‘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.”
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.”
The success of the play encouraged them to embark on a new television series using the play’s cast, with David Haig as Hacker and Henry Goodman as Sir Humphrey. The BBC rejected it (possibly just as well, given Jay’s strident views on cutting the BBC). “At first they said, ‘That’s a good idea, do a pilot,’ and we said, ‘We’ve done 38 pilots and a stage play – if you don’t know what it’s going to be like now, you never will.’ Gold were happy to go straight ahead so we went with Gold.”
Again, Jay’s aim is to entertain rather than effect political change. “I wouldn’t attribute too much power to satire,” he says. “I don’t think it can change one state of affairs to another. At best it can speed change up. If a lot of people are thinking about something, maybe laughing at it can move things on.”
Things have moved on a lot since the original series. Jay has seen Armando Iannucci’s more frenetic and fast-paced The Thick of It, but feels that they’re covering very different territory in a very different style. “It’s terrific but it’s not about government policy, it’s about political embarrassments and the public-relations side of government.”
And he does feel that politics has changed. “It’s become even more of a bubble. It doesn’t have any connection to the world outside. When we started, an awful lot of senior politicians had fought in the war. They’d lived real lives and had done real jobs.
“Now, few know anything about life outside politics. They come up as researchers or PR people and they live in this isolated bubble.” He sighs. “The more you find out about politics the less respect you have for the whole process.”
However, he has some sympathy for politicians. His favourite episode from the original series is The Whisky Priest in which “we see that despite all of Jim’s failings there is something inside him that wants to govern the country properly”.
But he can’t? “No he can’t,” says Jay. “And that’s where the comedy is.”
This article was originally published on January 14th, 2013