Obituary: Sir Antony Jay, CVO, CBE, co-writer of Yes Minister

Sir Antony Jay. co-writer of Yes Minister. Picture: PA
Sir Antony Jay. co-writer of Yes Minister. Picture: PA
Share this article
Have your say

Born 20 April 1930 in London. Died. 21 August 2016 in Somerset. Aged 86.

Antony Jay made the nation laugh. With Jonathan Lynn he opened the doors of Whitehall and exposed the wheelings and dealings of civil servants with an insouciant insight.

The situations, comments and arguments were, allegedly, so close to the truth that even Margaret Thatcher was a regular viewer. She appeared in a radio episode as herself stridently telling Sir Humphrey to “abolish economists”. Jay and Lynn brought an irreverence to the series that marked it out as one of the BBCs most successful comedies. It has been sold to over 80 countries and is still being shown today – as fresh and joyous as ever.

Jay had a distinguished career as a script writer and director. He began his career at the BBC in 1962 in the current affairs department and was a founding member of the celebrated early evening magazine programme Tonight hosted by Cliff Michelmore. Jay went on to write or direct the documentaries Royal Family and Elizabeth R: A Year In The Life Of A Queen.

But it is those sparring verbal skirmishes for which Jay will, rightly, be remembered. Yes Minister ran for three series (1980-1984) and followed the not always happy daily events of Jim Hacker MP – minister for administrative affairs – and his battles with unflappable and loquacious Whitehall mandarin Sir Humphrey Appleby. When Hacker made it to Number 10 there were two seasons (1986-1988) with Sir Humphrey running administrative rings round his bemused master.

Jay and Lynn’s insight into the inner workings of Whitehall proved a winning combination but it was their writing that made the programmes – the throw-away lines were riddled with innuendo and wit. Sir Humphrey’s alarmed response to Hacker’s suggestion for an official enquiry: “A basic rule of government, minister, is never set up an enquiry unless you know in advance what its findings will be.”

Antony Rupert Jay was the son of an actor and was a scholar both at St Paul’s School and at Magdalene College, Cambridge, where he gained a first in classics and comparative philology. He then did his National Service with the Royal Signals in the Middle East.

He rose fast in the BBC and after Tonight he and Ned Sherrin started the cutting edge satirical programme, That Was the Week That Was, presented by the then unknown David Frost. The programme became vital watching on a Saturday night and annoyed many sections of society but gained great respect on the night of President Kennedy’s assignation when it produced a sympathetic and uplifting programme. In 1963 Jay became a freelance script writer principally writing for The Frost Report and worked with John Cleese on making films to train executives in front of the camera.

His work with the royal family won him the CBE and the CVO. His documentary Elizabeth R tried to show a more relaxed and less stuffy household. Jay treated the subject with a serious authority but delighted in discovering lesser known facts about the household; thus capturing the more everyday life of royal life.

In 2010 he and Lynn revived Yes Prime Minister for the stage. The play was much updated – even Sir Humphrey had a mobile phone – and referred to the PM using a “sexed up dossier”. The show did a national tour and proved as popular as ever. Earlier this month, Jay and Lynn wrote a final sketch about Brexit (“What is Brexit?”)

Jay served on Lord Annan’s committee which enquired into the future of broadcasting but he had assumed a somewhat jaundiced view of his former employer – he wrote an addendum to the report recommending that the gathering of the BBC’s television and radio should be split and that the Corporation be slimmed down to BBC1, Radio 4 and a news department. Jay advised many in the Conservative party about presentation and Thatcher on how to perform to the cameras when the Commons was televised.

But it is the sharp, penetrating and incisive wit of Yes Minster that lingers in the memory. The Jay-Lynn partnership was formidable: the more left-wing Lynn supplying many of the jokes, the right-wing Jay working out the plots in minute detail. Such famous Jay quips still bring a cheerful smile: especially Sir Humphrey’s cutting putdowns, “The minister doesn’t know his Acas from his Nalgo” or “A completely honest answer gives the advantage of surprise in the House of Commons, Prime Minister.”

The programmes became part of television history and all the characters were played with immense precision by Paul Eddington, Nigel Hawthorne and Derek Fowlds. They all delivered the wonderful scripts with a glorious panache.

Sir Antony Jay married Rosemary Watkins in 1957. She and their two sons and two daughters survive him.