How to ad-Minister new laughs

Simon Williams as Sir Humphrey Appleby in Yes Prime Minister
Simon Williams as Sir Humphrey Appleby in Yes Prime Minister
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AS much as we might grumble about the state of the nation, few of us would trade places with the Prime Minister.

The same goes for Simon Williams in a stage revival of a TV favourite that gave millions a chance to revel in the fictional stupidity of politicians.

A Respectable Trade

A Respectable Trade

He stars as slippery Sir Humphrey Appleby opposite Richard McCabe’s bumbling leader Jim Hacker.

“I’m very glad to be Sir Humphrey and I’m just beginning to lose the echo of the wonderful Nigel Hawthorne in my head.

“I’m beginning to feel he belongs to me, in this play anyway.

A topical, up-to-date and sometimes painfully funny script by Jonathan Lynn and Antony Jay sees the two politicians wrestling with a country in financial meltdown and calling upon morally dubious allies.

Simon Williams with Lily 'Emma Peel' Savage

Simon Williams with Lily 'Emma Peel' Savage

Their political comedy Yes, Minster aired on BBC2 from 1980 until 1984. The sequel did another two years from 1986.

With politics rarely so topical, it seems like fortuitous timing to take Yes, Prime Minister on the road.

Ahead of it opening in Sheffield on May 16, Simon reveals there is some truth to the on-stage shenanigans.

“Every opportunity we get to put the boot into politicians the better. The audience just howl with approval,” grins the actor.

Simon Williams & Catherine Rabett in The 39 Steps.

Simon Williams & Catherine Rabett in The 39 Steps.

“It’s new and there are lots of plots and sub-plots in there.

“There’s a lot of tampering with Jim Hacker’s Blackberry and things like that.

“It is quite timely and the great thing about this is we know all the things we touch on have been authenticated.

“On the slightly dodgier areas we know that’s what goes on.

“The foreign ambassador who comes and demands teenage sex... we’ve actually gentled up the story a bit.

“There’s all kinds of little scandalous things that have been checked out by the best possible sources. It’s a joy to do.”

And a good way to get his own political frustrations off his chest. As we talk in his dressing room Simon reveals his discontent with the way the current economic cocktail hits the arts – both in funding and how it penalises theatre-goers.

“Culturally we’re not at a high point. To be paying 20 per cent VAT on a theatre seat is just brutal.

“In fact, there’s a line in the play when the arts are rubbished as somewhere the outcast politician will be given, the Ministry Of Arts, because it doesn’t matter.”

So it is, perhaps, no small irony that a play about politicians that don’t care about the arts should be pulling glowing reviews and big audiences.

“It seems pretty ‘on the money’.

“We used to have the Liberal Party to vote for if we were disenchanted with politics.

“Now you haven’t got them any more so you have to go to the theatre to see Yes, Prime Minister.”

Comedy manifesto mirrors the real world

AS a tall, posh-sounding typically English gent, Simon Williams is an ideal Sir Humphrey, as our glimpse of his Leeds Grand performance confirmed.

But then prior to appearing in the sitcom Don’t Wait Up and as Sir Charles Merrick in hospital drama Holby City, the Berkshire-born actor did consider political life.

“I was once asked to stand for a certain party who used to be not in government in the ’70s and I used to campaign with Clement Freud,” he confirms.

“So long as you don’t take it too seriously politics is good fun, but they are a bunch of scallywags.

“My position politically is to always be in opposition. I always hate what they’re doing. Why are they selling the forests and closing libraries? Walking in the woods and reading books are two of the great free things.”

Simon has previously appeared on Sheffield stages in Rebecca, The 39 Steps and with Donkey’s Years.

He remains one of the UK’s most readily familiar actors.

“When you get to be six foot four with a stuffy accent you tend to find yourself in a band of work that seems to get narrower as you get older. I haven’t played a part without wearing a tie since God knows when.”

When the original series aired in the ’80s the then PM Margaret Thatcher confessed to being a fan. Reportedly, some of the current cabinet caught the London run of this new era Yes, Prime Minister, along with Sheffield MP David Blunkett.

“Whoever you satire they come and watch it and say ‘I know who that’s supposed to be’. They never think it’s them,” says Simon, who is hoping Sheffield politician Roy Hattersley will attend during its week in Tudor Square.

Maybe they can share a few ideas.

“I kind of wish the big society was a good idea,” he says pondering life back in the real world. “I wish we could wind back the clock to when you went and checked on the old lady next door and helped get her shopping and maybe the Women’s Institute would run the libraries, but you can’t. That’s what the big society is trying to do. But when you try to reform, it’s the wrong people who have to tighten their belt the tightest.”