Editor’s Note: Jonathan Lynn co-wrote, with Antony Jay, the award-winning political satires “Yes, Minister” and “Yes, Prime Minister,” both of which ran on BBC TV in the 1980s. The shows were adapted into a stage play in 2010 and performed on the West End in London. The play, “Yes, Prime Minister,” has its U.S. premiere at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles in June.
Margaret Thatcher said Jonathan Lynn's co-written BBC hit "Yes, Minister" was her favorite show
Jonathan Lynn: MPs crowded into House of Commons bars to watch themselves satirized
When she was losing favor, he says, Thatcher "wrote" a sketch and starred as herself
Lynn: Really written by a press secretary, it was a PR move to make people like her more
The first time I met Margaret Thatcher, she was already a fan of mine, or so she said. With my co-writer Antony Jay, I had created and written the first seven episodes of “Yes, Minister,” a BBC TV comedy series about the British government
The first four episodes had been written during the last year of Jim Callaghan’s disastrous premiership, which led to industrial paralysis and the so-called “winter of discontent.” Practically every trade union went on strike about practically anything. The unions were running the country and, it has to be said, making a pretty bad job of it.
I had always voted Labour, but the last straw for me was when six baggage handlers at Heathrow were sacked after they were found guilty in a criminal court of stealing from passengers’ luggage. The Transport and General Workers’ Union called a national strike, claiming the thefts were “baggage handlers’ perks.” It was no surprise to me that Mrs. Thatcher won a big majority, and I was one of the many who voted for her.
The BBC, showing its usual courage, had refused to put our series on the air until the election was over, for fear that the winner would claim a lack of impartiality and reduce its funding. We were flattered that a mere comedy series could be thought to have any influence over anybody, but to our surprise, it rapidly became a massive hit when it was broadcast early in Mrs. Thatcher’s rule.
We learned that when it was on for half an hour every week, the business of the nation came to a standstill while MPs crowded into the many bars at the House of Commons to watch it. Of course, there could be no other possible reason for finding all the MPs in a bar, so that had to be it.
Politicians and editors starting writing columns about “Yes, Minister.” Tony and I were thrust blinking into the spotlight like a couple of anxious moles, pleased that people liked our show but with mixed feelings about celebrity.
Fortunately, the celebrity interest focused on the actors because people, in spite of all the evidence to the contrary, seem to persist in the belief that actors make it all up as they go along. This put a frightful burden on Paul Eddington and Nigel Hawthorne, the stars of the show, to be tremendously witty and erudite every time they went on a chat show.
Referring to our show, Mrs. Thatcher was quoted, “Its closely observed portrayal of what goes on in the corridors of power has given me hours of pure joy.”
This was stunning. First of all, it suggested that Mrs. T had a sense of humor, something that no one had hitherto suspected. I was surprised that she had time to watch it, as she was now becoming awfully bossy and I was beginning to feel that she should reciprocate: Her government certainly wasn’t giving me hours of pure joy.
Mrs. Thatcher was changing Britain in many ways, both for better and worse. As France’s Charles de Gaulle said – not about her but about himself, of course – “a great career is bound to involve many mistakes.”
“Yes, Minister” became known as Mrs. Thatcher’s favorite TV show, and this worried me because the program was carefully neutral from a political point of view. I started telling people that Tony Benn, the leader of what was known as “the loony left,” liked it a lot, too.
My queasy feeling, as one politician after another queued up to praise us, vanished as I realized why: Politicians love to watch anything about themselves on TV, and they are only interested in politics. Also, because our program showed how the Civil Service really runs Britain – our version of checks and balances and the separation of powers – we had unintentionally given politicians an alibi. The public understood for the first time that if politicians didn’t keep their promises, it might be because they were obstructed by the Civil Service.
So when I was invited to a big party at 10 Downing Street, I was not surprised. My wife and I walked up the grand staircase and there, at the top, was the Iron Lady herself and a major domo to announce us. I muttered my name to him. “Mr. and Mrs. Jonathan Lynn,” he bellowed.
Mrs. T held out her hand. I was ready for a normal handshake but was quite taken aback by what happened next: “How do you do?” she said with that curiously fake Eliza Doolittle diction as she gripped my hand and yanked me straight past her right shoulder. I shot into the Yellow State Room, crashing into a well-known TV personality, one Terry Wogan, knocking the drink out of his hand.
As I started to apologize, my wife flew into the room and knocked into both of us. I started apologizing again. “That’s all right,” said Wogan with a grin, “That just happened to me, too.”
More guests were cannoning into the party like billiard balls. Mrs. T couldn’t help demonstrating her strength, determination and eagerness to get on with things that weren’t important.
Subsequently we were invited to dinner there a couple of times. And then came that dreadful sketch. We were to be given an award by the National Viewers and Listeners Association, run by Mary Whitehouse, the UK version of Jerry Falwell.
A scarcely believable message arrived at the BBC from Number 10, saying that Mrs. T would present the award, that she had written a sketch and wished to perform it with our actors Paul and Nigel. It transpired that the scarcely believable message was not, in fact, to be believed: The sketch was written by her press secretary, Bernard Ingham.
I learned recently that she rehearsed the sketch with Ingham and her private secretary no fewer than 23 times. Why were they not running the country instead, you might ask? Answer: She was losing popularity and, though not very amusing herself, she knew the power of humor. She was co-opting the show to make people like her more.
Ingham wasn’t a comedy writer, but as a publicist, he knew his stuff. The sketch was reported everywhere, seen on all the TV news shows and was carried live on radio. And when I was given the award, I thanked Mrs. Whitehouse and added, “I should like to thank Mrs. Thatcher for finally taking her rightful place in the world of situation comedy.”
There was a huge laugh, broadcast nationwide. The only person in the room who didn’t laugh was Mrs. T. I was never invited to Number 10 again. But soon after, the actors were given honors, the CBE. Fair enough – they made it up as they went along.
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The opinions in this commentary are solely those of Jonathan Lynn.