'I’m perpetually shockable. And the fact that I’m shocked means I have to write about it.'
In the newly revived Yes, Prime Minister – coming to digital channel Gold later this month – embattled PM Jim Hacker grapples with issues including a dire economic crisis, a failing Eurozone, the spectre of Scottish independence and an antagonistic BBC.
The comedy’s co-creator Jonathan Lynn certainly has sympathy for Hacker regarding the latter. When Gold approached him and co-writer Antony Jay about adapting their stage play spin-off back to television, the pair offered the BBC first refusal ‘as a courtesy’.
‘And they said we had to write a pilot!’ he laughs incredulously. Lynn responded ‘that there were 38 “pilots” available on DVD, manufactured by the BBC, and a play running in the West End to capacity audiences. They said it was policy. So we said our policy was to not write a pilot for them. I thought it was absolutely extraordinary.’
Obstructive policy has always proved grist to Lynn and Jay’s mill. Even so, certain aspects of the BBC’s attitude to their contribution stills irks them – more than 30 years after the comedy’s original heyday.
The show won Baftas for best comedy series in 1980, 1981 and 1982, alongside acting nominations for Paul Eddington as Hacker and wins for Nigel Hawthorne as his manipulative secretary Sir Humphrey Appleby. Yet the corporation never invited them to the awards ceremony.
‘But I’m not complaining because Tony and I have had ample recognition’ Lynn demurs. ‘And no-one thought anyone would come to the play when we wrote it. We couldn’t get a West End theatre until the reviews came in from Chichester.’
Besides, as Armando Iannucci has revealed, it was Sir Humphrey’s suppression of the troublesome BBC in one of the original Yes Minister episodes, The Challenge (which the corporation’s top brass approved), that was to prove so inspirational for The Thick Of It.
‘We saw how the Government succeeds in exerting pressure on the BBC by applying the best twisted logic the executive machine can deliver’ Iannucci has previously enthused. ‘If all that seems depressingly relevant, it's easy to forget how revolutionary [Yes Minister] was when it first went out.’
‘We weren’t trying to be revolutionary, we were just trying to be funny’ Lynn responds. ‘Civil servants were always portrayed as slightly comical people who wore bowler hats and drank a lot of tea. They weren’t portrayed as people with brilliant brains who actually ran the country.
‘We just thought that this was a new, fruitful subject for comedy. Obviously, the formula is old: the servant who is more able than the master. It’s Jeeves and Wooster, The Admirable Crichton, The Servant of Two Masters.’
The Thick Of It, ‘excellent though it is’, hasn’t influenced these new episodes the 69-year-old adds, as there was ‘no reason’ for their audience sitcom to draw from the newcomer’s mockumentary style. Having ‘thought long and hard’ about the revival, he admits to ‘trepidation’ about the reception the series could receive, 23 years after the previous episode.
But he and 82-year-old Jay – who have ‘never once shared a cross word’ – did plenty of research and found that nothing fundamental has changed.
‘I read a wonderful memoir by Chris Mullin about his time as a minister. And once again it just confirmed everything we had always said,’ Lynn explains.
He ascribes any topical allusions to their in-depth reading and enquiries, and the fact that history repeats itself. Doubting that the BBC would commission the self-critical The Challenge today, it seems unlikelier still that the beleaguered corporation would have welcomed these new scripts in which the director-general is satirised. And he admits to greater misgivings about today’s ‘career’ politicians.
‘It’s better for politicians not to be full-time. They leave university, get jobs as political advisers, become MPs and very rapidly they’re in Government. They’ve had no experience of the real world at all and I don’t think that makes them better at their jobs.’
After claiming in his entertaining, instructive 2011 book Comedy Rules that all comedy writers are angry, Lynn clarifies that he doesn’t personally ‘write stuff out of anger’.
‘We don’t write the kind of comedy that’s around too much these days, that’s just out to shock people. We don’t want to shock, we want to make people laugh.
‘However, we do hope they gain some insight as a result of what we’ve observed. And I would say that I’m perpetually shockable. And the fact that I’m shocked means I have to write about it.
‘I was shocked when Tony Blair took Britain to war, for no apparent reason and in the face of huge public opposition. I’m shocked by government policies that have caused a double-dip recession, making the rich richer, the poor poorer and widening the economic gap between the haves and the have nots. I’m shocked by plenty.’
The new episodes, which Lynn co-produced and co-directed with Gareth Gwenlan, the BBC’s head of comedy when the original was commissioned, were recoded last summer.
They were expanded from the current stage play, which receives its US premiere on June 7 at the Geffen Theatre in Los Angeles, where Lynn currently lives. ‘We’re not changing much but we wrote some good extra lines for the TV series that we’ll slip in, ’ he said.
A serial, set at Chequers over a single ‘bad weekend in Jim Hacker’s life, a whole mass of crises’, it stars David Haig, who played the Prime Minister in the stage production and Henry Goodman as Sir Humphrey, with Chris Larkin as Bernard Woolley. In a nod to contemporary politics, Zoe Telford plays Claire, a cynically modern special policy advisor.
‘Slightly less harsh’ than the play, but retaining a plot in which Hacker is pressured to provide a foreign dignitary with an underage prostitute, Lynn explains that ‘we’re not denouncing our characters or saying how horrible they are. We’re actually sympathising with them.
‘Our view is that if we were in those jobs we would behave the same way, so our criticism is of the system and human nature. [Eddington and Hawthorne] were such likable actors for characters we’re very fond of. So when we did it again with David, Henry and Chris, that likability was paramount again.’
Gold want another series. ‘They asked us after we finished episode three, they were so enthusiastic’ he reveals. ‘But I don’t know whether we will. I think we could. But I don’t know if we will.’
Despite Yes, Prime Minister’s exalted status, Lynn is dismissive of the praise politicians have heaped upon Mrs Thatcher’s favourite programme. ‘It’s very gratifying but politicians like to watch themselves and aren’t interested in much else’. Still, he’s delighted it’s been translated and remade so many times internationally, amused by reports such as Czech PM Petr Necas instructing his ministers to watch it.
‘I think it’s very sensible and they may avoid making some mistakes’ he laughs. ‘What’s been wonderful, although the furthest possible thing from our intentions, is that the series and books have been used in sixth form political science classes and in university economics classes as part of the curriculum. That’s extremely satisfying.’
Indeed, among its famous students was one David Cameron, who wrote an essay entitled ‘How true to life is Yes Minister?’ while studying at Oxford. Last year, he revealed that it was, indeed, accurate.
- Yes, Prime Minister starts on January 15 on Gold. The stage version is at Trafalgar Studios, London until January 12, then touring England.
Published: 4 Jan 2013