Mind your PMQs; the Yes men are back
‘I have no sympathy with people who say we mustn’t undermine politics,” says Yes, Prime Minister writer Sir Antony Jay. “Politicians put themselves over as people whose thoughts are only for the good of the country and who are self-effacing, bowing to the needs of the electorate and serving them only, but that’s only half of it. The other half is that they’re self-serving people concerned with fame, re-election and keeping their expenses. I don’t see why people shouldn’t know both sides.”Jay is something of an expert at undermining politics. Yes Minister (later Yes, Prime Minister), the sitcom he co-created with Jonathan Lynn in 1980 featured the weak-willed politician Jim Hacker (Paul Eddington), and his manipulative permanent secretary, Sir Humphrey Appleby (Nigel Hawthorne). It ran until 1988 and firmly established the notion of a bureaucratic, change-averse civil service in the public imagination.
Jay is, at 82, a small government conservative (he recently wrote a report suggesting the BBC’s budget be cut by two-thirds) and he is very funny. Of the casting of the original show, for example, he says: “I wanted Sir Humphrey to be played by Cecil Parker, which wasn’t really possible because he was too expensive.” He pauses before adding: “And he’d been dead for several years.”
The sitcom is built on his devastating dissections of policy making in the seemingly Kafkaesque bureaucracy of Whitehall. “I’ll tell you why it still works,” says Jay. “The BBC paid us so little we couldn’t afford to take an expanse of time to write the episodes. We had to fit writing in when we weren’t too busy. That meant we often had to write months ahead of transmission. If you’re doing that, it means you can’t put in little topical jokes, like Drop the Dead Donkey did, jokes that will be funny tomorrow but meaningless months later. It meant that all our jokes were about the permanent things rather than the temporary things and they stayed relevant.”
Jay first considered writing something about the relationship between politicians and civil servants after a prolonged stint on the pioneering BBC Tonight programme. “I learned quite a lot there. You saw how the politicians came along with their advisers – private secretaries or principal private secretaries – feeding them with facts. You saw that a lot of politicians were just puppets.
“I remember two things in particular that set me thinking about it. Somebody leaked a talk that [Labour party politician] Barbara Castle gave to the civil service in which she outlined how hard it was for a minister to get anything done if the civil service didn’t want to do it. Then there was the amazing case of Timothy Evans. Frank Soskice, who was the opposition attorney general, made a terrific plea to get a pardon for Timothy Evans when it was discovered that he hadn’t committed the murders he was hanged for. He got a huge number of signatures, hundreds of thousands. They were presented to the home office and the attorney general who rejected them was . . . Frank Soskice. He’d started the appeal but by the time it had reached the government he was attorney general and had to reject it.
“I realised that these compromises, driven by the conflicts between ministers and permanent secretaries had huge comic potential.”