THE WRITERS Original: Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn. Remake: Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn.
THE CHANNEL Original: BBC1 primetime, 1986-88. Remake: Gold, starting tonight at 9pm. Jay and Lynn offered the BBC first refusal “as a courtesy”. But, Lynn told Chortle: “They said we had to write a pilot! There were 38 ‘pilots’ available on DVD, manufactured by the BBC, and a play running in the West End to capacity audiences. They said it was policy. So we said our policy was to not write a pilot for them. I thought it was absolutely extraordinary.”
THE OPENING TITLES Original: Fabulous line drawings by Gerald Scarfe, photographed two frames at a time so the caricatures of the lead actors appear to be creating themselves. Remake: More or less the same. It’s faster, looks like it’s been aided by modern technology and comes with a remix of the Ronnie Hazelhurst theme, all of which dent the charm but only slightly.
THE PRIME MINISTER Original: Paul Eddington as Jim Hacker, a somewhat naïve and gentle bumbler who is obsessed with his own public image and is easily manipulated by his permanent secretary/cabinet secretary, Sir Humphrey, but who becomes more savvy as the series goes on. Remake: David Haig as Jim Hacker, the leader of a coalition government who is still ignorant and in constant need of advice and assistance, but vastly more opinionated, often shouting and prone to rants about other countries (“the Micks and the Polacks”) and the BBC (“Only about 35-45 hours a week on BBC is original and distinctive programming… it’s a beacon of repeats, Hollywood movies, bought-in programmes and bought-in sporting events”).
THE PM’S STAFF Original: A multi-award-winning Nigel Hawthorne as the suave, sly Sir Humphrey; Derek Fowlds as mild but pedantic Principal Private Secretary Bernard Woolley. Remake: Henry Goodman in the Sir Humphrey role, retaining Hawthorne’s trademark: long, deliberately complex speeches designed to confuse the PM. Chris Larkin (son of Maggie Smith and brother of Toby Stephens) as a more childish and panicky Bernard. Plus Zoe Telford as Hacker’s policy advisor Claire Sutton, who adds a welcome note of restraint in a role more important than that of the original’s Dorothy Wainwright (Deborah Norton).
Bernard is still the go-between acting as a confidant to both Sir Humphrey and the Prime Minister, while Sir Humphrey still sees the elected PM as an insignificant placeholder who can’t be allowed to govern unmolested. These relationships are rather spelt out in episode one for the benefit of new viewers. Plus, the new Hacker seems much more aware of Sir Humphrey’s scheming, which takes away a key dynamic of the original: Hacker mistakenly thinking he had outsmarted Sir Humphrey and made his own decision.
THE STORIES Original: A fairly standard sitcom format. The storytelling is dominated by new narratives each week, resolving themselves at the end of each half-hour. Remake: Having been first revived as a stage play, the new series has a single arc about one crisis-ridden weekend at Chequers, centring on Britain’s relationship with Europe and the prospect of an oil pipeline deal from a former Soviet state. This slows the action down and means individual episodes don’t have satisfying endings.
THE VERDICT Original: An untouchable classic, which told the British people a fundamental truth about politicians and who’s really running the country – paving the way for The Thick of It – but was built on solid sitcom foundations. It’s too late for its reputation to be dented. Remake: Sadly, not even close: stagey and unsubtle, with nothing new or relevant to say about modern politics and with weaker one-liners. Far less artfully constructed and written than the 1980s series.