Jonathan Lynn tries to stay ahead of polly follies, writes Daniel Ziffer.
POLITICALLY, we could barely live in more amazing times.
The euro zone is in crisis, the US may elect a man who proposed an open marriage to the second of his three wives, and our Prime Minister knifed her predecessor and requires the support of a Green party whose most ardent supporters live in densely concreted inner-city areas.
You couldn’t make it up if you tried, and Jonathan Lynn has been trying for more than 30 years.
The co-creator of comedy Yes, Minister (later Yes, Prime Minister) lampooned the quirks of politics in his lauded television series and has now brought his most famous characters to the stage.
The show’s name sums up the joke. While Prime Minister Jim Hacker is assisted by his cabinet secretary Sir Humphrey Appleby and principal private secretary Bernard Woolley, the power and the permanence of the public service outweigh the whims of elected officials. The show’s title has become shorthand for the inability of politicians to defeat the inertia of the bureaucracy.
”Permanence is power,” Lynn said yesterday. ”Sir Humphrey could be fired by the Prime Minister, but what’s going to happen? A new, very similar, person is going to be taking his place.”
The TV and radio series he wrote with Antony Jay have a surprising following among public servants, which Lynn suggests is due to the flattering nature of displaying their power.
”These people we mercilessly attack in our work … love us,” he said.
However, that warmth does not extend to political operatives, whose hapless aims and desires were often quashed in the popular 1980s series.
”You have a little class of people who’ve never done anything else,” he said. ”They start work for the party as some low level and, when enough people like them, they get a seat and stand [for election]. Then they get a seat they can win. Then they get a cabinet post … and they have little experience of life outside the political cocoon.”
The plot of Yes, Prime Minister concerns the imminent collapse of the euro – one of many frighteningly prescient predictions the pair have concocted over the years.
”We’re not clever in any way,” Lynn demurred. ”It’s just that real politicians are busy responding to today’s stories in The Age or on the TV news, there’s no long-term thinking. Also, they don’t much care about what will be going on in a few years’ time: what’s going on in a few years’ time will probably be someone else’s problem!”
Lynn lives in Los Angeles and has directed films including My Cousin Vinny, Sgt Bilko and The Whole Nine Yards with stars such as Bruce Willis, Eddie Murphy and Steve Martin. Heading up a $42 million film is the closest he’s come to running a department with hundreds of people, the topic his most famous work satirises.
”It comes under the category of ‘other people’s money’,” he said. ”You worry about it roughly as much as politicians and civil servants worry about ‘other people’s money’,” he said.
As we approach the end of our time, Melbourne Life asks a standard journalistic closer: ”Is there anything else you’d like to say?”
The questioner hopes it will prompt interviewees to spit out something impertinent – ”I’m Charlize Theron’s new boyfriend” or ”I have a secret plan to fight inflation” – but Lynn is genuinely stumped, the opposite of the ”on message” politicians his work whips. ”It’s a good question. Except that I don’t have an agenda,” he said, pausing again to think. ”I only hope that people enjoy the play.”
Yes, Prime Minister is at the Comedy Theatre from January 31.