Topicality is an illusion

Actor, director, writer, producer Jonathan Lynn is one of those Brits who thinks he can do almost anything in the entertainment business. And, in more than 40 years, he’s pretty much done it all, successfully.

After his days at Cambridge (MA in law) with John Cleese and Graham Chapman of Monty Python fame, Lynn became an actor and writer for stage and screen.  Later, he added director and producer to his credits.

To me, his most notable achievement was, with Antony Jay, creating and scripting 22 episodes of Yes Minister and 16 of Yes Prime Minister.  Starring Paul Eddington and Nigel Hawthorne, these have been a personal favorite, watched repeatedly.

The show gained enthusiastic fans and it was claimed to be Margaret Thatcher’ favorite TV series. Lynn was asked about why it holds up so well. He responded:

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.

Lynn answered another question about how the TV series portrayed government:

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.

Categories: International

2 replies »

  1. Sir Humphrey: There are four words you have to work into a document if you want a minister to accept it… 'Jumbo' : 'Quick' , 'simple', 'popular', 'cheap'.

    And equally there are four words to be included in the proposal if you want it thrown out…
    'Complicated', 'lengthy', 'expensive', 'controversial'.

    And if you really want to make sure the minister doesn't accept it, you must say the decision is 'courageous'.

    'Controversial' only means it'll lose you a few votes. 'Courageous' means it'll lose you the election.


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