Lynn on Yes (Prime) Minister
March 2003 - In co-operation with the Jonathan Lynn website the Yes (Prime) Minister files is proud to present a Question and Answer session with Jonathan Lynn. Past visitors were able to submit questions for Jonathan and the ten best questions were put to him. Thanks to Jonathan and the people who submitted questions.
Q 1 - A few weeks ago newly elected President Lula (from Brazil) announced he is canceling a big military contract with his supplier (USA) and use the money to fight unemployment at home. Sound familiar (Trident cancellation)? I bet I know how this one will end! Ten months ago Prime Minister Barroso (Portugal), newly elected, announced a crack down on public expenditures by terminating redundant institutes (the Portuguese equivalent of the Quango), many of them set up years ago to monitor or solve long gone problems. Sound familiar? The result was hilarious to any "Yes (Prime) Minister" fan: A new Institute was created, with newly acquired staff, to study the problem and report; after 9 months of deliberations, consultations and reverberations, it turned out there were only 3 (three!) "quangos" that were clearly not needed (around 12 people were out of a job - temporarily, as they were relocated to the new growing Institute). The new Institute currently employs hundreds of people and just had its aims redefined to allow it to go on investigating public waste of money in government funded "institutes". So, Mr. Lynn, the question is: how on earth is it possible that your series is still so up to date today, after the fall of communism, the Berlin wall, the end of the Cold War, the rising of terrorism, the fall of the Ayatollahs, the expansion of the EU, the Euro, etc., etc.?
A 1 - The reason that the series is still so up to date after about twenty years is that nothing fundamentally changes. That's really the point of the series, too. The only things that change are the names of the participants and the numbers (due to inflation). For instance, when we started writing Yes Prime Minister in the summer of 1986, I went to the Daily Telegraph office in Fleet Street and looked up the news stories that the paper had reported during the same week of 1956, 30 years earlier. It turned out that all the stories were exactly the same: they were about the rising tide of violence in the Middle East, was there going to be a war between Israel and its neighbors, should Britain be in Europe or not, should Britain's special relationship with America be sacrificed in the interest of being good Europeans, defence expenditure, fear of inflation/deflation/stagnation/stagflation, unemployment and so forth. In fact, although our series was perceived as highly topical at the time, the episodes were frequently written months or even more than a year before being recorded and broadcast. Topicality is an illusion.
Q 2 - What do you think about the fact that Yes Minister and Yes Prime Minister are quoted in some textbooks on British politics as a way of understanding how the country is run?
A 2 - I'm delighted that Yes Minister and Yes Prime Minister are quoted in text books on British politics. Although much of the information in the programme was available from other sources such as Richard Crossman's Diaries, we made it available in a readable and easily comprehensible form.
Q 3 - British governance must have moved on since the Callaghan/Thatcher era and there must be masses of new material available. Would it be possible to have a new run of the series, with new actors?
A 3 - British governance must have changed a little since the Callaghan/Thatcher era, but only superficially. There are now more "special advisors" imported by 10 Downing Street, 11 Downing Street and other government departments, and the word "spin" probably entered the political vocabulary since the series. But the essence of the British government remains the same - see my answer to Q 1. I'm not sure that it's worth remaking the series with new actors especially as the original actors were superb.
Q 4 - Given that the series revolves around the workings of government, though mainly in Cabinet, why was there never a single scene in either series set in the House of Commons?
A 4 - The answer is in the question. There was not a single scene set in the House of Commons because the series is about the government. Government does not take place in the House of Commons; some politics takes place there, and much theatre takes place there. Government happens in private. As in all public performances, the real work is done in rehearsal, behind closed doors. Then the public, and the House, are shown what the government wishes them to see.
Q 5 - Could you tell us more in what way the episodes were written? Did the basic idea of each episode come from researching past British politics or was it first thought up by the writers and then further worked on? How much research had to be done for episodes?
A 5 - The basic idea of each episode came in a variety of ways. Sometimes from research, talking to some of our sources inside government; sometimes from published material, like The Crossman Diaries; sometimes from contemporary news stories that we thought were going to run; and sometimes completely out of our own imaginations. An example of the latter would be the episode on the National Health Service in which we invented a hospital with five hundred administrative staff but no doctors, nurses or patients. This hospital won the Florence Nightingale Award for the most hygienic hospital in the country. After inventing this absurdity, we discovered there were six such hospitals (or very large empty wings of hospitals) exactly as we had described them in our episode, notably one in Cambridgeshire in which there was only one patient: the Matron (head of nursing staff) who had fallen over some scaffolding and broken her leg.
Having found the basic idea, we would then work on the story for anything from three days to two weeks. Once we had the story in place, it would only take us four mornings to write all the dialogue. After we wrote the episode, we would show it to some secret sources, always including somebody who was an expert on the subject in question. They would usually give us extra information which, because it was true, was usually funnier than anything we might have thought up.
Q 6 - In your opinion, what was it about the collaboration with Antony Jay that led to the creation of such a wonderful piece of political satire?
A 6 - Antony Jay was an expert on bureaucracy, having published such books as "Management and Machiavelli" and "Corporation Man". He had also been head of a BBC Department (Talks and Features) which is pretty much like being a senior civil servant. I came from writing and acting in numerous TV and stage comedy shows, and directing in the theatre. He had a degree in Classics. I had a degree in Law. Somehow our previous experience was complementary. We started working together writing management training films for Video Arts - Antony had started this company when he realized that most training films were boring because they showed you how to do things right, whereas he saw that the way to make them entertaining was to show people doing things wrong. In one sense, we viewed Yes Minister and Yes Prime Minister as training films for politicians, showing how they do things wrong.
Q 7 - Do you regret not writing more episodes of Yes (Prime) Minister?
A 7 - No.
Q 8 - Although we saw Jim Hacker's married life in Yes Minister, we never found out much about Sir Humphrey Appleby's. What would it have been like, had you decided to include it?
A 8 - Jim Hacker's married life was slightly relevant because he lived above the shop in 10 Downing Street. We always supposed that Sir Humphrey lived in Haslemere, had a son at Winchester and a daughter at Bedales and that his wife was a sensible woman who made cakes for church socials and enjoyed walking the family bulldog. I think that Humphrey's hobbies were reading (mainly biographies), listening to classical music, and occasionally visiting the RSC, the National Theatre or the Royal Opera House, where he was on the Board. His holidays were probably spent walking in the Lake District and, occasionally, sailing in Lymington. On the whole, he had a slightly warmer relationship with his dog than his family.
Q 9 - Could 'Yes, Minister' have been successfully translated into an American series, or are the US and British governments so different it would be unworkable?
A 9 - The essential difference between the British and American governmental systems is that the British system, which doesn't really work, was arrived at by accident. The British government has the engine of a lawn mower and the brakes of a Rolls Royce. The official Opposition, currently the Tories and Liberal Democrats, are merely the opposition in exile. The Civil Service are the opposition in residence. Thus, as in most bureaucracies, many people can say no but almost nobody can say yes.
The Americans, starting from scratch, foolishly copied this situation, called it the Separation of Powers and enshrined it in their Constitution. Their legislative body (Congress) has very little executive power. The Executive (The White House) has no legislative power. The Supreme Court can rule any legislation unconstitutional - hence, the same sort of gridlock. The only difference is that American gridlock is more public than British gridlock. Though it is also true that most of Congress is theatre in the same way that The House of Commons is theatre.
It could have been translated into an American series but American TV comedy nowadays tends not to be ironic or satirical. There is a wish to make it homey and cozy. When I was talking to a network about turning it into an American series, I was asked if I could put a kid into it - or failing that, a dog. I decided that life is too short.
Q 10 - I still review your books for my government job. They are more instructional than many of my graduate school classes. How and where did you learn the secrets of the civil service, e.g. the 4 word trick, creative inertia, the 4 stage strategy on a foreign crisis, the 5 standard excuses of the Civil Service, etc.?
A 10 - I think we made them up.