No great April Fool’s Day spoof this year. The best ever was in Panorama on 1 April 1957. I was mildly connected with it — I was on the Panorama production team that devised it, though I did not think of it or produce it. It was a film of the spaghetti harvest in Italy. The team cooked pounds and pounds of spaghetti and draped it over the branches of trees in an Italian orchard, then filmed peasant girls with ladders collecting it in armfuls. Among the many people taken in by it (there was very little real spaghetti around in the 1950s, it was all in tins) was the director-general of the BBC, Sir Ian Jacob. He explained that his confidence had been shaken by peanuts: all his life he had believed they grew on trees, and when he found out they had to be dug up he was open to the possibility that he was wrong about other lifetime assumptions. Since he did not know about spaghetti production, he accepted the Panorama story without question. I thought it did him credit to admit it.
The idea of a stage variation of Yes, Prime Minister first came up in the 1980s when the TV programme was running. It fell through because Paul Eddington and Nigel Hawthorne could only commit for three months, and a play needed six months to get its money back, and it was unthinkable to cast it with anyone else as Jim Hacker and Sir Humphrey Appleby. But Paul died in 1995 and Nigel in 2001 and, as the years passed, the idea of casting different actors started to become a possibility. After all, we had written the first five episodes before we thought about casting. So having found a producer, Jonathan and I started writing again after a gap of 23 years. It was extraordinary; it might have been 23 days. We just clicked straight into the old routine. All the same, I was haunted by the ghost of The Grand Duke. Gilbert and Sullivan wrote it 20 years after their first success, and it was a flop. There is a pathetic description of the two elderly gentlemen taking a curtain call to half-hearted applause. We did not want a review like the Times in March 1896: ‘Signs are not wanting that the rich vein in which the collaborators have worked for so many years is at last dangerously near exhaustion.’ Luckily, after 500 performances, we seem to have got away with it.
You have to be over 70 to have been called up for National Service. I did my two years 60 years ago, after coming down from Cambridge. At the time it seemed a pointless interruption to a career, though, to be honest, I did not know what I wanted to be when I grew up (I still don’t). Now I’m
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Rules for the Matt Ridley Prize can be found at www.spectator.co.uk/ridleyaward not so sure. Being a signals officer in the Suez Canal Zone was unlike anything I had experienced before or since, and could be said to have given me a taste of the ‘real world’. This reflection is prompted by our present members of parliament. A life spent in a bubble of public relations, political research and ministerial assistance clearly insulates them from reality and is the principal cause of their abysmal public esteem. I can’t help feeling that two years doing a real job with real people might have put them more in touch with the rest of us.
Most misprints are simply irritating, but just occasionally they have a touch of inspiration. We had a printed hymn sheet for our school carol service which contained a visually startling image with the couplet ‘As they offered gifts most rare / At that manager rude and bare.’ My own personal favourite, however, comes from a BBC transcript of a speech I once gave on Radio 4. I had quoted a line from Clough, ‘Say not the struggle naught availeth,’ and it appeared as ‘Up the struggle, naughty bailiff.’ It makes you wonder whether the naughty bailiff was in a relationship with the rude and bare manager.
Ihave had more than my share of enjoyable assignments as a writer, but the editorship of The Oxford Dictionary of Political Quotations comes very near the top. I thought it was a one-off job when I was offered it in 1994, but now I am working on the fifth edition. It is impossible to pick a favourite out of so many gems, but I am particularly fond of Jefferson’s observation ‘The natural progression of things is for liberty to yield and governments to gain ground.’ And there is another of his that has a special relevance to the Leveson inquiry: ‘Were it left for me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate for a moment to prefer the latter.’ Incidentally, if erudite Spectator readers have any suggestions, they will be more than welcome.
Antony Jay is the author, with Jonathan Lynn, of Yes, Prime Minister.
the spectator | 28 april 2012 | www.spectator.co.uk