The writer Armando Iannucci once compared the influence of the television sitcom Yes Minister to Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four in shaping how we view the inner workings of the state. Yes Minister, and its sequel, Yes, Prime Minister, have become classics. Like Orwell, they have been imitated around the world.
Only 38 episodes were made of Yes Minister and Yes, Prime Minister, running from 1980 to 1988. But the two central characters — the hapless politician Jim Hacker and his Machiavellian chief civil servant Sir Humphrey, bound together like Jeeves and Wooster — are firmly entrenched in our culture and also manage to tell us something of who and what we are as a society. Now, more than 20 years since they disappeared from the TV screen, they’re back with us, this time in a new stage version which opened in September to mostly great reviews. “It’s a wonderful show that taps into all our current scepticism about those who presume to lead us,” wrote Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph, “and a smash hit if ever I saw one.”
The fact that it hasn’t dated at all, even in this age of special advisers and spin doctors, is down to Antony Jay who, with Jonathan Lynn, created the show for the BBC. What distinguishes the original Yes Minister from its brash, rowdy modern counterpart The Thick of It is not just its subtlety and light touch but the fact that it had to be written for what was still a large, communal TV audience. It required enormous skill. The Thick of It, by contrast, while clever, feels as if it has been written to be watched largely by the political and media class it portrays. Unlike Yes Minister, there’s a grimness to the humour which is ultimately lowering. For this reason, it will not stand the test of time in the same way. It certainly couldn’t become a stage play.
Jay, who was knighted in 1988, was at the BBC long before Yes Minister came along. Joining in 1955, he was a founding member of Tonight, the corporation’s nightly news programme, becoming editor in 1962. He wrote for the revered satire series That Was the Week That Was and The Frost Report, and in 1969 scripted the ground-breaking documentary about the monarchy, Royal Family (he returned to this territory some years later, writing the commentary for a profile of the Queen in 1992).
Along the way, he was a founder with John Cleese of the Video Arts production company (he left the BBC in 1964), a member of the Annan Committee on the future of broadcasting, and editor of the Oxford Book of Political Quotations.
It is by any standards an impressive CV. But what distinguishes Jay, along with his achievement with Yes Minister/Prime Minister, is the hugely important contribution he has made in being one of very few on the cultural landscape to talk about the bias of the BBC and the mindset of the metropolitan liberal elite from which it springs.
“My stint coincided almost exactly with Macmillan’s premiership,” he wrote in a Centre for Policy Studies booklet of his early BBC days, “and I do not think my ex-colleagues would quibble if I said we were not exactly diehard supporters. But we were not just anti-Macmillan; we were anti-industry, anti-capitalism, anti-advertising, anti-selling, anti-profit, anti-patriotism, anti-monarchy, anti-Empire, anti-police, anti-armed forces, anti-bomb, anti-authority. Almost anything that made the world a freer, safer and more prosperous place, you name it, we were anti it…It was (and is) essentially, though not exclusively, a graduate phenomenon. From time to time it finds an issue that strikes a chord with the broad mass of the nation, but in most respects it is wildly unrepresentative of national opinion.” This “media liberalism”, he added, has accelerated and intensified in the decades since he ceased being a BBC employee.
Jay did not stop at such analysis, but went on to produce a possible blueprint for the future of the corporation. In How to Save the BBC, published by the Centre for Policy Studies in 2008, he suggested that the days of the licence fee were over, but that the BBC, as a great contributor to the nation, was worth preserving in a different form. He recommended that the corporation should be limited to just one national TV channel and one national radio station. They would together produce the type of programming which wouldn’t get made on the commercial channels. This restructured BBC would be self-funding.
Many inside as well as outside the media have become convinced by this argument. What was important about his intervention in the debate about the BBC is that it came not from the pen of a Daily Mail leader-writer or a Conservative backbench MP but from one of our most skilled writers, an important figure from what have now become known as the “creative industries”. If only there were more like him.