IT is rather interesting to see a new play twice within a few weeks – the first time as a brand new, hot off the press production, and the second out on tour. I’m Sorry Prime Minister, I Can’t Quite Remember opened at the Barn Theatre, Cirencester, in mid-September and went on tour (to Bath and Cambridge) from early November. It is at Bath Theatre Royal until Saturday 18th November.
Before the actual opening of the play, by Jonathan Lynn, co-creator with the late Anthony Jay of the immortal Jim Hacker and Sir Humphrey Appleby, there were two changes of cast, as first Martin Jarvis as the now Lord Hacker and then Jonathan Lynn, who had stepped into the role, had to withdraw. Popular Bristol actor Chris Bianchi, who was already in the company as the formidable judge, Sir David Knell, moved into the shoes of the late Paul Eddington.
Nearly two months on, Bianchi and his Sir Humphrey, the elegant and charming Clive Francis, are thoroughly settled into their sparring partnership – Bianchi comfortably irascible, vain, confused and slightly lost as the ageing and increasingly forgetful Lord Hacker, and Francis sophisticated and smooth as the still-confident and verbally prolific retired senior civil servant.
What makes this final chapter in the Hacker-Appleby story work is that under the bluster and the bombast, both have a poignant vulnerability that touches your heart, even as their antidiluvian attitudes and defiantly anti-PC comments irritate you to bits.
The premise of the play is the plight of two old men who have spent their lives in public service now finding they have no place … anywhere. Jim Hacker, with the generous help of a billionaire, has founded an Oxford college where he lives in a grace-and-favour house as the Master, but some verbal indiscretions (women’s lingerie, the statue of Cecil Rhodes, the British Empire etc) have infuriated the Fellows, graduates and student body. Sir Humphrey has handed over his house(s), car and savings, for tax reasons, to his son and “Evil Queen” daughter-in-law and has been consigned to a not-very-luxurious “home for the deranged.” Now, both have to face the uncomfortable realisation that they need each other.
Meanwhile, Lord Hacker, bereft and helpless without his wife, who died a few years back, has a new carer – “I’m a care-worker,” says feisty Sophie (Michaela Bennison) … “Like a sex-worker?” asks her would-be employer. Sophie, of course, does not fit any of the sexist (and, let’s face it, racist) expectations of these political dinosaurs. She is bright, well-educated, courageous and kind.
At the interval, I overheard a group of women complaining that it was not as funny as they hoped, but glad they were “old enough to understand what it was about.” What a shallow approach – Yes, Minister was never a laugh-a-minute farce, it was clever, witty, satirical and bang on the money as it nailed political self-satisfaction and urbane civil service superiority. It was also responsive to current events so it was good to hear the rumble of laughter and spontaneous applause at jokes about the Home Office (in a week in which political vanity and ambition were on naked display).
Jim and Sir Humphrey are no longer masters of the universe. They have to find a new way of living – and they are lucky to have Sophie. I’m Sorry Prime Minister, I Can’t Quite Remember is not a constant laugh-out-loud, more a chuckle of recognition. It has an elegiac quality that strikes a sympathetic chord, tempered with a bracing dose of contemporary preoccupations.
Photographs by Alex Tabrizi.