Monday, 30 November -0001

Playing Sir Humphrey? Yes please, Minister

When he was asked to star in a new production of Yes, Prime Minister, Michael Simkins jumped at the chance. But he couldn’t have guessed what playing our most famous civil servant would teach him about government, gobbledegook – and life in the lime

Written by Michael Simkins

One of the joys of being an actor is that occasionally you get to portray one of your
childhood heroes. As one of the generation of children whose cultural tastes were influenced by television rather than literature, and whose heroes were not so much Hamlet and Biggles as Captain Mainwaring and Dr Who, my latest job is indeed something of a dream come true. For I am currently playing Sir Humphrey Appleby in the stage version of one of TV’s most successful comedies – Yes, Prime Minister.

The series, along with its equally-celebrated precursor, Yes Minister, became one of the definitive comic creations in television history, running for seven series and making household names of its two stars, Paul Eddington and Nigel Hawthorne.

Forty years on, the series has now been adapted into a stage play which, having finished a successful run in the West End, is now touring, and probably coming to a venue near you, throughout the spring. 

The popular perception is that Yes Minister evolved as a satirical counterpoint to the Margaret Thatcher era of political dominance in the 1980s – she was a huge fan of the series and penned her own short episode which, to the authors’ mild embarrassment, was even performed. But the writers, Jonathan Lynn and Antony Jay, came up with the original idea during the dying days of the Labour Government of the late 1970s.

And therein lies its strength. For although everyone has their own preconceptions as to the political persuasion of Jim Hacker, the authors have always taken extreme care to ensure that the fictional Prime Minister’s political affiliations remain entirely opaque.

The original conceit sprang from a well-documented incident in the 1960s, during which the shadow Home Secretary, Frank Soskice MP, led a petition, which six months later – and by then in a position to grant it as the actual minister in charge – he subsequently rejected.

As Lynn chronicles in his splendid new book, Comedy Rules, the incident struck him and his co-writer as ‘one of the most darkly comic stories we had ever read’ and set in train the idea for a satire about domestic politics.

Regarding the character of Sir Humphrey, this came from an event reported by MP Richard Crossman, who on his first day as a Government minister was assured by his Private Secretary that, should he find anything in his in tray that he didn’t know how to handle, he should merely move it to the out tray for the civil service to deal with. The
inference was gloriously apparent – that it’s not the politicians who run the country but their unelected staff.

Taking over in any iconic role is not for the faint-hearted. Even if you’re portraying a real-life individual such as Winston Churchill or Adolf Hitler (two roles I’m unlikely to be offered as I don’t smoke cigars and can’t straighten my arm, courtesy of a cycling accident), you can easily disappoint audiences who have their own preconceptions of
how the part should be played.

But if the part is a fictional creation already defined by a previous incumbent (in my case the fabulous Nigel Hawthorne) the pitfalls are doubly apparent. So why is the stage version able to prosper when the original protagonists still cast such a long shadow? One reason lies in the fact that the play is not only penned by the original writers but is entirely contemporary.

In Lynn and Jay’s new script, Jim Hacker’s administration is now welded together in a hamstrung coalition with a smaller political party, a situation that suits Sir Humphrey down to the ground – ‘If the Government try to do anything silly, we can make sure their coalition partners stop them…’ And with the eurozone tottering and the only salvation lying in massive loans from distant nations with booming economies and questionable morals, the opportunities for comic mileage are deliciously apparent.

The problem for anyone playing Sir Humphrey is in having to learn the mind-numbing amount of ‘officialspeak’ with which Britain’s most famous diplomat bewilders the hapless Hacker.

Suffice it to say that at the age of 55, assimilating pages of gobbledegook is not something my rapidly atrophying
brain viewed with relish. My solution was to start memorising the lines last November, with a promise to myself that if I could get through them without fluffing, drying or paraphrasing come 25 December, I’d allow myself seconds of Christmas dinner as a reward. As anyone who has worked with me will testify, I needed no further incentive.

One of the fascinating aspects of taking the play round the UK is in the variety of political complexions we’ll sample. During our tour we stop at Buxton (usually solid Conservative) and Cheltenham (sizeable Lib-Dem majority) right through to Labour heartlands such as Derby (MP Margaret Beckett).

Already we’ve rubbed up against the fringes of political life – a councillor here, a mayor there, each keen to be seen
and photographed onstage with the country’s two most popular political figures. Indeed, during a recent photo opportunity, one local Labour Party stalwart even revealed that his local constituency was already resigned to the probability that Ed would soon give way to David, who would eventually sweep his party back into power at the election after next. If so, remember you heard it here first.

The current tour finishes in mid-May at Darlington, a constituency that sports a healthy Labour majority, a wonderful Victorian playhouse and a venerable old football club (albeit on the brink of bankruptcy). And then, who knows? Another tour? A spell in the West End? Or back to staring at the phone, willing it to ring with an offer of a new job and a new project for my frazzled brain cells to deal with.

Whatever scenario prevails, rest assured that I will be formulating preliminary plans to create an epistemological
basis for all parties to proceed towards a mutually beneficial consummation.

That’s ‘another job’ to you, me and Sir Humphrey.

For tour information, visit

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