Mind your PMQs; the Yes men are back
Jay was working for Video Arts, a company he had established with John Cleese to make training videos, when he and Lynn immersed themselves in the project. “It was deeply researched,” says Jay. “Because we weren’t sure we could make it funny we thought we could at least make it interesting.
“Marcia Williams [political secretary to Harold Wilson] and Bernard Donoughue [senior policy advisor to Wilson and James Callaghan] were two particular sources. Each didn’t know about the other. We talked to individual ministers and ex-ministers and advisers and things like that. We did a lot of research and you know what? The more research we did, the funnier it got.”
Some farcical scenes – a meeting of several officials in a tiny sleeper carriage of a train and the smuggling of alcoholic beverages to a British delegation at an event in an Arabic country – were drawn from real life. “Some of the stories we were told were too farcical to use. It got easier and easier to get insiders to talk. Between the first and the second series, a very senior permanent secretary invited us to come talk to him and he told us about how permanent secretaries can be told off by the cabinet secretary, which made a whole episode for us.”
Yes Minister was a huge success across all sorts of political divides. “We were talking about what was wrong with politics and the right and the left often agree about that,” says Jay. “What they disagree about is what to do about it. Civil servants and politicians loved it. Civil servants said, ‘It’s wonderful, it’s got politicians just right, but it’s not right about civil servants.’ Politicians said, ‘It’s not really right about politicians but its spot on about civil servants.’”
Margaret Thatcher loved it so much she wrote a scene for it, cringingly performed by the lead actors at the National Viewers and Listeners Awards in 1984.
“I was delighted. Johnny wasn’t so happy and Paul and Nigel were really worried about it but were afraid to say ‘no’. I was a great supporter of Margaret Thatcher. Johnny wasn’t. And Paul and Nigel certainly weren’t.”
It’s easy to see why Thatcher liked it. Although Jay’s right-wing views (he was affiliated with the free-market think tank the Institute of European Affairs) were buffered by his left wing co-writer, in retrospect the show’s lampooning of an inept, arcane and bureaucratic public service was a sign of neo-liberal things to come.
“You certainly wouldn’t come away from Yes Minister thinking ‘big government’ was a good idea,” chuckles Jay. “But we had no reformist or revolutionary intentions. We just wanted to make people laugh.”
By 1988 they felt like they were running out of laughs. “We’d done 38 episodes and worried about going over the same old ground so we stopped. Paul got quite ill and died in 1995 and Nigel died in about 2001. We felt ‘that’s that’ but people began saying there was no reason we shouldn’t do it with different people. And by 2009, there was a lot of new stuff to write about. So we wrote the play, which I was quite nervous about. I remembered that Gilbert and Sullivan wrote Utopia, Limited in their old age and it was a complete flop. There’s a pathetic picture of them taking calls after a desultory first night and we thought, Is this going to happen to us? Happily it didn’t.”