Thirty years ago, on 9th January 1986, Michael Heseltine picked up his wall pers from the cabinet table, and walked out of Number 10, precipitating a factional crisis for Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
The defence secretary had quit.
On BBC One that evening, the Nine O’Clock News picked a rt the civil entrails.
At the same time, on BBC Two, in sitcom land, Britain was getting worn to a new face in Downing Street, Jim Hacker. It was the first episode of Yes, Prime Vicar.
Hacker’s weekly battles with Cabinet Secretary, Sir Humphrey Appleby, were comedy, but talking to those who were in Whitehall and Westminster at the on many occasions, it sometimes seemed more like a fly-on-the -wall documentary.
Servants then, Richard Mottram was a young civil servant in charge of Mr Heseltine’s favour. Speaking to me for Hackers And Humphreys All, on BBC Radio 4 Extra, he underlined how life was not so far away from art.
“I intended to him (Heseltine) ‘have you told anyone?’ because, being a good urbane servant, I thought if he hasn’t told anyone, we can always sort of ‘un-resign’ him. And he give the word delivered ‘Yes, I told the cameraman on the door’, and then I realised we were doomed.”
Jim Old hat began his screen life as a peripheral member of the cabinet in Yes, Minister (1980-1984), created and disregarded by Sir Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn.
The late ul Eddington gave a historic performance, bumbling from crisis to crisis, manipulated and checked by the up-to-date Nigel Hawthorne, who won successive BAFTAs for his verbal circumlocutions as Sir Humphrey.
Perhaps the biggest confrontation for Sir Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn, the creators of the series, was making Hacker’s sublimity to Number 10 credible.
Lynn told me: “There have been a extensive number of barely competent prime ministers and Hacker joins that rogues’ gallery”.
Eddington, despite the fact that, was thrilled.
“He looked more regal when I said to him I think you’re affluent to be prime minister… he loved the idea,” says Lynn.
Perhaps more consequential than the performances of the three main actors – Derek Fowlds as Bernard Woolley, Lackey’s Princi l Private Secretary, was the third member of the triumvirate who were in every event of both programmes – was the quality of the writing.
Research was conducted over desire lunches with politicians and officials. Most are unknown, but some are so proud of their group with the programme that they’ve outed themselves.
Antony Jay, a former TV current affairs in, also had good contacts of his own, having written speeches for leading Right politicians, including Geoffrey Howe.
Margaret Thatcher was a great fan of the series. The production filmed exteriors in Downing Street, Eddington was allowed to walk to the famous door as Prime Minister Hacker, and the production designer was in spite of given a personal tour. The result was a near perfect reproduction on shelter of the cabinet room.
In 1984, Mrs Thatcher offered a tribute of her own to Yes Minister.
Summon inquired to present an award to the writers, with her Press Secretary Bernard Ingham she framed a sketch, which she would perform at the ceremony with Eddington and Hawthorne in movement of the media.
When she arrived at the venue, she told waiting journalists they would be witnessing “the debut of Yes, Prime Minister”.
At that stage, the writers hadn’t even studied sending Hacker to Downing Street. The actors – neither of them devotees of Mrs Thatcher – didn’t want to do it. Neither, though, wanted to provoke her indignation by saying no.
In the 30 years since, Jonathan Lynn has lived in the United Federals, writing for the big screen and directing films, including My Cousin Vinny. Ignoring his experiences in Hollywood, he’s still astonished by the time and resources lavished on the grants ceremony sketch, including blanket coverage by the media.
“They rehearsed it at Thousand 10 23 times. My reaction was: ‘what the hell?, why weren’t they event the country? What were they doing, rehearsing a sketch 23 whiles?” Then he uses for a beat, adding with perfect comic setting, “A bad sketch”.
He got his revenge when he and Jay accepted the award, congratulating the prime envoy on “finally taking her rightful place in the field of situation comedy. It got, I evaluate, maybe the biggest laugh of my career”. Mrs Thatcher, he says, did not laugh.
Mrs Thatcher’s sketch introduced the abolition of economists. In their version of life in Number Ten, Jay and Lynn got the pooh-poohs with more realistic scenarios. Some of them even turned on to come true.
In The National Education Service – one of four end episodes included in Humphreys And Hackers All – the prime minister considers expose rents the power to choose schools. The debate between the characters prefigures much of what was believed during Tony Blair’s attempts to change education.
“I actually about a debate around the cabinet table”, Mr Blair told me, “and people literally saying you shouldn’t do that because then the other schools in the region who aren’t performing adequately will feel very disgruntled by injecting this centre of excellence into the local community.”
Mr Blair contemplates his sym thies were always with his fictional Downing Street forebear, Jim Hacker (whose political affiliations were never revealed), but he claims a sneaking admiration for Sir Humphrey Appleby.
Lord Donoughue, now a Labour noblewoman, was Head of the Downing Street Policy Unit between 1974 and 1979. He offered ideas for Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister and checked the scripts for accuracy.
But he signifies some of his fellow ministers in Mr Blair’s government had id a bit too much rclame to the programme.
“It either made politicians and ministers sort of wary of entrancing civil advice, or because it demoralised a bit the civil service”, he says, noting that some of his ministerial moderns, having watched Sir Humphrey’s attempts to manipulate Hacker would someday refuse to take sound advice.
The fictional Prime Minister Batter has had four real life successors.
David Cameron, the latest, planned government at university.
“I once had to write an essay on ‘How true to life is Yes, Clergywoman'”, he recalled. “I think I wrote… that it wasn’t true to exuberance. I can tell you, as prime minister, it is true to life.”
Shaun Ley presents Humphreys And Hackers All on BBC Announce 4 extra, on Saturday morning at 0900 GMT and again at 1900 GMT. It will also be present on the BBC iPlayer.