After years playing baddies, Jonathan Slinger has had to find his moral core for his role in new comedy Yes, Prime Minister, finds Caroline Bishop.
Last time we saw Jonathan Slinger on stage he was playing a backstabbing businessman in Dennis Kelly’s The Gods Weep. Before that he was making a name for himself as the repellent hunchback Richard III in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Histories cycle, which earned him the admiring description “a creature to haunt one’s nightmares” from Telegraph critic Charles Spencer. Praise indeed.
So it is something of an about-turn to see Slinger apply his flexible physicality – his physio calls him “hypermobile” – to playing the nerdish, pedantic and entirely harmless Bernard Woolley in Yes, Prime Minister at the Gielgud theatre. No murdering or tyranny for Bernard; he would rather quote Latin at a fly than hurt it.
“I’ve been playing relentlessly nasty people for the last few years,” confirms Slinger cheerfully when we meet at the Gielgud, “and this is completely different. Not only is it a farce and it’s funny, but my character is the moral heart of the piece, the decent man desperately trying to convince everybody else to do the right thing.”
He says he thinks the only reason the play’s LA-based co-writer and director Jonathan Lynn saw him for the part was because he didn’t know who he was and hadn’t seen his Richard III. “I suspect maybe if he had, he might not have even seen me for Bernard. But because he didn’t know who I was from Adam, he came to it completely unsullied by any kind of reputation or anything, which was great for me.”
“I just think the enormous satisfaction I get from doing stage work makes up for the fact that you are not paid as much as you would if you were on film”
So, happily, Slinger has swapped his dark days for this, a new comedy written by Lynn and Antony Jay based on their hugely popular 1980s TV sitcom Yes, Minister and its sequel Yes, Prime Minister, which took a satirical swipe at British politics. Fans of the series will know that his character Bernard is the Principal Private Secretary to PM Jim Hacker, the piggy-in-the-middle between Hacker and his Cabinet Secretary Sir Humphrey Appleby.
At the Gielgud, Slinger is sandwiched between David Haig as Hacker and Henry Goodman as Appleby, actors who are “legendary people within the profession” as Slinger puts it. All three must tread the line between creating their own interpretation of the characters and living up to the memories of the series which starred Paul Eddington, Nigel Hawthorne and Derek Fowlds. Though Slinger watched the programme when it was originally broadcast, he didn’t return to it after he was cast. “I always find it safer and better for me, cleaner for me, to be able to approach things completely unaware,” he says. “Jonathan [Lynn] has very obviously extremely strong and very defined ideas about who these characters are,” he adds. “But he was also very clear that we all bring our own thing to it. He did not want impersonations of the TV series at all. I remember thinking early on it would be a mistake to try and do what they did, that if we are going to succeed it will be because we’ve managed to create our own characters with the blueprint, the script and the relationships that we’ve been given.”
Though the performances are their own and the storylines are contemporary, the dynamic between the three characters remains true to the TV show: Bernard tiptoes around both his superiors while the civil servant and the politician try to serve their often conflicting personal interests. But in this stage production the resulting comedy is overlaid with a darker theme that seems somewhat out of keeping with its screen predecessor. Hacker must decide whether to agree to facilitate the immoral – and illegal – sexual proclivities of a visiting foreign politician in order to salvage a career-making financial deal.
Some may disagree, but for Slinger, it is this seedy overtone that makes the play. “I think what really keeps it up to date is the very edgy dilemma at the heart of the piece. That is not what Yes, Prime Minister audiences are expecting in any way, and I think that’s a great thing, it stops it from becoming a nostalgia piece, even though there might be contemporary political issues. The fact we are bringing in something which is so dark and edgy and challenges people’s views in a very personal way, I think it makes people feel a little bit uncomfortable.”
“I was suddenly just doing the most extraordinary work with an amazing bunch of people and I didn’t want to be anywhere else”
Then he says something that perhaps might have been best kept under wraps: “They [Jay and Lynn] did intimate at one point that this particular dilemma is based on a real incident.” Who and when, he doesn’t know. But Lynn might. “Jonathan always says when people ask him about where he gets idea from, he just says real life; the real life of what’s actually happening in politics is far more bizarre than you could ever make up.”
So Slinger hasn’t entirely left behind his dark side. And that’s no bad thing; it is, after all, how he made a name for himself a couple of years ago. As a company member for the Royal Shakespeare Company’s ground-breaking Histories cycle, Slinger had the chance to take on two of Shakespeare’s great villains, Richard II and Richard III. “[It was] far and away the most extraordinary experience in my career,” says Slinger without hesitation. “It was amazing on every level. I was playing amazing parts, which obviously was great, but it was one company, one ensemble, one director doing all eight plays, two and a half years, and it happened at a time when the RSC was slowly starting to flourish again and becoming a sexy place to work again under Michael [Boyd, RSC Artistic Director], so we kind of crested that wave.”
It seem incredible then, that at first he turned it down. He had already spent 18 months working at the RSC and wasn’t sure he wanted to commit to another three years. However, the enticement of playing both the Richards finally made him accept. “Actually, once we got into it, the time factor being involved in something for that long just didn’t matter any more because I was suddenly just doing the most extraordinary work with an amazing bunch of people and I didn’t want to be anywhere else. Why would I want to be anywhere else? I was absolutely where I wanted to be.”
In his review of Richard III, Spencer went on to say “there is no mistaking the charisma of the central performance.” While Matt Wolf later commented in The Guardian “Jonathan Slinger has emerged from it a star.” So it is surprising to learn that Slinger’s performances in the Histories – which won a Laurence Olivier Award for Best Company Performance – didn’t change his career as one might assume. “Weirdly, no,” he laughs. “I have [had] several points in my career where I have kind of arrogantly gone, ‘ok this is it, I’m not going to have to worry any more’ and that was certainly the biggest one of those moments.” In fact, after the Histories ended he didn’t work for 10 months. “So that was quite weird. And a salutary lesson really, that that can and does happen with most actors. It’s just one of those things.”
He later adds that he did turn down the chance to rejoin the RSC during that period, and personal circumstances also contributed to his not working. However, it seems clear that the experience did not provoke the opportunities he might have expected.
“I think what really keeps it up to date is the very edgy dilemma at the heart of the piece”
Part of the reason the offers didn’t come flooding in may be to do with the fact that Slinger does not have the screen profile to match his theatre pedigree. Though he has committed his face to celluloid on many occasions – most recently in paranormal thriller Paradox – his screen CV reads like that of any other jobbing actor, with guest parts in episodes of Hustle, Doctors and A Touch Of Frost but no name-making lead role. “I would like to [make my name on screen], because it gives you greater opportunities,” he says. “But also because I don’t feel as relaxed working within that medium as I do on stage. And I would love to get to the point where I am as totally relaxed with it as I am with theatre work, because I think I would start to enjoy it a lot more, I would start to probably work a lot more in that field and that would probably unlock it. But I have a fear, the thing is I don’t find it natural at all, I find it quite weird and I feel self-conscious and that’s not always the best thing for your acting.”
Even if he does overcome this fear, theatre will always remain his passion, particularly classical theatre. Slinger grew up in Accrington with a father heavily involved in am-dram, and was put on the stage for the first time aged three. The nearby Manchester Royal Exchange, which he visited regularly, was also an influence. “Those are the things that got me going,” he says. “All of the people that I wanted to be were all classical theatre actors.”
So although he doesn’t have the profile-raising, wallet-friendly career that screen work brings, Slinger is more than happy with the path he has trodden since leaving RADA in the mid 1990s. “I just think the enormous satisfaction I get from doing stage work makes up for the fact that you are not paid as much as you would if you were on film. What I would love is to get to the point where I can easily segueway between all of the mediums at any time, depending on what I feel like doing. That’s the holy grail for any actor I think. But I would never ever regret the fact that my career started out and flourished and blossomed within the classical world because that’s my first love without a doubt.”
I am relieved to hear, however, that Slinger will not be unemployed again when he finishes his time in Yes, Prime Minister. Unlike most actors, he actually knows what he is doing next, another stage play, though he says he can’t tell me much more than that. “All I can say is it’s exciting and it’s a return to dark form,” he laughs. “My days of light, frothy, decent, moral farce are going to come to an end.” From the smile on his face I can see he is not unhappy about that at all.