Simon Fearn talks to the cast and crew of Ooook! Productions’ ‘Yes, Prime Minister’ about their updated portrayals and its on-going political resonance.
What better way to round off the academic year than with Ooook! Productions’ take on the classic 1980s sitcom, Yes, Prime Minister? Using an adaptation of the TV series that proved a smash hit in the West End, from 17th-19th June the halls of power will be transferred to the Assembly Rooms and exposed to biting satire. Leading man Hamish Inglis, who plays PM Jim Hacker, enthuses that the production “offers the perfect combination of political engagement and comedy”.
Transferring a sitcom to the stage has become a tradition for Ooook!, with past productions including ‘Allo ‘Allo, Blackadder and Fawlty Towers. Co-producer Imo Rolfe explains that on the back of the remnants of election fever and the show’s recent success in the West End, “if there is ever a time to put on Yes, Prime Minister in Durham, it is now!” Both the cast and the production team are ardent fans of the original show, with director Suzy Hawes confessing “it made me want to be a civil servant when I was younger, which is slightly worrying. I don’t think I fully understood it at the time”. Inglis also has happy memories of the show, recalling how an episode devoted to the nuclear deterrent created humour out of a very serious issue, forming part of his political education.
The process of working with a much-loved TV series can be difficult. “The challenge,” explains Assistant Director Emma Grisdale, “is delivering your take of the characters whilst still being faithful to the original”. Andrew Shires, who plays Cabinet Secretary Sir Humphrey Appleby, says he’s keen to make the role his own, yet acknowledges a debt to Nigel Hawthorne’s iconic portrayal on screen. Inglis, on the other hand, believes hapless PM Jim Hacker needs re-evaluating for a modern audience. “He’s a slightly more serious person than often comes across in the series,” Inglis judges, “the script lends itself to updated portrayals of these iconic characters”.
Speaking of updated portrayals, one thing many viewers of the production’s fantastic trailer will notice is that a key character from the series, Bernard Woolley, is now female, played by Abigail Weinstock. Is Weinstock playing a man, or a woman called Bernard? Hawes relieves me of my confusion. “Abbie was perfect for the role, so Bernard became a woman. People shouldn’t focus on her gender, but on her fantastic acting. I don’t see why being blind to gender in casting is such a big deal”. Weinstock wryly compares her portrayal to the bizarre gender confusion of Blackadder’s Bob, “but even better”.
I ask the cast and production team about the political dimensions of the production. “We really believe that this is how the government works – that Prime Ministers are just puppets at the hands of the civil service” Hawes responds. “It’s saying that parties don’t actually have idealistic positions,” adds Inglis, “they just work to hold on to power!” The play is set during a coalition, so technically references the previous government, but Shires is keen to point out that there is “nothing partisan” about the play. “It’s showing us what the parties really are, rather than their party lines,” Inglis expands. Even so, Hawes detects a “mish-mash” of right-wing politicians in Inglis’s portrayal of Hacker. “He’s quite a lot of Cameron, but also dangerously Farage at times. He turns in to Churchill occasionally.”
Before I go, the team behind Yes, Prime Minister make a final effort to entice audiences. “It’s an opportunity to see some of the finest comedic talent in Durham,” begins Hawes. “You don’t have to be in to politics – you just have to be in to laughing.” If this wasn’t enough, Shires reels of a catalogue of delights. “There’s politics, prostitution, closeted homosexuals, goulash, some very fancy pyjamas, Bernard and one third of the Durham Revue!” What’s not to love?
‘Yes, Prime Minister’ is at The Assembly Rooms from Wed 17 June to Fri 19 June.
Photos: Isabelle Culkin