When writer-director Jonathan Lynn co-created the British comedies "Yes, Minister" and "Yes, Prime Minister" in the 1980s, his intent was to parody and mock the politicans who ran the government of the United Kingdom. What he did not expect was that Margaret Thatcher, the prime minister herself, would come out as one of the latter show's biggest fans.
Thatcher, who died Monday at age 87, was politically very divisive in England during her tenure as prime minister from 1979 to 1990. But though Lynn held political viewpoints opposed to Thatcher's, his co-creator, Antony Jay, was a fan of Thatcher's. Regardless, Lynn tried hard to keep the politics out of the series, which was a satire of people and their relationship with power.
So he says he was "flabbergasted" when he discovered that Thatcher herself was using her political power to obtain master tapes of "Yes, Prime Minister" from the BBC to watch soon after it premiered.
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"The first time her office rang, the producer said she couldn’t have it because the tapes were on loan to someone else," Lynn recalled. "They demanded to know who. It was the queen."
After Thatcher went public with her praise of the show, telling the Daily Telegraph, "its clearly-observed portrayal of what goes on in the corridors of power has given me hours of pure joy," Lynn admitted to having mixed feelings. On the one hand, being well known as the prime minister's favorite show was great publicity, but he worried that people would begin to view the show as a "conservative" show, despite his efforts to remain politically neutral.
"We started getting praise from so many politicians, it made me feel uneasy," Lynn said. "What were we doing wrong? We were satirizing the system, but it turned out the program wasn’t about politcs, it was about government. It was about bureaucracy and how it stifles the political will."
Soon after, Lynn began getting invitations to attend parties and dinners at 10 Downing St., where he briefly met Thatcher.
"She didn't have a lot to say to me," Lynn says. "It became clear what she was doing was, in fact, she did not have a very significant sense of humor.... She recognized the power of humor and popular entertainment, and she co-opted their popularity, to make it clear how much she liked the show, so the public would like her."
Despite her fandom, Lynn's relationship with Thatcher was always at arm's length, but that ended completely the night the show was given an award by the National Viewers and Listeners Assn., a conservative group. Thatcher herself wanted to present the award and even acted in a sketch with the show's stars, Paul Eddington and Nigel Hawthorne, during the ceremony. After the sketch, which Lynn describes as "appalling," Lynn received the award and said, "Thank you, Mrs. Thatcher, for taking your rightful place in the field of situation comedy." As Lynn describes it, "It got an enormous laugh from everyone but Mrs. Thatcher. That was the last time I was invited back."
Still, the frostiness between Lynn and Thatcher did not hurt the show's popularity, which has been airing in Britain in reruns almost continuously since it went off the air in 1988. It was also revived in 2010 as a stage play, which was a hit in London's West End and is on its third tour of Britain. Lynn is currently preparing the play for its U.S. premiere at the Geffen Playhouse in L.A. in June.
The play version of "Yes, Prime Minister" also inspired a return to TV as well, with new episodes airing on Britain's Gold Channel in early 2013.
"It’s remained topical," Lynn says. "Nothing has really changed. Nothing much will. It’s about people and their relationship to being in power. That doesn’t change."
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