Yes, Prime Minister

Something is missing from this stage version of a TV classic.

Yes, Prime Minister
Chichester Festival Theatre

During the 1980s, when it ran on BBC2, some claimed that an ideological agenda lurked behind the laughs on Yes Minister and its successor, Yes, Prime Minister. Although broadcast in the blue heat of Thatcherism, the sitcom referred to the Wilson years and was inspired by Richard Crossman's complaints about a civil service that presented a permanent block to reform, and by the weaselly premier himself. That Yes Minister was a disguised attack on the state seemed to be confirmed when Thatcher announced it was her own favourite programme, and even volunteered to appear in a sketch based on it.

Such misgivings were slightly unfair, because Yes Minister pronounced plagues on both houses: No 10 and Whitehall. While Antony Jay was a Tory at heart, his co-writer, Jonathan Lynn, was a lefty. Although she would not have articulated it in this way, Thatcher liked it for the same reason Tony Benn did: it turned politics into an urbane drawing-room comedy of manners. Its successor, The Thick of It, is Swiftian, but YM was always more Rattigan.

This theatrical revival, 22 years on from the programme's last episode, is much tougher. Although set, literally, in a drawing room (at Chequers), its world has acquired some of the hard edges of The Thick of It. There are BlackBerries, Twitter accounts and a special adviser (Emily Joyce's cool cat Claire) who calls the PM "Jim". And the language has become coarser, less formal: I noted a "bloody", a "blowjob" and, I am almost certain, a "fucking" (as in "banner-fucking-headlines").

How the original actors who played the PM Jim Hacker and Sir Humphrey Appleby, his cabinet secretary, would have coped with this mood shift would have been interesting to see, but the grim reaper has deprived Lynn, who also directed the play, of that option. So, instead of Nigel Hawthorne's aloof, static and superior Sir Humphrey, we have Henry Goodman, a silver fox who glides across the stage like an art gallery owner: a much more obvious conman.

Whereas Paul Eddington's Hacker was a sweaty innocent, a Brian Rix who kept control of his trousers, David Haig in the same role is a frantic, head-slamming paranoid: a baggy-suited contortionist who leaps on to a window seat and assumes the foetal position in milliseconds. Goodman negotiates Sir Humphrey's showy arias of bureaucratic circumlocution with enough skill to win him the applause they are designed to solicit, but it is Haig who is the star, even if his performance would better suit The Thick of It, in which he had a brilliant recent cameo.

The energy injected into the drawing room by the performances was probably the only way to play Jay's and Lynn's sometimes funny but often inelegant (and occasionally downright crude) script. The story - of an economic crisis that can be bailed out only by a bribe from an eastern European oil state - begins slowly, gains pace, but ends abruptly without ever quite becoming the farce it might. In the second half especially, the plot is little more than a line on which the authors hang some of their pre­judices: the European Union is a conspiracy to take power from the people; man-made global warming is probably a charade.

In one near-irrelevant scene, the director general of the BBC is threatened with seeing his empire cut down to one radio and one television channel - exactly as Jay himself has proposed. Early on, Jim chants a litany of xenophobic insults that leaves us wondering if we are meant to admire this as a brave affront to political correctness. Brief soundbites referring to a "moral compass" and saving the world kick Gordon Brown even as he passes into history.

Yet this Daily Mail agenda (Lynn must have lost some arguments with his collaborator) sits uneasily with a nasty central plot twist. The rescue deal turns out to be conditional on the PM procuring an under-age prostitute for the Kum­ranistan foreign minister.

Intrinsically unfunny and borderline racist, this felt like an assault on the understated, lethal gentility of the original Yes Minister. The play will doubtless transfer to London and enjoy a healthy run to older audiences, but they will discover that somewhere, in the past two decades, its authors have lost what they had in the first place.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer for the Times

Andrew Billen has worked as a celebrity interviewer for, successively, The Observer, the Evening Standard and, currently The Times. For his columns, he was awarded reviewer of the year in 2006 Press Gazette Magazine Awards.

This article first appeared in the 07 June 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The myth of Mandela