Sunday, February 5, 2012

Yes, Prime Minister (*CONTAINS SPOILERS)

Growing up, my family had a few TV shows that we all liked and would watch together. They were all comedies and mostly British (The Muppet Show and Get Smart being the main exceptions). To this day those shows provide a shared language, a familial shorthand, that my parents, my brother and I still employ when talking to each other. Raising a sensitive topic, one of us might say, "Don't mention the war ...", referencing Fawlty Towers; defending a strange junk purchase, we've been known to whine plaintively, "But it's a Siberian hamster! Filigree!" My father in particular is wont to drawl, "I ASKED you not to tell me that!" a la Maxwell Smart, while we all know all about African vs European swallows and the Knights who formerly said Ni.

One show we all loved was Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn's sharp, sly and pungent political comedy, Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister. We used to watch it and laugh incredulously at the antics of Hacker and his public servants, especially the emollient Sir Humphrey Appleby. We thought it comic hyperbole. Even though my father, a dyed in the wool conservative and small businessperson, had a typical distate for the public sector generally, and politicians in particular (John Howard, to my everlasting dismay, being the notable exception), I don't think even he thought of it as reality TV.

So when I saw that the stage show based on the TV series, but updated for our era, was coming to Melbourne, I knew it would make a perfect Christmas present for my parents. Yesterday afternoon I met them at the Comedy Theatre in Exhibition Street to see the play.


Overall, the play is witty, incisive and polished; a worthy heir to the TV show. Once I got over my visual disconnect with the actors not looking like their TV versions (I struggled particularly hard with Sir Humphrey; Philip Quast was terrific in his own right, but he's just not Nigel Hawthorne), I was able to enjoy the casting too. All the performances were excellent and the dialogue was often extremely funny.

Jay and Lynn have updated the milieu of the story for this stage play. This is seen in minor details, like all the characters carrying their Blackberries and the larding of the conversation with references to subprime mortgages and the economic collapses of banking. It also informs more thematic and overarching aspects, such as the sensitivity of illegal immigration, the European Union, and oil supplies. All of these modernisations worked well and the characters' reactions were, I thought, entirely consistent with their TV versions' personalities, prejudices and aptitudes. Jim Hacker was perhaps a touch brighter than I would've expected, but perhaps it's fair to assume that a few years in government has taught him cunning, if nothing else.

One aspect of the plot had me extremely uncomfortable, though, and I think I've pinned down why. The central plot device is, as it often was in the TV show, a concatenation of circumstances that spell disaster for Hacker, all coming together at once, French-farce style. The largest of these problems - the one around which much of the plot hangs - is a "request" by an important senior minister of Made-Up-Country-in-Eastern-Europe, who is in Britain with the power to close a vital deal with the EU regarding an oil pipeline. This minister asks Bernard Woolley, Hacker's private secretary, to procure him a sexual partner for the night; in itself a off-colour request, but compounded several hundredfold when he specifies that the girl must be a schoolgirl under the age of consent. This is a prerequisite, he says, for his country agreeing to the deal that Hacker believes is vital to Europe (and Britain's) economic future.

Look, I understand why the writers chose this device. They needed something sufficiently offensive that it would plausibly cause the 1.5 hours of moral gymnastics that succeeded it, as Hacker, Woolley, Appleby, the PM's Adviser, Claire, and the Ambassador from Made-Up-Country-in-Eastern-Europe debate the matter back and worth. If the minister had requested an adult sexual partner, the moral agonies would have been harder to sustain, I expect.

The central ethical dilemma is presented as that hoary oldie: Is it ever right for one person to suffer in order for the greater good of the many? (Otherwise known in science fiction as The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas Dilemma). As the adviser says, crudely but accurately, it boils down to, "Is it better for one teenager to get screwed or the whole British economy?" On face value, that's the conundrum the characters face.

Of course, it's not nearly as simple as that (is it ever?) Jay and Lynn are far too clever writers to not shade in the nuances. There are the hints, even from the very start, that the deal isn't really that flash; the whiff of racism / nationalism that gets stronger all the time until Hacker nails his colours to the mast unambiguously near the end; the strong vein of prudishness which masquerades as morality until it's exposed for what it is; the cynicism of all the characters, who are genuinely shocked at the minister's proposition at the start, but quickly come to see it as primarily a political rather than an ethical problem (the sole exception here, also true to the TV series, is Bernard Woolley, who alone among the central characters is still protesting passionately, "But it's wrong!" right up until the end).

I'm sure this didn't escape the writers, or indeed the performers (there were plenty of well-acted "tells" in the way they delivered their lines), but the fact remains that this "dilemma" is in fact a furphy, a non-equivalence of epic proportions. The harm to the putative teenager in this scenario - or, at the least, the crime committed against her - is real and known. Any potential benefit of the pipeline deal is speculative, and may not arrive (especially given how flawed the deal is shown to be from the outset).

Moreover, the harm / crime is personal; any potential benefit is public. It's not possible, ethically, to argue that this proposed teenager should be obliged to - or could be obliged to - shoulder the duty of facilitating a possible public benefit by virtue of an act that would be, at the least, illegal, if not directly damaging to her. (The age of consent can be debated, but it exists in order to prevent or at least anathematize the abuse of people whose cognitive and psychosocial development means that they lack the capacity for true and free consent. Any consent given by a minor is, by its nature, compromised morally and invalid legally).

The fact that the characters are concerned to a large extent about what repercussions would arise if the public found out about the deal (as opposed to how repugnant it is on face value) is a very bitter twist in Lynn and Jay's plot. I think the underlying message is a stinging critique of the moral emptiness of popularity politics AND a statement on the way young female sexuality is represented and commodified (as a medium of exchange, and not one owned by the person themselves).

Bernard bursts out helplessly at one point with something like, "But don't you care about women?" The answer is obvious in the plot, and perhaps in life too, and maybe that is why I found it a disturbing and unsettling as well as an intensely clever and genuinely funny play.

I'm not sure, even so, that Jay and Lynn's central thesis - that politics is a venal, corrupted game in which any ethical positions are up for grabs, even the ones that shouldn't be - isn't lost on some of the audience. I heard many people debating the point in a serious-minded fashion, observing, "That's what it's really like in politics, you know" and "Compromises. It's all about compromises" and the charming one I overheard in the lobby, "Well, it's not like they were talking about kidnapping someone, was it? It would've been a hooker anyway." (Thank YOU for that very compassionate insight, sir!)

That, at the end of the day, is the part that left the sour taste in my mouth; the idea that it's normalised, this sense that anything is negotiable, that children (especially female children) are protected right up until the point that some "greater good" intervenes, then ... Is that really what the world is? Is it?

As a mother of three daughters, I am so deeply afraid that it is.



  1. So was the character of Annie not included? So often in the episodes she provided a connection to the outside/real world for Hacker to bounce ideas off/look to for moral guidance.

  2. No, Annie wasn't in it. The only female character was the adviser, Claire. You're right, of course - Annie was often a voice of reason and a moral compass on the show.

  3. Kathy - I have this blog with great interest. I think it is the most analytically intelligent review that I have yet seen, anywhere, and I thank you for it. It is rare but gratifying when somebody really understands the intentions of a play. Yes, it is indeed a dark comedy, though full of very funny moments. I regard it as an attempt to follow in the footsteps of Jonathan Swift's "A Modest Proposal." I am sorry to say that I think your conclusion is correct: that anything is negotiable if the right price is found or sufficient cover is provided. The proof is in the last ten minutes of the play when a "happy ending" comes to pass for all our central characters: the means for this is that the girl and her mother are unjustly accused of terrorism, arrested, not allowed to see any evidence against them and locked up indefinitely. This can and does happen in the UK snd the US, and - for all I know - maybe in Australia too. We have had a number of protests about she other parts of the play as they might hypothetically affect this teenage girl, but NO protests at all about what finally happens to her at the end of the play, which may be the most shocking thing of all: the audience has itself become so corrupted that it has come to regard the ending as satisfactory.
    Thank you for your thoughtful writing.
    Jonathan Lynn

    1. Thank you so much for your comment, Jonathan. I agree entirely that it's in the mode of a Modest Proposal - I can't believe I missed the similarity until now!

      The indefinite detention of the cook and her daughter was indeed a terrible - and terribly plausible - outcome, and the fact that the audience accepts it as logical and even satisfying is probably the most terrible part of all.

      Your writing is not only extremely funny (though it is that!), I think it is also very important in the way that all first-class satire is - it shines a light on cant, hypocrisy and venality in a way that no "straight" writing could ever do. I still love the original TV series deeply and I re-read the books of both Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister regularly, because they remain so sharp and relevant (as well as hilarious).

      (Now, of course, after a decade-long career in the state public service, I read them with different and probably even more appreciative eyes!)

  4. Congratulations Cathy for your enlightened review and kudos of recognition for such by no other than Jonathan Lynn.

    As an ex public servant I must confess to enjoying the reruns of Yes Minister even more than I did when I watched them as a child.

    I won't get to see the play but now I'm not quite as disappointed about it.

    Definitely a post worth Flogging!!