Yes, Prime Minister makes political comeback
PUBLISHED: 11:39 05 May 2011
Two of comedy's all-time great characters, Jim Hacker and Sir Humphrey Appleby, are back in a new stage version of Yes, Prime Minister. Actor Simon Williams tells EMMA LEE why the timing was just right for the pair of politicians to make a comeback.
In the current political climate there are rich pickings for a satirist. So the timing of the return of two of comedy’s all-time great double acts – Jim Hacker and Sir Humphrey Appleby – couldn’t be more perfect.
The pair arrived on our TV screens during Margaret Thatcher’s time in Number 10.
Now they’re back in a brand new stage version of Yes, Prime Minister, penned by the original writers, Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn, which is at Norwich Theatre Royal next week.
The show, which premiered at the Chichester Festival, is set in the present day, with a coalition government in power and the country on the brink of financial meltdown. Hmmmm, sounds familiar.
Olivier Award-nominated Richard McCabe, whose TV CV includes roles in Wallander and Spooks and who has appeared in numerous productions for the Royal Shakespeare Company, National Theatre and the Barbican, is playing long-suffering leader Jim Hacker, the role made famous by Paul Eddington.
And cabinet secretary Sir Humphrey, who was portrayed on screen by Nigel Hawthorne, is being played by one of the country’s best known stage and screen actors, Simon Williams.
Going Out catches up with him as he’s relaxing in his dressing room at a theatre in Leicester by doing some writing (novelist is another string to his bow) and listening to Edith Piaf.
He is clearly relishing playing Sir Humphrey, and as the tour progresses he feels like he’s making the role his own.
“It’s such a good part. He’s such a scallywag,” he enthuses.
“All the good parts have been played by someone else, so you have mostly someone else’s voice in your head.
“And I began with Nigel Hawthorne’s in my head.
“But gradually the character allows you in until suddenly you feel like Sir Humphrey.”
What sticky situations do the duo find themselves in the 21st century? It seems as though Jay and Lynn’s pens – and wit – are as sharp as ever.
“Well the big battle is for control of the prime minister’s BlackBerry,” says Simon. “Poor Jim Hacker’s coalition government is facing all sorts of crises. The writers kept in touch with all their moles. It’s very witty and there are some great set pieces.”
He is about half way in to the tour – and he says the audience reaction has been fantastic so far.
“People used to vote Liberal if they hated politics. Now they come and see the play. I love to hear the rounds of applause and gales of laughter,” he says.
Simon’s big break came playing James Bellamy in Upstairs, Downstairs. It would probably be quicker to list the TV shows he hasn’t appeared in – think of any TV serial drama in the last 30-odd years, and chances are he’s been in it.
His first love was the stage – acting is in the blood. And in addition to his starring roles, he’s also a director.
“My father was an actor, but he didn’t actually encourage any of us to follow in his footsteps,” he says.
He loved the experience of visiting theatres with his father and feeling intoxicated by the thought of a group of disparate people coming together to see a story unfold before their eyes.
“I remember going backstage with him and going and standing on the stage,” he says. “I love the buildings and the process of storytelling.”
Simon first trod the boards at school, but decided not to take the stage school route.
“I wasn’t very well-co-ordinated, I was always knocking things over,” he says. “And I didn’t play girls because I was too tall.
“I became a stage manager in weekly rep, which was the honeymoon period. I’d watch actors trying things out,” he says.
Winning a part in Upstairs, Downstairs, widely regarded as a landmark in British TV drama, was life-changing.
“There are some characters that you grow more and more fond of and there are some you tire of. I remember being quite tired of James Bellamy in Upstairs, Downstairs. He was so gloomy, there was so little joy in his life I was relieved to hang up his jacket and go home. But they are like old friends these characters you play.”
Are there any types of roles Simon particularly likes playing?
“I quite like delving in to the darker side of things. I did a Lynda La Plante drama [the Red Dahlia] that was very dark. I think that everyone was amazed there was such an ugly side to my nature that I was able to find for the part,” he laughs.
An acting career is a bit like a rollercoaster ride, with its highs and lows.
“You make good choices and bad choices,” agrees Simon. “I think the key question for an actor is does my character change the things that happen in the story and do the things in the story change my character?
“It’s devastating when something you believe in doesn’t find favour with the public. The public is the only thing that matters – you can get good reviews, bad reviews, the only thing that matters is the sound of the audience enjoying themselves.”
At Christmas a new version of Upstairs, Downstairs made its debut on our screens. What did Simon think of it?
“It’s very nostalgic seeing the old rooms with new paint on the walls. I’m looking forward to seeing some more of it,” he says.
And he’s looking forward to returning to Norfolk. His favourite places to visit include Norwich Cathedral and Cromer.
“It’s a lovely combination – the idea of Yes, Prime Minister in Norwich. There’s always such a lovely audience in Norwich. I can’t wait.
“I think that Norwich and the Theatre Royal is really lucky to have [chief executive] Peter Wilson. He has an understanding of what people want. If you’re doing a play and you’ve got Norwich on the list of dates you know the thing is worth doing,” he says.
nYes, Prime Minister is at Norwich Theatre Royal from May 2-7, £27.50-£6.50, 01603 630000, www.theatreroyalnorwich.co.uk