Jonathan Lynn on 'Yes, Prime Minister,' working with Michael McKean again, and why U.K. political shows are so darn popular
It’s been nearly 30 years since Michael McKean starred in the 1985 board game-based murder comedy caper Clue, directed by Jonathan Lynn, and the pair are reuniting for the stage adaptation of Lynn’s popular 1980s British TV series Yes, Prime Minister. The show has been a hit during its several West End runs and U.K. tour since it opened in 2010, and makes its U.S. debut Wednesday at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles. We spoke with Lynn about working with McKean again, adapting TV to the stage, the recent spate of U.K. political adaptations that have been successful in the States, his biggest fan Margaret Thatcher, and what changes had to be made so we silly Americans understand that funny accent.
Read on for our conversation with Lynn — featuring his characteristically British dry sense of humor.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Why is Los Angeles the right place for Yes, Prime Minister to debut in the U.S.?
JONATHAN LYNN: I was living here and it seemed like a good place to see how Americans would take to it — which I don’t think is going to be a problem but you never know!
What changes did you have to make to the script to make it more amenable to an American audience?
Lots of little things but nothing significant. I can think of one or two places we changed the line, where we changed the terminology. For instance, we talk about the Prime Minister’s “diary” and here you would say “calendar.” “Diary” would mean personal writing but in England it means appointments. Yesterday we changed “equal opportunity” to “equal opportunities.” We’ve made some small changes.
The show has played in a couple of different West End theaters and now it’s open in Australia. Did you see that first foreign version of the show?
In London and on tour it’s done about 1,100 performances. It opened in Australia about 15 months ago and did a six-month tour. I wasn’t directing that one but they did it very well! And I saw Djokovic play Nadal [in the Australian Open], so that was a good bonus.
What’s it been like to reunite with Michael McKean?
I worked with him about 35 years ago when I made a film called Clue. I don’t think we’d seen each other from that day to this. But I thought he was really funny and then I saw him on stage on Broadway in The Best Man and I thought he was great in that. I already had two cast members from The Best Man, so I thought: “Why not Michael? Obviously they know and like each other.” Of course it’s always easier if people have worked together before and know and like each other. So there’s very few people in this cast I didn’t know before. But I was really pleased to be working with Michael again. He’s a very, very talented man.
Did you watch House of Cards, which had such a huge reception in its Netflix/U.S. adaptation?
I didn’t see either [the U.S. version or the original U.K. version of House of Cards] so I can’t give an opinion on that. [House of Cards] used all the same ideas that we had popularized, which is why I didn’t bother watching — because I read reviews and it seemed to be what we did, but without the laughs.
But clearly there’s an interest in these kinds of political shows, both dramas and comedies. Why is the timing right?
I can’t explain that. I think there are times when people love their governments more than others and I think we’re going through a time when people are peculiarly cynical and despairing of the political systems under which they live in both Britain and America. And I think it’s a sort of worldwide phenomenon. I wanted to go into politics when I was 18 and I joined the Cambridge Union, which is the debating society from which many distinguished politicians have emerged. And I was struck by the incredible pomposity of my fellow undergraduates who could clearly see themselves as members of the government – and indeed that’s where they ended up. And I decided that at some point in my life the best contribution I could make to the public good was to ridicule the people who want to govern it.
Were you disappointed when Margaret Thatcher became a fan?
I had very ambivalent feelings about it, yes. It was very good publicity but I kept telling people that the Labour Party leaders were fans of it too. The leader of the Loony Left said he’d given up criticizing civil service because we did it so much more effectively. You’re pleased when anyone likes your show. I’m pleased when the elevator man likes my show. But beyond that I wasn’t outstandingly pleased.
Did you get a lot of questions about it again recently after Thatcher’s death?
People have never stopped asking me about it. The interesting thing is I think there are two reasons she liked it so much. One is that politicians like the show tremendously because it gives them an alibi. It shows that there might be a reason they can’t keep all their promises or indeed almost any of their promises. And also politicians are only really interested in politics — and they like watching themselves or people like themselves on television.
Were there a lot of changes you had to make to adapt the show to today’s world versus the ’80s when the TV show took place?
Our characters were always watching the news. We had an episode years ago where Jim found the foreign news on TV. TV was there first. That really hasn’t changed. Now it’s even more accessible with all the news channels and everything. Of course that comes up a little bit in our play but it’s not really very different. TV and radio were always quicker than government papers.
What did you enjoy most about revisiting these characters?
It was really fun. We weren’t sure that it would work. People had been asking us to write a play for the last 30 years. We thought about making it into a film when we stopped the series – the BBC wanted it to go on but we felt we’d said what we had to say. It was coming up to 30 years since we were on the air and we thought, “Well, maybe we should re-look at it and see if things have changed or haven’t they.” And the answer is they’ve changed, but really only cosmetically.
You started in the theater. What’s different about directing films and television versus stage shows?
Directing for film and for theater are completely different. Theater is like a basketball team – you have to get them playing together at the key time. They’ve all got to reach top form and hit their best. No do-overs and they’re out there on their own. You rehearse and rehearse until they can take it and fly. Film is the exact opposite. They don’t have to do it well more than once, and certainly not eight times a week. It’s a completely different experience.
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