Whenever it looks as though the reputation of politics has hit rock bottom, along comes chilling evidence to the contrary. We savour the scandals, devour the dramas and relish the resignations, but plumbing Westminster’s dastardly depths requires a special kind of smartness.
The kind that brought us... Yes, Minister. In 1980 this new, largely unheralded, TV show hit Britain’s screens. It was billed as a comedy, but it looked and sounded suspiciously like a guide to the practical art of government. Yes, Minister and its even more successful successor, Yes, Prime Minister, confirmed everything that a country digging its way out of the Winter of Discontent had come to feel about the deviousness and ineptitude of those who were supposed to be running it.
Blundering PM Jim Hacker and his slippery civil service sidekick Sir Humphrey Appleby, became bywords for the failings and follies of the power game. When the show finished its run in 1988, much of Westminster breathed a sigh of relief, but its creators – Jonathan Lynn and Sir Antony Jay – were merely watching and waiting on the sidelines. Now they are back with a new series that can only be described as timely.
‘Nothing really changes in government,’ says Lynn, slurping a coffee just a few streets from the Houses of Parliament. ‘Progress is a sham and topicality is an illusion. People go into politics thinking they can change the way it works, but it’s like wrestling a blancmange. You can do what you want to it, but it comes right back at you… just as bad as before.’
If anything has changed it is that the public’s view of politicians is even more scathing than in the Eighties. The expenses scandal, the banking crash, the exposure of cosy links between party leaders and big media organisations have brought us to a point where the numbers bothering to vote are collapsing and only 13% of people say that they believe what politicians say.
All this might be bad for democracy, but it is great for Yes, Prime Minister. Cynicism and satire are the show’s lifeblood and, where others may have despaired, the creators spotted a perfect opportunity. The new six-part series begins in January starring David Haig as Hacker and Henry Goodman as Sir Humphrey. Both appeared in the current stage adaptation of the show in London’s West End – the success of which convinced Lynn and Jay to revive the programme for the small screen.
Not that the comeback was free from complications. Paul Eddington, who played Hacker in the original series, died of cancer in 1995 and Nigel Hawthorne, who played Appleby, of a heart attack in 2001. In the minds of many viewers, these two were virtually indivisible from their characters. Would new actors ever cut the cherished sitcom mustard?
‘We thought a lot about it,’ admits Lynn, 69. ‘After Paul died we decided that was probably the end of it, partly because Nigel would never have done it without Paul. So we let it rest for a long time, and then, a few years ago, we thought, “Well, what’s to stop other people playing the parts?” Look, James Bond and Dr Who get new actors and audiences seem to accept that. So we went away and wrote the play partly to see how it would go, and it went pretty well, so it seemed a natural progression to do another TV series.’
Despite Lynn’s insistence that nothing fundamental changes in Whitehall, the political landscape of the new show is noticeably different: a Eurozone crisis is raging, economic growth has stalled, Scottish nationalists are agitating for independence, and – to his evident dismay – the misogynistic Sir Humphrey has to deal with Claire Sutton, a redoubtably smart female special adviser, played by Zoe Telford.
‘It’s a big problem for Sir Humphrey,’ admits Goodman, 62, a classically trained actor who played the lead in the BBC radio series The Way We Live Right Now. ‘He isn’t used to having women getting in the way, but at the same time he can’t look like an old civil-service dinosaur so he has to tread very carefully and watch what he says. It’s not something that comes naturally to him, and it makes the relationship between the characters rather more interesting.’
In essence, Yes, Prime Minister has always been about what paralyses government rather than what makes it work. Hacker may naively think he runs the country, but the real power lies with the serially scheming mandarins of the Appleby variety, whose priorities are to delay, obscure and, above all, not to rock the boat. As one of Hacker’s despairing allies complains in an early episode, ‘All Sir Humphrey’s motives are ulterior.’
In the Westminster of Yes, Prime Minister, politicians and civil servants are locked in an eternal dance of power. Each faction is sniffy about, but dependent on, the other. The civil servants see the ministers they serve as immoral vote-grubbers who will renege on any principle for a crumb of short-term advantage, while the politicians see the mandarins as pampered elitists, primarily concerned with collecting honours and protecting their large pensions.
Both sides speak in a kind of insider code. ‘If something is under consideration,’ explains Sir Bernard Woolley (now played by a tousled Chris Larkin), the principal private secretary to Hacker’s department, ‘it means we’ve lost the file. Under active consideration means we are looking for it.’ Hacker, as his name suggests, tries to chop through the verbiage: ‘How many people do we have in this department?’
Sir Humphrey: ‘Ummm, well, we’re very small.’
Hacker: ‘Two, maybe three thousand?’
Sir Humphrey: ‘About 23,000 to be precise.’
Hacker: ‘Twenty-three thousand! We need a time and motion study to see who we can get rid of.’
Sir Humphrey: ‘We had one of those last year. It transpired that we needed another 500 people.’
Yet since 1988, we’ve had New Labour’s partisan re-shaping of the civil service, the advent of the Alastair Campbell-type macho special adviser and sustained attempts to make Whitehall more ‘representative’ of modern Britain. We have also had new TV shows such as The Thick of It, a far rawer take on the inner workings of power. Has nothing changed?
Bewhiskered and pot-bellied, Lynn looks like an off-duty Father Christmas, but the aura of charitableness ends with his tart take on Britain’s political process. ‘The idea that things are different is largely down to media mythology,’ he says. ‘Look, in the Seventies Harold Wilson had Marcia Falkender. He wouldn’t do a thing without her say-so. Margaret Thatcher had Bernard Ingham who had a lot of influence over her, then there was the civil service wanting its say. So the idea that prime ministers had more power in the old days simply isn’t true.’
Mrs Thatcher famously professed to be a fan of the show (as did Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe), although Lynn wonders how deep such admiration really went. ‘I met Mrs Thatcher,’ he says, ‘although the show didn’t come up in the conversation. At other times she was very vocal in her enthusiasm for it, but I think it was an attempt to show that she had a sense of humour, which, frankly, I don’t think she did have. Politicians lock on to popular entertainment to make it look as if they are in touch.
‘What politicians really like are news programmes like Panorama and Newsnight, but here was a show about their trade, and the attraction of it was that it gave them an alibi by showing the public that it was really the civil service’s fault they never did what they said they were going to do.’
Lynn and his writing partner, 82-year-old Sir Antony Jay – a distinguished former documentary maker – are some distance apart both politically and geographically. Jonathan veers to the left and lives in America, while Sir Antony is an old-school Tory settled in rural Somerset.
‘It doesn’t cause us any problems,’ says Lynn. ‘In 30 years of working together we’ve never had a cross word. The show’s not about politics, it’s about government, and we’re very careful not to identify Hacker as the leader of any particular party. In fact we took great pains to present him as a centrist, whose views can’t easily be categorised.’
The two writers are united in seeing the show as more illuminating than cynical. ‘I don’t think people go into politics to be malevolent,’ says Lynn. ‘Most try to do their best, but find it’s hard to make progress against the system, and some get frustrated and eventually corrupted.
‘Ultimately it’s a serious show. All good comedy is serious. We knew what we were writing about. I grew up in a home where politics was always talked about. My father was a political junkie. We talked about politics all the time. He was a doctor, quite left wing early on but became much more conservative as he grew older. The classic progression. I’ve rather gone in the opposite direction.
‘It’s the job of the press, the media and people like Tony and me to be watchful. We did the research. When we set out we had weeks of lunches with sources – politicians, civil servants, all kinds of people who were prepared to tell us how things worked. What you find with politicians is that the higher up the greasy pole they get, the more indiscreet they become. They like to leak, partly because it gives them a way of seeing how the public might react to something.’
When Yes, Prime Minister finished its run, Lynn moved to Los Angeles, becoming a successful director. Today he lives in New York with his psychotherapist wife, Rita.
‘It’s no problem from a writing point of view,’ he says. ‘I read the English newspapers, watch BBC America, I keep in touch with what’s happening.’
To the extent that anything is happening. The new Yes, Prime Minister may have a slightly different look, but it will find itself at home in a Whitehall that is eerily familiar. ‘One line best sums us up,’ sighs Lynn: ‘Nothing is achieved’.
Yes, Prime Minister begins on Tuesday 15 January at 9.00pm on Gold
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