Having a laugh: Comic tales from the man who made fun of the men from the Ministry
COMEDY RULES: FROM THE CAMBRIDGE FOOTLIGHTS TO YES, PRIME MINISTER BY JONATHAN LYNN (Faber £14.99)
By Roger Lewis
Last updated at 6:59 PM on 25th August 2011
When it wasn’t turning out spies and traitors, Cambridge University was a hotbed of comic genius. The Cambridge Footlights Dramatic Club nurtured everyone from Peter Cook and Miriam Margolyes to Stephen Fry and Sacha Baron Cohen.
Also in the throng was Jonathan Lynn, who - with Antony Jay - was later to create Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister, a sitcom that remains as topical in 2011 as it was when first broadcast, 30 years ago.
Mrs Thatcher loved it so much she even appeared in a sketch, alongside Paul Eddington and Nigel Hawthorne. Lynn believes a quip he made in her hearing - that ‘Mrs Thatcher is taking her rightful place in the field of situation comedy’ - cost him his place in the Honours List. Antony Jay was knighted in 1988 and Eddington and Hawthorne got a matching set of CBEs.
Lynn’s Cambridge memories are fascinating. One wants more. The young John Cleese, for example, was the same as the mature John Cleese, as he had by his teens his unique persona ‘of British inhibition and repressed rage fully realised’.
His party piece was a sketch about a biblical weatherman, forecasting the Ten Plagues: ‘And moving in from the South-West: boils.’
Lynn accompanied the young Pythons on a tour of New Zealand, where they stayed in shacks smelling of ‘damp, linoleum and suet pudding’. The only food was lard.
The biggest surprise for the reader, however, is to learn that in those distant days, the biggest and brightest star was Bill Oddie, who for no particular reason always seemed ‘exceedingly angry’.
This sets Lynn off on a digression about how the roots of comedy, in his view, always involve rage and aggression. Laughter itself is an ugly spectacle: ‘We bare our teeth and emit a barking sound.’ Stand-up comics frequently say of the audience, ‘I killed them!’, ‘I slayed them!’ If the act doesn’t go well: ‘I died.’
Chief among the angry brigade - although most certainly not undergraduate material - was Leonard Rossiter, who Lynn directed in Joe Orton’s Loot. Even on a good day, Rossiter was ‘surly and hostile’. He was ‘spiky, angular, shoulders hunched and tense, determined to be faultless at everything’ - and he was hilariously funny. He died of an aneurysm, sitting in his dressing room midway through a performance.
‘I still wonder what really killed him,’ says Lynn. ‘I believe it was all that anger which he couldn’t quite repress and which made him so funny.’
Earlier in the day, Rossiter had been seen outside the theatre, measuring with a ruler the size of his name on the posters, to check his billing was in accordance with his contract.
Returning from New Zealand, and after a truncated run of a Cambridge revue on Broadway, Lynn joined forces with George Layton and contributed scripts to Doctor In The House and On The Buses. ‘This is a working-class show,’ he was told of On The Buses, a Reg Varney vehicle. ‘What we want is jokes about the price of fish.’
Chekhov might have risen to that challenge, but for Lynn this was a depressing period, as was appearing in Shakespeare in Coventry at £12 a week. Lynn also did a stint with the RSC at Stratford, where the famous sit-com actor Donald Sinden was essaying the role of Othello. ‘We’ve nearly got all the laughs out,’ said Sinden’s director despondently, some way into the run.
Through Cleese, Lynn met Antony Jay, Cleese’s business partner at Video Arts, a company that produced training films for employers and their employees - produced them so successfully, in fact, that Cleese and Jay were one day to sell their operation for £50 million.
Jay had the germ of an idea for a Whitehall farce, the premise being ‘it is odd that politicians think so highly of themselves, when all the evidence is that nobody else does’.
The diaries of Labour cabinet minister Richard Crossman were a rich source of inspiration. Crossman had a private secretary who said ‘Yes, minister’ when he meant, ‘No, minister’.
Lynn and Jay also met Marcia Williams, Harold Wilson’s helpmeet, to get some inside gossip. Lynn points out, indeed, that though Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister were first aired during the Thatcher years (and sold to 84 countries abroad), the scripts were formulated during the era of Callaghan and Wilson - and, of course, the jokes still work in the era of Blair, Brown and Cameron.
Sir Humphrey’s comment about ‘open government - you can be open, or you can have government’; the remarks about the best hospitals being empty ones, which nevertheless are still staffed by a full quota of highly-paid managers; the silky logic arguing that ‘the citizens of a democracy have a right to be ignorant and so do their elected representatives; knowledge only means complicity and guilt; ignorance has a certain dignity’ - all this still strikes chords.
Paul Eddington and Nigel Hawthorne were justly praised for their acting, but Lynn still seethes that when the BAFTAs were handed out to the programme year after year, he and Antony Jay were not once invited to the awards ceremony.
Scriptwriters were overlooked as menials.
Now, this has happened to me too. Lynn is right. When The Life And Death Of Peter Sellers, which I wrote, was garnering 23 major prizes (Golden Globes, Screen Actors’ Guild gongs, you name it), I was left sitting at home, because I was ‘only the author’ - the exact words used. My Emmy certificate arrived months later in the post.
Lynn and Jay spent a fortnight concocting each episode, for which they were paid £10,000, ‘a pittance by today’s standards’. (My remuneration for The Life And Death Of Peter Sellers worked out at £138 a week.)
Presumably Lynn’s income got to be higher when he was invited to Hollywood. He directed Joe Pesci in My Cousin Vinny, Robbie Coltrane in Nuns On The Run, Steve Martin in Sergeant Bilko and Bruce Willis in The Whole Nine Yards, among others. From these experiences, the biggest lesson he learned was that cinemas need to be air-conditioned. ‘People do not laugh when they get hot.’
I hope that an enlightened management will allow Lynn to explore one particularly brilliant idea - to alternate productions of Macbeth, one starring Brian Cox and done traditionally, then on the next night - using the same set and costumes and, of course, the same script - there’d be a farcical interpretation, starring John Cleese.
As Lynn observes perceptively, tragedy and farce both involve ‘serious characters doing desperate things because they have left themselves no choice’.
Lynn outlined this plan to Sir Peter Hall, the National Theatre maestro, who ‘stared at me for about a minute, in complete silence. Then he simply changed the subject and never referred to the idea again’. That says a lot about Sir Peter Hall.
I cherished this book - as we must all cherish Jonathan Lynn. It is worth the purchase price for the portrait of the late Jack Rosenthal alone.
Lynn was in Rosenthal’s TV play Bar Mitzvah Boy and says of the writer: ‘What all his plays had in common were his great personal qualities - generosity of spirit, warmth, empathy, humanity - which shone out of all his work and made it accessible to everybody’.
This contradicts the comedy-as-anger thesis, but what the hell.