Jonathan Lynn is a British comedy legend. As one of the co-creators and writers of Yes Minister and Yes Prime Minister, he’s one of the very few people who can genuinly claim to have conceived a comedy classic, and the fact that he’s also got quite an acting and directing catalogue only adds to his standing. He also generously granted us time for a chat…
You had quite a background in writing sitcoms in the early parts of your career. What are your memories of that time?
I was relieved that I was finally earning a living after years of struggle as both a writer and an actor. I enjoyed writing with George Layton. It was exhilarating to hear the audience laughing at our scripts. And it was tremendously hard work to churn out scripts week in and week out: what started as a huge thrill eventually felt like drudgery.
When working on Twice A Fortnight, did you have any idea of the success that you and your colleagues [Bill Oddie, Terry Jones, Michael Palin, Graeme Garden] would go on to enjoy?
No. Though I hoped, of course. But the success I was really hoping for was as an actor.
What was it like then to be in front of the camera on a hit such as The Liver Birds? Is acting something you still cherish?I love acting. I always will, but only if the part has something interesting to play. It’s a moot point, however, as nobody asks me to act any more. I sometimes wish they would.
I haven’t acted since 1993 in my film Greedy, with Michael J Fox and Kirk Douglas. I enjoyed being in The Liver Birds, not because the part was interesting – it wasn’t! – but because Polly James and Nerys Hughes were such fun to work with and hang out with.And you also wrote for On The Buses? What was that like, and did you find it difficult to work on a show whose parameters, to an extent, had already been defined?
Yes. When Ronnie Wolfe and Ronnie Chesney started to write films of On The Buses they need writers to take over the TV show. George [Layton] and I wrote the first six of those. It was one of the hardest jobs I’ve ever done, very far from my own taste and sensibilities.
But I had a new house and a new baby, my wife was a post-graduate student, and I was grateful for the opportunity and the money. Also, for the first time ever, On The Buses got a rave review in The Times!
Given your experience across differing disciplines, were you ever tempted to move exclusively into one of writing, acting or directing?
Yes. At various times I’ve concentrated exclusively directing. I’d like to mix it up a bit more now. I’ve been writing a lot recently, for instance.
Which perhaps leads us to Yes Minister and Yes Prime Minister. Speaking personally, both were first broadcast a little before I was old enough to really appreciate them. However, we were all but ordered to watch them as part of an ‘A’ level Politics course, and it’s one of the shows that my father passed his love of down to me since that first transmission. Did you have any feeling as to just how much it would loved down the years?
None at all. I am completely amazed by it’s continued success and influence.
So does it still surprise you just how evergreen and relevant the issues of Yes Minister and Yes Prime Minister are today?In a way, just because you never think, when you’re writing something, that it’ll still seem completely relevant nearly thirty years later. It’s not something you think about at all.
Though it’s not surprising, on reflection, as the whole point of the series was that the Civil Service ensures that nothing ever really changes. And they’re still doing an excellent job!
How much of the insight into the duplicity of politicians was based on inside knowledge? Is it true that you have a couple of Government insiders helping you out?
Most of it was based on inside knowledge. We had two main sources who had worked at Number 10, and they – in turn – introduced us to many other insiders who were experts on the various topics we wrote about. We found that lunch, lubricated with a couple of bottles of good claret, made virtually all information available to us.
Everyone in Government has an axe to grind, everyone wants their point of view expressed in the media, and the higher up they get the more indiscreet they become – I’m referring to politicians, of course, not civil servants. They all leak like sieves, as long as they know they won’t be identified.
You attended University with a series of people who would go on to be high profile politicians – what did they think of the show? And have they altered your views of politicians?
I think that, like most politicians, they loved what we said about the Civil Service. Just as most Civil Servants thought we really nailed the politicians.
My views on politicians haven’t changed at all. I think that, when young, they mostly start out as well-meaning do-gooders, however misguided, but with an unfortunate and highly exaggerated sense of their own abilities. Then they have to swallow so many compromises as they climb the greasy pole that by the time they get to the pinnacle they are no longer the same people. They have been corrupted, one way or another. My view is that we should regard all politicians, and all others who wish to have power over us, with the utmost suspicion.Whose idea was it to get Gerald Scarfe involved?
It was my idea to get a political cartoonist. I had actually suggested Ralph Steadman, whom I had met and who had just published a wonderfully funny and insightful book about Freud. Sid Lotterby chose Scarfe, which was an equally good idea.
Sir Humphrey, of course, is surely one of the most iconic sitcom characters of all time: is he your fondest creation? And how did you pull your cast together?
Funnily enough, much as I love Sir Humphrey, I have a soft spot for the hapless Jim Hacker. I’m naturally on the side of the underdog. Paul Eddington and Nigel Hawthorne were our first choices – mine, Tony Jay’s and the BBC’s. It is rare that one gets one’s first choice actors, but in this case we were very lucky.
Margaret Thatcher was widely reported as a huge fan of the show: how do you feel about that?
I had mixed feelings. I was worried that people would think it was a Tory show, which it wasn’t. Of course I was pleased that she liked it – I was pleased if anyone liked it! Lots of Labour people liked it too: Roy Hattersley, Gerald Kaufman, Tony Benn, to name a few that I know about.
Do you feel that modern day mainstream television would commission a show of its nature now? The Thick Of It, for instance, was broadcast on a smaller channel and had to fight to build up its audience?
I don’t know. Probably not. Though we also started on the small channel – BBC2 – with no guarantees of repeats on BBC1, and we also had a fight to build up the audience to start with.
Would you ever be tempted to revisit the political genre on television yourself?
Not in a comedy series. I’ve done that. I like to move on.
Do you feel that dealing with politics on TV is now a choice between Newsnight and panel games?
I don’t live in Britain at the moment, so I have no idea.
You’ve gone on to work since with some of the biggest names, and – I suspect, egos in Hollywood. Is dealing with big name actors the biggest challenge for a movie director now?
It’s one of the challenges. The bigger challenge is dealing with the studios. It’s also a challenge to find the money for independent films.
The film Clue remains a firm favourite, particularly in America. How did the project come to you?
I was approached by Peter Guber when I met him in London in 1983. He owned the rights to the board game. He had heard of Yes Minister. I didn’t know it then but five previous writers had been hired for the job, including Tom Stoppard who gave up shortly before I was hired.
Peter asked me to go to LA to meet the director, John Landis. I had never been to the West Coast and never flown first class, so I was excited to go. Landis pitched me his story, which didn’t quite work. I stayed up all night in my room at the Chateau Marmont and worked out a few incomplete ideas. To my surprise, John was delighted with what I said so I became, unwittingly, the sixth writer to attempt to write film.
Later, when I delivered my script – which they all liked – John no longer wanted to make it, but he’d seen my production of a Feydeau farce at the NT and asked me if I’d like to direct the film myself. Of course I said yes.
It was not the script I would have chosen as my first film, because it was written with Landis in mind. But it was an opportunity few people would turn down, and I didn’t.
Are you familiar with the Clue drinking game, and could we beat you at the Cluedo board game?
No and easily.
What do you remember about your work on the Ferris Bueller TV series? Were you a fan of the film?
I loved the film. I remember thinking that it would be impossible to capture the spirit of it in the series. I didn’t remember, until years later, that – in the pilot I directed – Ferris’s sister was played by a teenager called Jennifer Aniston. The only other thing I remember about it is now that we had an eight day shoot, seven days of which were exteriors. There was torrential rain for the entire shoot. I was very proud of the fact that we even pulled off a scene on the beach without the viewer realising the appalling weather conditions. I was asked to work on the ensuing series, but I didn’t really believe in it so I declined.
My Cousin Vinny – a very, very funny film – was a sleeper hit, and – of course – led to Marisa Tomei’s surprise Oscar win at the time. Again though, that was a super cast you put together, and strong casting underpins many of your projects. So two questions: were you surprised by her Oscar win, and do you get a strong feel from your cast list for when you’ve put together a strong comedy?
Every success I’ve ever had has been a surprise to me. Every failure too. You never know how people will react to any show. If we did know, we’d only ever make smash hits.
But I can honestly say that I was not wholly surprised by her Oscar win; absolutely everyone I spoke to that year asked me who that wonderful actress was, so I thought she’d be nominated. The studio had no such faith, and refused to help in any way. But then, they hadn’t wanted me to cast her.
Were you ever tempted by the rumoured sequel to My Cousin Vinny?
The Distinguished Gentleman caught Eddie Murphy as his career was getting its second wind, and also snuck politics into a mainstream Hollywood comedy. How was Eddie Murphy to work with, and was it the politics that drew you to the project?
It was the unlikely combination of Eddie Murphy and politics that drew me to it. The script was by a Washington insider, Marty Kaplan, who had been Vice President Mondale’s speech writer.
I loved working with Eddie, whom I had admired since 48 Hours and Trading Places. He was a superbly inventive comedy actor, and a delight to work with.
What tempted you to take on the Sgt Bilko remake?
My love of the series. As you’ve already gathered, I’m not keen on sequels or remakes, and I always prefer to do something new. But when Steve Martin said he wanted to do it, I went along.
I’m a huge Steve Martin fan, and removed from the Phil Silvers original, I think Sgt Bilko easily stands up as a good, funny comedy. Were you pleased or disappointed with how it was received at the time?I was disappointed. I think there are many funny moments in it, but I did find it really hard to make a film that’s not about anything. I admire Seinfeld’s ability to make a funny series about nothing. I am more of a satirist. I need issues. That’s why I found On The Buses so hard, too.
You were dealing with special effects too in Sgt Bilko: how did you find that?
You talk to the experts. Do you mean visual effects, in fact – CGI images, matte paintings and so forth? I’ve had them in many of my films, but they’re fairly discreet.
Appreciating you say you’re not keen on sequels, was there a key reason why you didn’t do the follow up to your Bruce Willis comedy, The Whole Nine Yards?
I thought the script was no good.
And now you’re attached to two more feature films – Hunted and The Last First Time. What can you tell us about those?
The Last First Time is a screenplay written by a ridiculously talented 20-year-old actor called Jason Fuchs. He’s currently playing a leading role in a Broadway hit. I want to produce and direct it with him playing the leading role, which he wrote for himself. That might be next.
Thank you again so much for your time.
Jonathan Lynn’s own website can be found at www.jonathanlynn.com