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An interview with Yes, Prime Minister writers Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn

Posted: 12 April 2013
An interview with Yes, Prime Minister writers Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn

How was it to come together again and write? Did it take a while to get into the swing of things, or was it like you’d never stopped?

JL: It was as if we had never stopped. We had never lost touch, and we’d seen each other pretty often over the intervening years – my wife and I frequently went down to Somerset to visit Tony and Jill when we were in England – so it was just a question of whether we would still find it easy to write together. To our surprise, when we tried it seemed as though it had only been a few weeks since the last time, not 23 years. By the end of the first morning we had found so many ideas that Tony, who analyses and categorises with great precision, remarked that writing the play had gone from being a problem to being a task. This was a relief. We had made a deal with our producers Mark Goucher and Matthew Byam Shaw but refused to take any money in advance in case we couldn’t deliver something we thought was good enough. In fact, I think we finished writing the first draft before we were prepared to commit to the idea that the play would actually be deliverable.

AJ: It was 23 years since we had last written a script together when we sat down to write the play in 2009, but might just as well have been 23 days. We just clicked in to the old writing routine as if we had never stopped. Mind you, we had been in touch quite a lot in the interim - we've been friends for about 40 years - and although Yes Minister had stopped it hadn't died; papers kept wanting Sir Humphrey pieces from us, and of course the DVDs and repeats kept going.

You must have been a little wary about writing for characters so closely linked to their on-screen actors, but now that several top actors have played those roles successfully, but each differently, are you even more proud of the characters you’ve created?

JL: Yes, obviously one of our biggest concerns was whether the public would accept new actors and different interpretations of Jim, Humphrey and Bernard. We didn’t want actors who would do impersonations of Paul [Eddington], Nigel [Hawthorne] and Derek [Fowlds] in fact, we went out of our way to cast it differently. That’s why we had ducked writing a stage play for many years, even though many producers had asked us. But then I realised that so many beloved characters have been recast, like Doctor Who, James Bond, Sherlock Holmes - not to mention Hamlet! – and the audience simply accepts a new interpretation by a different actor and treats it on its merits. We hoped that would be the case with our characters, and that’s how it turned out. And yes, we were delighted to have shown that the characters have a life of their own, apart from the actors who first played them.

AJ: Yes, while Paul and Nigel were still alive it was impossible to think of casting anyone else, and they couldn't do more than a three-month run in a play, while managements needed six months to recoup their investment. But Paul died in 1995 and Nigel in 2001, and a stage play with new actors didn't look so impossible. Producers suggested dramatising some of the existing episodes, but we felt we'd rather do something completely new - after all, politics had thrown up some promising ideas in the past 20 years or so. We weren't really worried about the change of actors; we had written the first four or five episodes without knowing who would be playing the parts. In fact the new Jim and Humphrey are different from the originals in some ways, but just as valid interpretations.

Why do you think Yes, Prime Minister continues to be so popular across the country, even with people who wouldn’t consider themselves ‘political’? Is there something universal about the relationship between Jim and Sir Humphrey?

JL: There must be, though of course we didn’t start out with such grand ambitions. To try to answer specifically: the series is not political, except in a general sense. It is actually about government, not politics. Not party politics, anyway. The leading characters are a master who is less able than his servant. This is the basis of Jeeves and Bertie Wooster, the Admirable Crichton, The Servant of Two Masters, A Comedy of Errors, and much of Plautus, I believe. The formula couldn’t be older. And I think there are other universal aspects of their relationship, otherwise it couldn’t have been popular in the 84 countries in which the series has been shown: the Soviet Union, China, Israel and Jordan, India and so forth. Maybe these governments saw it as an attack on Western democracy; their people probably saw it as a criticism of bureaucracy and government secrecy. We don’t know, of course, we can only surmise. But I think that the most important element of the success is that we love our characters, and we empathize with them all, so that although the series is critical of the way we are governed it is also full of warmth and affection.

AJ: Firstly, I think everybody knows something about politics nowadays - it floods our TV screens and newspapers. But yes, there is something universal about the servant who knows more than his master - Figaro and The Admirable Crichton are good examples - and Jim's ignorance has a lot of comic potential.

In a way, you predicted the coalition government we have at the moment – has it worked out as you imagined it might?

JL: Yes – in that it hasn’t really worked very well. But then all governments are coalitions, even if they are from one party, and no government works very well.

AJ: I can't pretend we foresaw how the coalition would work out, but the situation has obvious stresses.

What advice do you think Sir Humphrey would have for David Cameron and Nick Clegg in 2013?

JL: Sir Humphrey would love this coalition. Divide and rule. The more dysfunctional the coalition is, the more control the civil service has. It can step into the power vacuum. Sir Gus O’Donnell, who was Cabinet Secretary when this government was formed, is the person who drafted the coalition agreement and he did so before the election results were known. He pushed Cameron and Clegg together: leaders of two parties with profoundly differing points of view on almost everything. Clearly Brown and Clegg would have been a much more natural partnership, or at least Labour and Lib-Dem. But the Civil Service would not have had as much influence.

AJ: Humphrey's advice to Cameron and Clegg would be very simple: 'Leave it to me.'

David Cameron famously likes to ‘chillax’ – do you think a man as excitable as Jim Hacker could ever really succeed in politics?

JL: Gordon Brown did.

AJ: I don't honestly think it makes much difference. Energetic PMs can be a success - Lloyd George; - or a disaster - Gordon Brown.

The BBC features quite strongly in the play – have you updated any of the script to reflect the Corporation’s ‘annus horribilis’ in 2012?

JL: Not really. A couple of extra jokes, that’s all. The BBC’s current decline was inevitable when we wrote the play, and Jim’s outburst against the Director General used to win enthusiastic rounds of applause when we opened in Chichester nearly three years ago.

AJ: Yes, we've added a line to reflect the changes of leadership.

What advice would you give to any young person thinking of going into politics today? Would you suggest they find a proper job instead?

JL: Definitely. If you must go into politics, work in the real world first. Nowadays our political leaders leave university, get jobs as party researchers, become Special Advisers, and eventually get into Parliament and into the Cabinet. They have no experience and little understanding of anything except the political bubble in which they live. This doesn’t make them representative of the rest of us, which was the original idea.

AJ: I'd have to say that I don't think it's much of a job unless you're going to get to the top rank. If you do want to go in for it, then at least do a real job for a few years first - don't go straight into the Westminster bubble.

What are your favourite political programmes at the moment? Are there are any other satirists you admire?

JL: I don’t live in Britain, so I’m not up on all the latest programmes. I’ve seen The Thick of It and I think it’s very funny. The satirists I admire are Jonathan Swift, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, George Bernard Shaw, Evelyn Waugh, Kingsley Amis.

AJ: I think The Thick of It is excellent, otherwise I'm not really a fan of political TV - after all I started in it when I joined Panorama in 1956, and then moved on to Tonight where I did a show a night for six years. After the first 50 years you get a little jaded.

What is the relationship of the new television series, airing on UK Gold from January 2013, to the stage play?

AJ: Our aim was to keep the TV series as close to the play as possible, which basically we have. But adding another 70 minutes or so obviously makes a difference - among other things it gave us an opportunity to have some fun with Scottish independence and civil servants' and MPs' expenses. And we had to juggle some scenes to resolve story lines within the episode in which they started.

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