Jonathan Lynn: Why I’m bringing back Yes Minister

Last hurrah: Nigel Hawthorne, Paul Eddington and Derek Fowlds in Yes Minister - BBC
Last hurrah: Nigel Hawthorne, Paul Eddington and Derek Fowlds in Yes Minister - BBC

This should be music to the ears of millions. Jonathan Lynn, co-writer of Yes Minister and its sequel Yes, Prime Minister – among the most admired sitcoms of the 1980s – is bringing back its leading characters Jim Hacker and Humphrey Appleby for a last hurrah. But this time they’re miles from Whitehall.

As can be revealed here, in September the Barn Theatre in Cirencester will premiere I’m Sorry, Prime Minister, I Can’t Quite Remember, a play that imagines how the former PM and erstwhile Cabinet Secretary are faring in their old age and in the “woke” era. Not so brilliantly, we learn.

The last time the duo re-materialised following the TV series’ end in 1988 was in the 2010 stand-alone play (also called Yes, Prime Minister) that premiered at Chichester, stormed the West End and sparked a TV revival. Back then, Hacker was clinging to power, facing the aftermath of the financial crisis, with Sir Humphrey on hand as ever to stymy initiatives with circumlocutory politesse. David Haig and Henry Goodman took on the roles created on screen by the much-loved Paul Eddington and Nigel Hawthorne.

This time round, with casting still to be confirmed, and Lynn, 80, himself directing, Hacker’s fiefdom is an Oxford college, named after him but due to see him ousted as its Master after one too many gaffes. He has declared himself in favour of keeping the Cecil Rhodes statue at Oriel College and opined that the British did more good than harm in India. Tended to by Sophie, his care worker, a thirtysomething black woman who once studied English at the college, he calls in Humphrey from his retirement home to save him from cancellation.

A provocative evening surely lies in store, then? “I don’t know if it will be provocative. I do think it will be funny,” Lynn says on a Zoom call from his book-lined study in New York. He part-relocated to the US after the series that made his name ended to pursue a film-making career – his credits include My Cousin Vinny with Joe Pesci.

'Aren't we all disillusioned with the BBC?': Jonathan Lynn - Geraint Lewis/Shutterstock
'Aren't we all disillusioned with the BBC?': Jonathan Lynn - Geraint Lewis/Shutterstock

He tells me he began toying with the idea of a “final chapter” in 2018 – two years after the death of Antony Jay, his series’ writing partner. Was there any concern it might be best to let sleeping sitcoms lie? There was a backlash in February when John Cleese revealed he was rebooting Fawlty Towers, with fans arguing it would tarnish the show’s legacy.

Lynn says the new leads won’t aim to replicate the originating pair: “Paul and Nigel were superb but that doesn’t mean the characters can’t be played another way.” Jay would give it his blessing, he reckons: “I can’t envisage all his thoughts but I don’t think he would object to anything in the play.” Contrary to the received wisdom that he wrote Hacker’s lines and Jay wrote Appleby’s, he stresses: “We wrote everything together. For example, I wrote Humphrey’s first long speech in the first episode.”

It’s hard to imagine a world in which Yes Minister didn’t exist – without it too, it’s unlikely we’d have had Armando Iannucci’s The Thick of It. Whether the BBC would commission it today, though, is a moot point. “Would it be made today? I think probably not,” Lynn says. “The BBC is too frightened and under too much pressure from the Government. Do I feel disillusioned with the BBC as a place to do this kind of work? I suppose I do but aren’t we all disillusioned with the BBC?”

Theatres like the Barn, can offer a vital platform amid a climate of televisual caution. The bottom line, he says, is that there seemed to be more to say and he wanted to put it out there. “It seemed an interesting subject,” says Lynn. “Powerful people in their old age, who have been put in the dustbin of history but are still around. As well as being funny, it’s also going to be elegiac. I can address their sense of loss, and how they can’t understand the world.”

Given the culture wars, is he afraid that something in the play might get him “cancelled”? Some might argue, for instance, that he’s not qualified to write a black female (lesbian) character. That line of attack gets rebuffed: “It’s absurd to say that you can only write about people you know or the people you are. That would preclude most of the history of drama. When I wrote Nuns on the Run, I wasn’t a nun and I’d never been on the run!”

Such flippancy aside, Lynn expresses a sincere interest in exploring the characters’ contrasting views. His broad assessment of the state of play, in terms of campus politics and beyond, is that “we should maintain free speech above all else – I’m against censorship”, but that nuance is key. A propos trigger warnings, alluded to in the play, for instance, he says: “Yes, students are fragile in a way they didn’t used to be, but on the other hand, there’s no reason you shouldn’t warn students about offensive material.”

His zeitgeisty offering bears an olive branch. “It’s about whether you can be friends with people who don’t agree with you,” he explains. “That was my relationship with Tony [Jay] – we were very good friends, though we didn’t agree about a lot.”
Indeed, while Lynn has described himself as “left-leaning”, Jay was a paid-up Conservative during the Thatcher years – writing speeches for Geoffrey Howe and Nigel Lawson among others and relishing the fact that Mrs Thatcher was an ardent fan of the series. “Tony considered it a huge help because he was part of that world, whereas I considered it a hindrance, I didn’t want people to think, ‘This is a Tory show’.”

Yes Minister appeared like a sunburst amid the politically stormy February of 1980 (having been scripted during the tail-end of the Callaghan years). “It had none of the ingredients of a successful TV show – three middle-aged men [factoring in Derek Fowlds as Principal Private Secretary Bernard Woolley] sitting around talking about government,” says Lynn. “It was about the relation between politicians and the civil service. No action, no sex, virtually no women. We thought we’d be attacked on all sides of the political spectrum, but the opposite happened.”

Yes Minister creators Jonathan Lynn and Antony Jay in 1986 - United News/Popperfoto
Yes Minister creators Jonathan Lynn and Antony Jay in 1986 - United News/Popperfoto

Power-players queued up to be wined, dined and leak (off the record) for Britain – “Politicians thrive on indiscretion, and the higher up you go the more indiscreet they are.” He attributes, for example the 1984 Christmas special’s depiction of the dementing carry-on involving the ministerial signing of festive cards to the late Nigel Lawson (“These you sign Jim. These you sign Jim Hacker. These, Jim and Annie. These are Annie and Jim Hacker…”). Allied to the trickle of inside information, they never insulted viewers’ intelligence: “I’ve always gone on the assumption they would get the smart jokes, and they did, always.”

What was the series’ legacy? “I think the change that it made was that people and politicians now distrust the civil service in a way they didn’t used to. In the old days, people imagined it was men with bowler hats sitting around drinking cups of tea. Our series revealed that they are the people who mostly run the country.”

Compared to the Thatcher years, today’s Tory Government looks like a kid’s playground, what with three PMs in one year. Is politics now beyond satire? He mulls it over, mind whirring. “Comedy is drama heightened to get laughs so you could always heighten it. You could have six prime ministers, I suppose, not three. It would be ridiculous, but it’s not impossible.”

'I’m Sorry, Prime Minister, I Can’t Quite Remember' runs at the Barn Theatre, Cirencester from Sept 25 to Nov 4. Tickets: 01285 648255;