Yes Minister Questions & Answers
Q & A is produced in co-operation with the Yes (Prime) Minister
files website, where visitors have been able to submit questions
to Jonathan Lynn.
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 it's 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.,
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 it's 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
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
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
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.