Yards, starring the late Matthew Perry, and Nuns on the Run. I expressed my fondness for the latter.
“I wrote and directed it, I’m glad you like it,” he says, “I think it was pretty funny and I was very pleased with it. Robbie Coltrane is superb in it.”
I’m Sorry Prime Minister I Can’t Quite Remember – a play “about how the world is changing and how hard it is for people to keep up with it”, according to its writer – runs at the Cambridge Arts Theatre from tomorrow (Tuesday, November 21) to Saturday, November 25.
Tickets, priced £25-£40, are available at cambridgeartstheatre.com, or by calling the box office on 01223 503333.