The quiet revolutionary who turned Sir Humphrey into TV gold: Yes Minister genius Antony Jay, who has died aged 86, loved nothing more than pricking the pomposity of politicians with his deadly wit
The death of Sir Antony Jay robs us of the man who wrote the matchless Eighties political comedy series Yes, Minister
There are several Jays near the top of British public life and Sir Antony Jay was sometimes mistaken for one or the other.
You would hear it asserted, confidently, that the reason Yes, Minister — which Antony co-wrote — was such a success was that this Jay fellow was an insider. He knew Whitehall well. He had been in The System.
No he hadn’t. That would have been Labour politician Douglas Jay, or his diplomat son Peter Jay who went on to become Robert Maxwell’s bag-carrier, or Peter’s ex-wife Margaret, daughter of Jim Callaghan and later Leader of the House of Lords.
Those Jays were Establishment boobies, off-the-peg careerists, snooty appeasers of Group Think and little brushed by humour. Antony Jay was a far cry from such creatures.
Antony was never a stooge of officialdom or child of privilege. He spent his long career as a reporter and writer. His considerable merits were those of an authority-tweaking, bureaucrat-baiting journalist, piercing the blame-dodging inadequates who presume to run our lives. He stood up for the little man, the put-upon voter, the taken-for-granteds of Middle England. He was one of us.
Jay’s own earnings from the original 38 episodes of Yes, Minister were surprisingly slight. Picture shows: Paul Eddington as Jim Hacker, Nigel Hawthorne as Sir Humphrey and Derek Fowlds as Bernard
His death on Tuesday, aged 86, robs us of the man who — with Jonathan Lynn — wrote the matchless Eighties political comedy series Yes, Minister and its successor Yes, Prime Minister. Gosh, they were good. Still are. Timeless.
In Sir Humphrey Appleby, played by Nigel Hawthorne, they created the consummate Whitehall manipulator, ostensibly so humble; with Jim Hacker, played by Paul Eddington, they nailed the aimlessly ambitious politician. But Jay had other achievements to his name, too. He edited one of the top TV programmes in the country.
He was a self-made millionaire, a political theorist, a devoted family man (he had four children with Rosemary, his wife of 59 years), a Eurosceptic, both a satirist of vacuous politicians and a patriotic defender of the House of Windsor.
And he was one of the few people prepared to say that Nimbys (people who tried to stop ugly development of their villages) were a good thing.
Jay also became a sharp critic of the BBC, for which he had long worked. Perhaps that is why his death seemed to attract rather less coverage on the Beeb’s airwaves than you might have expected for a man who had earned the Corporation so much money over the years.
In Sir Humphrey Appleby, played by Nigel Hawthorne, centre, Jay created the consummate Whitehall manipulator, ostensibly so humble
Jay’s own earnings from the original 38 episodes of Yes, Minister were surprisingly slight. He and Lynn were paid a measly £1,200 per programme between them — for a show that would go on to be sold around the world and became the favourite viewing of such disparate political leaders as Margaret Thatcher and Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe.
Perhaps those mean scriptwriting fees were one reason Jay became so indignant about the telephone-number salaries paid to modern BBC executives and today’s creative ‘talent’.
Antony Jay was of threadbare middle-class stock. His parents were minor actors — his father appeared in British films in the Thirties and Forties — and they only managed to send their son to St Paul’s public school in London, thanks to a scholarship.
Antony also won a scholarship to Magdalene College, Cambridge. To bag a classics scholarship in those days was no mean feat. In a world still blighted by the old-boys’ network, he rose on merit and took a First in 1952.
Antony Jay was of threadbare middle-class stock. His parents were minor actors — his father appeared in British films in the Thirties and Forties
After university, where his contemporaries included future Tory Cabinet ministers Cecil Parkinson, Douglas Hurd and John Biffen, he did National Service (2nd Lieutenant in the Royal Signals) before joining the BBC in 1955 as a trainee.
At the Beeb, he was sent to work on Tonight, a then new, nightly current affairs programme presented by Cliff Michelmore. The show went out live and there were often last-minute crises when guests had become stuck in traffic or a film-clip failed to work properly or whatever.
Jay soon saw how, when things go wrong, blame is swiftly and unfairly distributed. It is not without reason that one of the sayings at the BBC, after a cock-up, is: ‘Deputy heads will roll.’
He worked his way up to become editor of Tonight from 1962-63 — a rich time not just for hard news (the Cuba Missile Crisis, the dwindling of the Macmillan Government, the death of U.S. President Kennedy) but also for social change. Britain was becoming less deferential, though it still had some way to go before the open rebellions of the hippie era.
Antony was never a stooge of officialdom or child of privilege. He spent his long career as a reporter and writer
At that point, the younger generation still had to use a certain guile. It was not enough simply to wear your hair long and be outrageous. You had to know something and use your brain.
Jay was one of the last of the generation of late Fifties/early Sixties television pioneers who made BBC current affairs coverage briskly watchable, taking it away from the carpet-grovelling of earlier years towards a more democratic curiosity.
Out went the: ‘Well, minister, what would you like to tell us today?’ approach and in came something a little less awed, though still respectful. Jay was never a rabble-rouser. His iconoclasm was more subtle.
He was one of those quiet revolutionaries who wore corduroy trousers, liked cricket and bridge, and was happier murmuring passages of Virgil’s Aeneid than taking to Twitter to make some coarse gag about the latest political scandal.
With Jim Hacker, played by Paul Eddington, Jay nailed the aimlessly ambitious politician
At this time, he was also contributing sketches to the satirical show That Was The Week That Was, where he encountered the likes of David Frost, Ronnie Barker and John Cleese. He collaborated with Frost on further programmes in the later Sixties.
His expertise with video technology served him well in the early Seventies when he, Cleese and a couple of other entrepreneurial souls set up Video Arts, a company making training films. They successfully used mildly subversive humour to put across serious points.
When Video Arts was sold in the late Eighties, the founding partners were said to have made £10 million each — a rather better rate of reward than those early episodes of Yes, Minister.
Already, Jay had strong opinions about bureaucracy. His series of books, including Corporation Man, Management And Machiavelli and The Householder’s Guide To Community Defence Against Bureaucratic Aggression, give us a flavour of what he felt about corporate jobsworths.
It was this impatience with systemic inertia that gave Yes, Minister its backbone. There was a quiet, simmering anger in many of those episodes.
Office empire-building as seen in the show was ‘a response to a basic human need’ for power, more staff, bigger budgets, control
‘I realised the folly, waste and destructive nature of bureaucracy,’ he later wrote. ‘The higher up decisions are made, the worse they are likely to be. The higher up money is spent, the more likely it is to be wasted.’
Jay was alighting on imperishable truths founded on human nature. Office empire-building was ‘a response to a basic human need’ for power, more staff, bigger budgets, control.
In the Civil Service this led to ‘a vast proliferation of tribunals, inspectorates, regulatory authorities, quangos and councils, consultants, advisory committees, czars, action groups and task forces, printing millions of questionnaires, guidance notes, instructions, licences, tick boxes and leaflets that, between them, have created the bureaucratic nightmare of 21st-century Britain’.
Who can read such a passage and not cheer? I’ll tell you who. Sir Humphrey. And, of course, the top civil servants were sleek and clever enough to see that, after being skewered by Jay and Lynn in Yes, Minister, they had to change.
THE CLASSIC LINES WE’LL NEVER FORGET
Jim Hacker, after the Home Secretary is arrested for drink-driving causing a nuclear waste lorry to crash: ‘He’ll have to resign.’
Sir Humphrey: ‘Alas, yes.’
Hacker: ‘What on earth will happen to him?’
Sir Humphrey: ‘Well, I gather he was as drunk as a lord, so after a discreet interval, they’ll probably make him one.’
Sir Humphrey: ‘Politicians like to panic, they need activity. It’s their substitute for achievement.’
Jim Hacker: ‘What’s an official reply, Bernard?’
Bernard woolley: ‘It just says ‘The Minister has asked me to thank you for your letter’, and we say something like ‘the matter is under consideration’, or even if we feel so inclined ‘under active consideration’.’
Hacker: ‘What’s the difference?’
Bernard: ‘Well, ‘under consideration’ means we’ve lost the file, ‘under active consideration’ means we’re trying to find it.’
Bernard: ‘It used to be said there were two kinds of chairs to go with two kinds of Ministers: one sort that folds up instantly, the other sort goes round and round in circles.’
Animal rights activist: ‘There is nothing special about man, Mr Hacker. We’re not above nature. We’re all part of it. Men are animals, too, you know.’
Hacker: ‘I know that, I’ve just come from the House of Commons.’
Hacker: ‘Who else is in this department?’
Sir Humphrey: ‘Briefly, I am the Permanent Under Secretary of State, known as the Permanent Secretary. Bernard is your Principal Private Secretary, I have a Principal Private Secretary and he is the Principal Private Secretary to the Permanent Secretary. Directly responsible to me are ten Deputy Secretaries, 87 Under Secretaries and 219 Assistant Secretaries. Directly responsible to the Principal Private Secretary are plain Private Secretaries, and the Prime Minister will appoint two Parliamentary Under Secretaries and you will be appointing your own Parliamentary Private Secretary.’
Hacker: ‘Do they all type?’
Sir Humphrey: ‘No. Mrs McKylie types. She’s the secretary.’
Hacker: ‘The Mirror is read by people who think they run the country; the Guardian is read by people who think they ought to run the country; The Times is read by the people who do run the country; the Daily Mail is read by the wives of the people who run the country; the Financial Times is read by people who own the country; the Morning Star is read by people who think the country ought to be run by another country, and the Daily Telegraph is read by people who think it is.’
Sir Humphrey: ‘What about The Sun?’
Bernard: ‘Sun readers don’t care who runs the country, as long as she’s got big t**s.’
Hacker: ‘Honesty always gives you the advantage of surprise in the Commons.’
Bernard explains abbreviations for various Foreign Office honours: ‘Of course, in the service, CMG stands for Call Me God. And KCMG for Kindly Call Me God.’
Hacker: ‘What about GCMG?’
Bernard: ‘God Calls Me God.’
And so they became a little less posh, a little more managerial. They also became, I think, more venal and sinister.
Today’s Whitehall mandarins, not least Cabinet Secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood (creepy ‘Sir Cover-Up’) are less comical and silken than Sir Humphrey. The politicians are still just as gormless, mind you.
Having watched the excesses of the New Labour years and the Coalition, Jay remarked that he could not have made them up.
He became exasperated by the lameness of modern parliamentary oratory and PR speak (phrases such as ‘excellence for all’ and ‘unity in diversity’ had him groaning into his tidy beard). He was seldom saltier than when penning fiery denunciations of the sort of bland letters despatched by officialdom to complaining members of the public.
His advice to people writing to obstructive officials included: ‘Always write to the top, so they can’t blame the minions; accuse them of favouritism, because that looks bad on their record; make sure your letter can never be answered with a simple yes or no; and write to Buckingham Palace — letters passed on from the Queen scare officials.’
Today’s Whitehall mandarins, not least Cabinet Secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood (creepy ‘Sir Cover-Up’) are less comical and silken than Sir Humphrey
Jay’s last effort was a short Yes, Minister skit after the Brexit result. In this, he toyed with the deliciousness of Boris Johnson, David Davis and Liam Fox all having to share the grace-and-favour country house Chevening.
He himself was opposed to the EU but he never let his personal politics (he was a Thatcherite of sorts) stop him seeing opportunities for comical absurdity.
From his long and productive retirement in Somerset, which included co-writing a stage version of Yes, Minister, Jay recalled that in his youth he had been a ‘card-carrying media liberal’. Was he ever a Leftie? I’m not sure. I suspect he was simply ‘liberal’ in the sense of seeking freedom for the people.
In the Sixties, he and David Frost and Co mocked the post-war Establishment with its clipped accents and spongebag trousers and prudishness.
In those days it was regarded as rather daring and groovy to attack the Establishment. That is what Antony Jay continued to do throughout his life.
As the years passed, the Left-wingers became the Establishment and assumed the secretive, bureaucratic, hypocritial ways of their Macmillanite predecessors.
Jay found them, as he found all in shadowy authority, an irresistible target. We should salute a great warrior in words and we must make sure someone takes up his sword and continues his invaluable work.