There is a pattern happening over at UKTV. Last year, they commissioned a new series of Red Dwarf – a show that the BBC had decided they didn’t want any more. This year, they commissioned a new series of Yes, Prime Minister for Gold, still written by Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn – and does anyone remember the stories about the BBC rejecting a proposed series Yes Commissioner a few years ago, based around the EU?
This week, I attended the first of six recordings for the new series. (They’re happening through September, so there’s plenty of chance to grab a ticket.) Interested in a little run-down, in lazy bullet-point form?
- Sunday 19th August, TV Centre, TC8. In the studio by 7pm, out the studio by just past 9pm. For a sitcom recording in 2012, this is bloody fast; especially as it was closer to an hour and a half once you take the warm-up into account. Other sitcoms take note – you don’t lose the will of your audience this way, so they laugh harder.
- One of my favourite bits of any sitcom recording is the first glimpse you get of the sets; the Dwarf recording I was at last December was magical in this regard, as were my IT Crowd recordings. At this recording, there were only two sets; a news studio on the left, and a rather ordinary-looking Chequers on the right. Nothing as impressive as the huge cabinet room in the original Yes, Prime Minister, and not as impressive as the equivalent Chequers set in the stage play. A great shame – production values for audience sitcom are one of my bugbears, and it just leaves the production open to the tired criticism that audience sitcom is “dated”, and The Thick Of It‘s single-camera style is inherently superior.
- OK, so, remember my pieces about sitcom programme recording leaflets, for The Brittas Empire and Every Silver Lining? I’ve not seen any around for years – so it was a glorious surprise to find one sitting on each seat when we walked in. Whether it was inspired by the fact that they’ve just come from doing a stage play, or is a result of old-hand Gareth Gwenlan as Producer/Director (along with Jonathan Lynn) I don’t know, but it’s so lovely to have one. It even has a crew listing on the back. I wish all audience sitcoms would do this. (I’ll scan it in and publish it once the show has aired.)
- Yes, Dwarf fans, I saw Gareth Gwenlan. Ha.
- Oh, and the programme leaflet reveals the name – at least currently – for this first episode: Crisis at the Summit.
- I was worried about the warm-up; I’ve sat through so many terrible ones that just make me want to stab myself repeatedly in the neck and face. (In fact, the only two I’ve actually loved are Bobby Bragg and Ray Peacock.) For Yes, Prime Minister, the warm-up was none other than… John bloody Sargeant. This was a brilliant idea; instead of terrible jokes and even more terrible audience interaction, he started off the evening with a few political anecdotes to get us in the right mood. (The highlight of these being the tale of Margaret Thatcher pulling Geoffrey Howe down the aisle of a plane full of political journalists, with a “Look at Geoffrey’s new jumper!”) This decision alone proved there’s a smart production team behind this show. The only problem is that he did rather go missing in the latter half of the recording, where the odd delay or two meant a few more anecdotes would have been useful.
- If I can just go off at a tangent for a second – one thing Sargeant said was that Americans examine politics through drama such as The West Wing, whereas we examine it through comedy, like The Thick Of It and Yes, Minister. Which ignores the fact that an awful lot of The West Wing is extremely funny – and with some proper broad physical comedy, too. I think it’s a false distinction.
- Our cast, then. David Haig as Jim Hacker; Henry Goodman as Sir Humphrey Appleby; Chris Larkin as Bernard Woolley; Zoe Telford as Claire Sutton (Hacker’s political advisor); and Tim Wallers as Simon Chester, who is basically Paxman turned up to 11. Haig, Goodman and Wallers return from the 2010 West End incarnation of the stage play. Most seemed pretty wary of the audience; only Goodman and Larkin were in the mood for a bit of playful messing about involving some crotch-staring.
- The music they played in at the start was a new version of the famous Ronnie Hazlehurst theme – and it suffered from the ever-present problem of new versions of TV themes not capturing the magic of the original. This version sounded particularly cheap and nasty; I can only hope they go back and use the original in the final edit, as it would work perfectly fine today. Not a good first impression.
- The show started with a news interview on the leftmost set between Hacker and Simon Chester; despite my criticisms of the main Chequers set above, with some nice greenscreen work the news set actually looked pretty damn good, and far more convincing than anything Black Mirror managed. (OK, so it helps to have BBC News on board here, but even so.) Incidentally, a pre-record for Episode 5 was also done on this set, with a clever, quick bit of set redressing – and that was recorded all in one take. PROFESSIONALISM.
- It’s all in 50i, BTW. Gorgeous, glorious, 50i. Excellent.
- Sophie Rayworth has a cameo (shown on a monitor, and pre-recorded on what looks to be the main BBC News studio set) – clearly BBC News have got over being involved in a comedy show, which if you remember is what caused all that trouble for The Bubble back in 2010.
- Following the news interview, we had some short sections of Hacker and Sutton in a car played in on the monitors, interspersed with Appleby and Woolley at Chequers; gloriously, once Hacker arrived at Chequers, the rest of the show is one long scene (albeit recorded in several parts), which will last well over ten minutes when edited together. I’ve been begging for longer scenes in sitcoms, rather than cutting away here there and everywhere all the time; long scenes help the comedy find its own rhythm. (The best example of this recently was the Psychoville episode based around Hitchcock’s Rope; for my money, by far the best of the series.)
- Plot-wise, this first episode is heavily based on the stage revival; there are numerous changes of course, but the basic plot regarding the imminent collapse of an European conference, and crisis talks at Chequers remains the same… so far. I say so far, because the series is quite clearly going to be serialised – by the end of the episode, we’ve hardly got into the meat of the plot. In fact, it looks like the play is going to be expanded into a whole six-part series. The original series had the occasional serialised element, but nothing like this; I think it’s a great move which takes the show in a different direction. (This is just an educated guess mind, but the insert recorded for Episode 5 also mentions Chequers – I wouldn’t be surprised if we don’t see sight of Westminster at all this series.)
- Incidentally, I really wonder a certain plot strand from the stage play – involving the procurement of an underage prostitute for a foreign dignitary – will make it into a later episode of the series, or whether it was considered too risque. It was one of my favourite elements of the theatrical version.
- So, the question you’re all no doubt dying to ask: was it any good? I’m always wary of answering this question when it comes to audience recordings – anything could happen in the edit suite, and if you don’t like something, it seems rather early to complain about it. The best I can offer is that the show is – so far – very similar in style to the stage play. If you liked that, you’ll probably like this – if you didn’t, I suspect nothing here will make you change your mind. I can tell you it definitely got the laughs from the audience – not always from me, and yet I’m eager to see more. A good sign, surely.
I may have given away a bit too much in the above. Humphrey, set up an immediate leak enquiry.