The Prime Minister, the scheming Cabinet Secretary and the morally confused Principal Private Secretary have taken over the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles now through July 14. Following an acclaimed West End run in London, Yes Prime Minister tackles the collapsing Euro, tries to resolve the energy crisis and attempts to solve the debt crisis…all in just over two hours! Michael McKean (Family Tree, Batman: The Dark Knight, This is Spinal Tap) stars as Jim Hacker with Dakin Matthews (Lincoln, True Grit, Desperate Housewives) as Sir Humphrey Appleby and Jefferson Mays as Bernard Woolley.
It was February of 1980 that Jonathan Lynn and Antony Jay sat down and created one of the most brilliant British situation comedy that has ever been produced. One that is still eerily timely some 30+ years later. Tellyspotting had the opportunity recently to sit down with Yes Minister/Yes Prime Minister co-creator, Jonathan Lynn in conjunction with the release of his book, Comedy Rules: From the Cambridge Footlights to Yes Prime Minister. What a treat.
Tellyspotting: When it came to the original Yes Minister and Yes Prime Minister series and now, 30+ years later, the ‘updated’ Yes Prime Minister, can you briefly describe your personal writing style as these series were developed. How did the collaboration between you and writing partner, Antony Jay, play out? What is your best writing ‘environment’?
Jonathan Lynn: Personal writing style? That is a question for critics, I think. Our collaboration remains exactly the same as it was. When we sat down to write the play Yes Prime Minister, 23 years had elapsed since we last worked together but it felt like 23 days. My best writing environment varies according to the stage the work is at: the the start I need peace and quiet and long periods without interruption. As it get s closer to finishing, it makes no difference where I am. I like listening to classical music while I write – I play it loud and it envelopes me, shutting out distractions.
Tellyspotting: A key British comedy theme seems to be social entrapment. What is it about an audience that can warm up to a Basil Fawlty or Edmund Blackadder character and feel empathy for them even though they are fairly difficult to ‘like’?
Jonathan Lynn: Recognition. I write about it a lot in my book. That’s why people laugh. I don’t know that people do feel empathy for Blackadder or Basil Fawlty, though some may. Empathy is not essential for comedy, it is essential for tragedy. Comedy is criticism. As for social entrapment, almost all situation comedies take place within some institution, some place where certain understood rules apply.
Tellyspotting: On the surface, British comedy, more so than many of their American counterparts seem to play out like Woody Allen movie from a casting standpoint. Within the context of both YM and YPM, you had a brilliant lead in Paul Eddington, but one of the obvious strengths was the ensemble cast with Nigel Hawthorne and Derek Fowlds. Can you comment briefly on what each brought to the table to contribute to the success of both series.
Jonathan Lynn: Good acting.
Tellyspotting: When writing series such as YM and YPM, is it important for you as the creator/writer to develop or understand somewhat of a back story as to the characters to be able to give the actors either a sociological or psychological understanding of their character beyond what is physically written in the script?
Jonathan Lynn: Yes, although that may be more intuitive than actual. But they must be placed in a context that is believable for the audience. On the other hand, in writing a series it is important not to create too much of a back story, or you limit future story possibilities. Always keep options open.
Tellyspotting: The on-going thought regarding both YM and YPM has always been that both series were just as relevant today as they were when written, which is a wonderful tribute to the writing. With the newest incarnation of Yes Prime Minister, you actually get the chance to have this play out in the 21st century world of British politics. In developing the current series, did it virtually write itself with how things have been playing out in the papers every day? Can you talk briefly about the newest incarnation of Yes Prime Minister?
Jonathan Lynn: I’d really rather you watched it. No, nothing virtually writes itself. You always start with the famous blank sheet of paper and the literally infinite number of decisions and hoices that you can make for stories and for each character. This new series is, in fact, a serial: it takes place in one weekend (most of it in one day and night. W wanted to show that the Prime Minister doesn’t handle each crisis in a vacuum but in the midst of five or six other crises, some of which look trivial at first but all of which can turn unexpectedly ugly. We wrote about the financial crisis in the Eurozone, coalition government, Scottish independence, the revolving door, the huge debt crisis, the influence of oil-rich countries,the BBC, global warming and questioned if there is a difference between personal and public morality. But our real subject, as always, was hypocrisy. And the difference between what the public thinks is going on and what is being kept from them.
Tellyspotting: In your book, Comedy Rules: From the Cambridge Footlights to Yes Prime Minister, the audience plays an very important role in the success ratio of a comedy. How involved were you (and are you) with your work once it is written and gets to the rehearsal stage leading up to taping? Was there give and take with actors, producers, etc. with respect to lines here and there?
Jonathan Lynn: I was the co-director and producer. I was 100% involved with everything. Tony, who is somewhat older than me and has health issues, came to the read-through and first rehearsal every week, and the dress rehearsal and performance. There was some give and take with regard to lines: essentially the actors would sometimes point out that something they were saying could be clarified in a particular way and I would sometimes agree to change it. It was a fairly collaborative atmosphere, I think.
Tellyspotting: Given your career has included being a producer, director and actor, did that help you in any way when writing having been in virtually all other aspects of the production process?
Jonathan Lynn: I think it helps a lot. Many playwrights started out as actors: Pinter, Osborne, Peter Nicholls, Alan Ayckbourne (sp?). Not to mention Shakespeare. Being an actor teaches you useful theatrical tricks: a good entrance, a good exit, how to write speakable dialogue and so forth. So you learn playwriting techniques by osmosis. being an actor helped me to direct: I find that I seldom suggest a move to an actor that can’t be easily accomplished.
Tellyspotting: How has comedy changed (or has it) over the years since Yes Minister and Yes Prime Minister?
Jonathan Lynn: Another question for critics. Comedy is what makes an audience laugh. If they laugh, it’s funny. If they don’t laugh, it’s not funny. They may laugh at something that I, or you, personally may not find funny, but objectively that is the only test. We had 300 hundred members of the public in the audience every week, and they laughed as much as they ever did. So, from my point of view, I would say that nothing has changed. But your question addresses only the last 30 years: how has comedy changed since the time of Plautus? Or Shakespeare? Apparently not much. Audiences laugh when the recognize the truth of what they are shown. Comedy is a collective act of owning up.
Tellyspotting: What a feeling it must be to know that you’ve been a part of something such as YM and YPM that has made millions laugh (AND THINK) over the years. Can you put that feeling into words?
Jonathan Lynn: Only with what you might think of as British understatement: I’m pleased.
FYI, Lynn’s #1 rule from Comedy Rules from the Cambridge Footlights to Yes Prime Minister, his must-read book for any budding comedy writer? There are exceptions to every rule in this book….except this one, of course.