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playwright and director jonathan lynn

playwright antony Jay

The latest British Invasion: The politics and personalities of Yes, Prime Minister An interview with Jonathan Lynn by amy levinson

Amy Levinson: Did you and Antony Jay know when you set out to write this play that you were going to use your original characters from the television series you co-created — Yes Minster and Yes, Prime Minister. JL: Oh, yes. We’d been asked since the series first aired more than 30 years ago if we would turn it into a stage play. In England this series is much like Frasier or Friends, it’s always on the air, even all these years later. But Tony (Antony Jay) and I chose to stop the series when we did because we felt we’d said what we wanted to say. You know, there’s not enough money when you’re writing a series for British television to just carry on, come what may. And then Paul Eddington and Nigel Hawthorne, who had created the roles of Jim and Sir Humphrey, died within a short time of one another. At that point, with those two extraordinary P4  PERFORMANCES  MAGAZINe

actors gone, we felt, well that’s that. But four years ago, when we realized we were coming up to thirty years since the show had first aired, I was thinking about the fact that Daniel Craig had just become the most popular James Bond ever, and he was maybe the seventh person to play that role. And Dr. Who has been played by numerous actors over the last 40 years. Not to mention Sherlock Holmes! Why shouldn’t we try Sir Humphrey and Jim played by other people? We didn’t know if the audience would accept them but we wanted to see if the characters were strong enough to stand on their own feet. I didn’t want this to be seen as though it were an interesting spin off from a well known series, I wanted the play to be accepted on its own terms. We wanted to write a play that was a play. So when it was time to cast it, we did it as differently as we could. The actors who


jonathan lynn interview

AL: What’s the main difference between the two political systems? JL: America has the separation of powers built into the constitution. Checks and balances. That doesn’t officially exist in Britain. You can only be Prime Minister if you have a majority in the House of Commons and if you have a majority, either with your own party or by putting together a coalition, you can do whatever you like. So in Britain the checks and balances are completely unofficial, in the form of civil servants who quietly, secretly, obstruct everything behind the scenes — everything that they think is not in their interest or the interests of the country. As far as they are concerned, those two categories are interchangeable. AL: How did you and Antony come to write a show about English politics? JL: Actually, it’s not about politics, it’s about government. Tony and I met in 1972 when he started a company to make management training films. He had been a highly successful journalist at the BBC and then written two best-selling books on management. He partnered with John Cleese and they started a company called Video Arts to make management training films. Normally these training films show people how to do their jobs and they are really boring. Tony had the idea to make management training films showing people how not to do their jobs, because he realized that would be funny. I got a call from Cleese saying he and this nice chap called Tony Jay had started this company and would I mind acting in the first of their films for a deferred fee. With my usual financial acuity I felt sorry for John so I of course said yes. To my astonishment I received my deferred fee only a couple of months later. After a few films, John (Cleese) was moving on to start work on Fawlty Towers and I had just finished writing and acting in a series, and Tony asked me to write some of these films with him. I think we wrote about 20 of them. After a year or two Tony suggested writing a series about the corridors of power, Whitehall. I said that sounds fantastically boring to me, no thank you, and I went off to be artistic director of the Cambridge Theatre Company. But about three years into my five years in Cambridge I felt the need to be writing again. I asked Tony if he had done anything with his idea and he hadn’t. So we started researching it. We took various members of the then current and previous administrations out to lunch and discovered the key to our research — if you take a politician out to lunch and give him a really nice bottle of Claret he will

tell you anything. So long as he or she knows they won’t be named as sources. But we operated like journalists, we said we wouldn’t reveal our sources and we never, ever did. A few sources have since revealed themselves but we never did. We realized, much later, that we’d written a series of training films for politicians, showing them how not to do the job. Anyway, the BBC bought the idea and we had the great good fortune of landing two truly great actors, Paul Eddington and Nigel Hawthorne to play Jim and Humphrey respectively. After the pilot was shot we had to wait about eighteen months for it to go on the air because everyone was expecting a general election and the BBC is careful about putting anything political on the air prior to an election. In fact, it was about government, not party politics. We were always very careful not to identify which party Jim Hacker belongs to. We actually expected the show to be disliked by politicians. We found the opposite. It famously became Mrs. Thatcher’s favorite show, which was a source of acute embarrassment to me but not to Tony: Tony is rather conservative and I am — rather not. Politicians like seeing political talk on television, it’s the only thing they’re interested in. And we gave them an alibi — for the first time the public realized that if politicians didn’t keep their promises it might not be their fault. Civil servants liked it too, because they were portrayed as brilliant, Machiavellian manipulators who actually ran the country. So to our surprise, the two groups of people we thought would take greatest offense at the show were in fact the show’s greatest supporters. AL: Because the show has had a long life — first on television and then on stage, have you found that you’ve had to make adjustments based on a changing political climate? JL: No — funnily enough. I don’t know why but we often wrote scripts about things that hadn’t happened yet — and then they did happen. People in government are so busy dealing with the next immediate crisis — with yesterday’s editorial or today’s headline — that they play everything off the cuff. They are almost entirely reactive, there’s no time for anything else, whereas people like Tony and me have the luxury to just sit back and speculate about what might happen in the future. Things that have happened in real life, first happened in this play. The eurozone was not in good shape, and it seemed obvious to us — and many others — that the euro would work so long as Europe was prosperous but would lead to all kinds of problems when the boom ended. In fact, it imploded the week the play originally opened. It’s been getting worse ever since, which of course is very bad for Europe but extremely good for the play. We haven’t made significant changes since 2010 — at least not in terms of the political nature of the play. We have made a few changes for the sake of clarity for an American audience. For instance, we added more information about the European Union, because audiences here may not be that familiar with it. The first editor of The Guardian famously said of his readers: “Never overestimate the readers’ information but never underestimate their intelligence.” That’s the balance we try to strike with audiences. PErFORMANCEs  MAGAZINE P5

yes, prime minister

played it in London were really great and they couldn’t have been more different. We were fortunate; within minutes people forgot about how the characters had been played previously. And what was universal about the show remained: both the British and American governments operate on the principle that if no one knows what you’re doing, then no one knows what you’re doing wrong. That’s why I’m hopeful that American audiences will understand and appreciate the play as much as the Brits did.

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