Monday 23 April 2018

Obituary: Sir Antony Jay

Co-author of 'Yes Minister', whose gentle political satire was much admired by both Mrs Thatcher and Robert Mugabe

Yes, Minister: The show's co-author, Sir Antony Jay
Yes, Minister: The show's co-author, Sir Antony Jay
Yes, Minister: Actors Nigel Hawthorne, Paul Eddington and Derek Fowlds. Newsdesk Newsdesk

Sir Antony Jay, who died last Sunday aged 86, was a writer, broadcaster and director, and co-author, with Jonathan Lynn, of Yes Minister and Yes, Prime Minister, the political comedies which kept the viewers laughing through the 1980s.

The guiding principle of Yes, Minister, which first aired on BBC2 in 1981, was a gentle satire on a governing system in which elected politicians are outmanoeuvred by their more worldly, unelected officials. The series starred Paul Eddington as Jim Hacker, the hapless, publicity-hungry but risk-averse minister for administrative affairs engaged in constant wrangles with the civil service in the form of his Machiavellian permanent secretary Sir Humphrey Appleby (Nigel Hawthorne). The minister was aided and abetted (sometimes) by his private secretary, Bernard Woolley, played by Derek Fowlds.

With such gems as Sir Humphrey's alarmed response to Hacker's suggestion of an official inquiry: "A basic rule of government, minister, is never set up an inquiry unless you know in advance what its findings will be" and Hacker's perennial aversion to "courageous" decisions, the series became compulsive viewing, not least for the politicians and bureaucrats it satirised, including Margaret Thatcher herself.

Despite not being renowned for her sense of humour, the then British prime minister claimed that Yes, Minister was her favourite programme.

Yes, Minister ran for three series, before the advancement of Jim Hacker's career led to its relaunch as Yes, Prime Minister, with the same cast (Sir Humphrey promoted to Cabinet Secretary), in 1986.

The series ran until 1988.

The comedy had an international resonance and clones of the series appeared in numerous different languages, including Hindi. In Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe was said to be a huge fan.

However, not many, perhaps, were aware that the serial was commissioned with a serious political purpose: to popularise public-choice theory. It is because it succeeded so spectacularly that Jay received a knighthood in 1988.

Antony Rupert Jay was born on April 20, 1930 and educated as a scholar at St Paul's School, London. He won another scholarship to Magdalene College, Cambridge, from which he graduated with Firsts in Classics and Comparative Philology.

After national service in the Royal Signals, Jay joined BBC Television in 1955 and was a member of the team that launched the current affairs programme Tonight, which he edited from 1962 to 1963.

After a further year as head of Television Talk Features, he left the BBC to work as a freelance writer and producer.

It was Jay's growing interest in public choice theory that helped to shape Yes, Minister, an interest that grew after he became a partner with John Cleese and two others in Video Arts, a company that makes comedy training films for business managers and campaigners.

Economics public-choice theory assumes that all economic actors - businessmen, consumers, politicians and bureaucrats - are motivated primarily by individual gain. Thus, politicians pursue re-election and bureaucrats pursue budget-maximisation, while voters and interest groups chase free lunches. The trick is to know your enemy and exploit his self-interest to your own advantage.

Jay incorporated the public-choice lessons implicit in Yes, Minister in a series of guides, including Management and Machiavelli (1967), Effective Presentation (1970), Corporation Man (1972) and How to Beat Sir Humphrey (1997). In 1996, he edited the Oxford Dictionary of Political Quotations.

In later life, Jay turned against his former employers at the BBC, condemning its anti-establishment mindset and, in a highly controversial report, How to Save the BBC, written for the Centre for Policy Studies in 2008, he branded the corporation "bloated, biased and creaky".

In 2011, Jay and Jonathan Lynn got together again to write an anniversary stage production of Yes, Prime Minister, updated for the era of spin, BlackBerrys and "sexed-up" dossiers and set in a country in financial meltdown.

Starring Simon Williams as Sir Humphrey Appleby and Richard McCabe as Jim Hacker, the show was staged at the Theatre Royal in London, winning a Whatsonstage award for Best New Comedy.

In 2013, the two writers joined forces with UKTV's Gold channel to create a six-part remake of Yes, Prime Minister, updated for the era of coalition, with David Haig as Hacker opposite Henry Goodman's suave Sir Humphrey. The satire was as sharp as ever.

Jay also wrote the BBC TV documentaries Royal Family and Elizabeth R, for which he was appointed CVO in 1993 for personal services to the Royal Family.

Antony Jay married, in 1957, Rosemary Hill, with whom he had two sons and two daughters.

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