Skip to main content

Margaret Thatcher hijacked my TV show

By Jonathan Lynn, Special to CNN
updated 1:56 PM EDT, Wed April 10, 2013
Meryl Streep earned critical acclaim for her role as former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in the 2011 film "The Iron Lady." But hers was just one of several pop culture portrayals of Thatcher, who died Monday, April 8. Meryl Streep earned critical acclaim for her role as former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in the 2011 film "The Iron Lady." But hers was just one of several pop culture portrayals of Thatcher, who died Monday, April 8.
HIDE CAPTION
Photos: Margaret Thatcher in pop culture
Margaret Thatcher in pop culture
Margaret Thatcher in pop culture
Margaret Thatcher in pop culture
Margaret Thatcher in pop culture
Margaret Thatcher in pop culture
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Margaret Thatcher said Jonathan Lynn's co-written BBC hit "Yes, Minister" was her favorite show
  • Jonathan Lynn: MPs crowded into House of Commons bars to watch themselves satirized
  • When she was losing favor, he says, Thatcher "wrote" a sketch and starred as herself
  • Lynn: Really written by a press secretary, it was a PR move to make people like her more

Editor's note: Jonathan Lynn co-wrote, with Antony Jay, the award-winning political satires "Yes, Minister" and "Yes, Prime Minister," both of which ran on BBC TV in the 1980s. The shows were adapted into a stage play in 2010 and performed on the West End in London. The play, "Yes, Prime Minister," has its U.S. premiere at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles in June.

(CNN) -- The first time I met Margaret Thatcher, she was already a fan of mine, or so she said. With my co-writer Antony Jay, I had created and written the first seven episodes of "Yes, Minister," a BBC TV comedy series about the British government

The first four episodes had been written during the last year of Jim Callaghan's disastrous premiership, which led to industrial paralysis and the so-called "winter of discontent." Practically every trade union went on strike about practically anything. The unions were running the country and, it has to be said, making a pretty bad job of it.

Jonathan Lynn
Jonathan Lynn

I had always voted Labour, but the last straw for me was when six baggage handlers at Heathrow were sacked after they were found guilty in a criminal court of stealing from passengers' luggage. The Transport and General Workers' Union called a national strike, claiming the thefts were "baggage handlers' perks." It was no surprise to me that Mrs. Thatcher won a big majority, and I was one of the many who voted for her.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



The BBC, showing its usual courage, had refused to put our series on the air until the election was over, for fear that the winner would claim a lack of impartiality and reduce its funding. We were flattered that a mere comedy series could be thought to have any influence over anybody, but to our surprise, it rapidly became a massive hit when it was broadcast early in Mrs. Thatcher's rule.

We learned that when it was on for half an hour every week, the business of the nation came to a standstill while MPs crowded into the many bars at the House of Commons to watch it. Of course, there could be no other possible reason for finding all the MPs in a bar, so that had to be it.

Politicians and editors starting writing columns about "Yes, Minister." Tony and I were thrust blinking into the spotlight like a couple of anxious moles, pleased that people liked our show but with mixed feelings about celebrity.

Mrs T held out her hand. I was ready for a normal handshake but was quite taken aback by what happened next.
Jonathan Lynn

Fortunately, the celebrity interest focused on the actors because people, in spite of all the evidence to the contrary, seem to persist in the belief that actors make it all up as they go along. This put a frightful burden on Paul Eddington and Nigel Hawthorne, the stars of the show, to be tremendously witty and erudite every time they went on a chat show.

Referring to our show, Mrs. Thatcher was quoted, "Its closely observed portrayal of what goes on in the corridors of power has given me hours of pure joy."

This was stunning. First of all, it suggested that Mrs. T had a sense of humor, something that no one had hitherto suspected. I was surprised that she had time to watch it, as she was now becoming awfully bossy and I was beginning to feel that she should reciprocate: Her government certainly wasn't giving me hours of pure joy.

Mrs. Thatcher was changing Britain in many ways, both for better and worse. As France's Charles de Gaulle said -- not about her but about himself, of course -- "a great career is bound to involve many mistakes."

"Yes, Minister" became known as Mrs. Thatcher's favorite TV show, and this worried me because the program was carefully neutral from a political point of view. I started telling people that Tony Benn, the leader of what was known as "the loony left," liked it a lot, too.

There was a huge laugh, broadcast nationwide. The only person in the room who didn't laugh was Mrs T.
Jonathan Lynn

My queasy feeling, as one politician after another queued up to praise us, vanished as I realized why: Politicians love to watch anything about themselves on TV, and they are only interested in politics. Also, because our program showed how the Civil Service really runs Britain -- our version of checks and balances and the separation of powers -- we had unintentionally given politicians an alibi. The public understood for the first time that if politicians didn't keep their promises, it might be because they were obstructed by the Civil Service.

So when I was invited to a big party at 10 Downing Street, I was not surprised. My wife and I walked up the grand staircase and there, at the top, was the Iron Lady herself and a major domo to announce us. I muttered my name to him. "Mr. and Mrs. Jonathan Lynn," he bellowed.

Mrs. T held out her hand. I was ready for a normal handshake but was quite taken aback by what happened next: "How do you do?" she said with that curiously fake Eliza Doolittle diction as she gripped my hand and yanked me straight past her right shoulder. I shot into the Yellow State Room, crashing into a well-known TV personality, one Terry Wogan, knocking the drink out of his hand.

As I started to apologize, my wife flew into the room and knocked into both of us. I started apologizing again. "That's all right," said Wogan with a grin, "That just happened to me, too."

More guests were cannoning into the party like billiard balls. Mrs. T couldn't help demonstrating her strength, determination and eagerness to get on with things that weren't important.

Thatcher impersonator talks 'Iron Lady'
Remembering Britain's 'Iron Lady'
That one time Twitter thought Cher died

Subsequently we were invited to dinner there a couple of times. And then came that dreadful sketch. We were to be given an award by the National Viewers and Listeners Association, run by Mary Whitehouse, the UK version of Jerry Falwell.

A scarcely believable message arrived at the BBC from Number 10, saying that Mrs. T would present the award, that she had written a sketch and wished to perform it with our actors Paul and Nigel. It transpired that the scarcely believable message was not, in fact, to be believed: The sketch was written by her press secretary, Bernard Ingham.

I learned recently that she rehearsed the sketch with Ingham and her private secretary no fewer than 23 times. Why were they not running the country instead, you might ask? Answer: She was losing popularity and, though not very amusing herself, she knew the power of humor. She was co-opting the show to make people like her more.

Ingham wasn't a comedy writer, but as a publicist, he knew his stuff. The sketch was reported everywhere, seen on all the TV news shows and was carried live on radio. And when I was given the award, I thanked Mrs. Whitehouse and added, "I should like to thank Mrs. Thatcher for finally taking her rightful place in the world of situation comedy."

There was a huge laugh, broadcast nationwide. The only person in the room who didn't laugh was Mrs. T. I was never invited to Number 10 again. But soon after, the actors were given honors, the CBE. Fair enough -- they made it up as they went along.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions in this commentary are solely those of Jonathan Lynn.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 5:01 PM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
Paul Callan says the grand jury is the right process to use to decide if charges should be brought against the police officer
updated 12:19 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Theresa Brown says the Ebola crisis brought nurses into the national conversation on health care. They need to stay there.
updated 6:35 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Patrick Hornbeck says don't buy the hype: The arguments the Vatican used in its interim report would have virtually guaranteed that same-sex couples remained second class citizens
updated 9:36 AM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
Paul Begala says Iowa's U.S. Senate candidate, Joni Ernst, told NRA she has right to use gun to defend herself--even from the government. But shooting at officials is not what the Founders had in mind
updated 6:08 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
John Sutter: Why are we so surprised the head of a major international corporation learned another language?
updated 5:54 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Jason Johnson says Ferguson isn't a downtrodden community rising up against the white oppressor, but it is looking for justice
updated 12:21 PM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
Sally Kohn says a video of little girls dressed as princesses using the F-word very loudly to condemn sexism is provocative. But is it exploitative?
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
updated 10:14 AM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
updated 12:00 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
updated 7:35 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
updated 9:12 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
updated 2:51 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
updated 6:07 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
updated 4:12 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
updated 11:36 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
updated 10:21 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
updated 8:05 AM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
updated 9:00 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
updated 4:33 PM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
updated 12:42 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
updated 4:43 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
updated 4:58 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
updated 9:42 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
updated 8:21 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
updated 4:27 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
updated 12:07 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
updated 12:29 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
updated 6:45 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
updated 1:00 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
updated 7:01 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
updated 1:44 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
updated 9:35 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
updated 10:08 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
updated 7:25 AM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
updated 4:04 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
updated 9:07 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
updated 6:50 PM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
updated 11:43 AM EDT, Sat October 11, 2014
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT