Beginning his illustrious career as an actor in London’s West End during the mid 1950’s writer and director Jonathan Lynn received the perfect grounding in entertainment when he was nominated for Most Promising New Actor for his performance in Paul Ableman’s coming of age drama Green Julia. Studying law at Cambridge University, Jonathan was quick to join The Footlights which brought him into contact with future Pythons Michael Palin and Terry Jones. This lead to him securing a part in the ITV review sketch show Twice a Fortnight alongside Palin, Jones, Bill Oddie and Graeme Garden. Surviving for just one series of ten episodes, Twice a Fortnight proved the perfect training ground for young writers who would go on to dominate comedy in the years to come. Consequently he realised that a career in law was looking unlikely and promptly threw himself into the entertainment business.
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At the age of 21, Jonathan made his Broadway debut in the revue show Cambridge Circus alongside John Cleese and Graham Chapman which resulted in an appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1964. As a performer, appearing on The Ed Sullivan Show could transform you into an international star overnight. On his return to England Lynn played leading roles in many British television films, including Jack Rosenthal’s ‘Bar Mitzvah Boy’ (1976) and ‘The Knowledge’ (1981), ‘Outside Edge’ (1982). John Cleese would have a pivotal role in the next chapter of Jonathan’s career when he introduced him to writer Anthony Jay who had been in charge of the continuous developing monologue on The Frost Report. At the time, Jay was looking for actors to star in a series of safety instruction films for his and Cleese’s Video Arts training film production company to which Jonathan obliged and unbeknownst to anyone was the start of a hugely successful partnership.
It was here that Jay revealed that he had started working on a comedy script surrounding figures in Whitehall. As a natural satirist, this appealed to Jonathan as he got on board with the idea. Yet his duties to the world of acting were building meaning that the idea was archived for a later date. Unbeknown to either of them, this idea would come to define the middle part of their careers and transform them from jobbing writers into sitcom powerhouses. But for now, Lynn’s acting commitments took priority and securing a role in ITV’s Doctor In The House cemented this. A union between fellow actor George Layton resulted in Lynn’s first successful writing partnership as the pair started contributing material to the series. Produced by Lynn’s fellow Footlights graduate Humphrey Barclay, Doctor In The House reunited the nucleus of the cast of Twice a Fortnight together with Variety stalwart Barry Cryer.
Towards the end of the 1970’s Jonathan enquired about Anthony’s concept about Whitehall and discovered that it had been lying in a drawer collecting dust. The pair then decided that it may now be the right time to create something of this satirical magnitude and after approaching former Head of Light Entertainment Bill Cotton who was now the controller of BBC1, they were commissioned to write a seven episode series. Yes Minister was first broadcast on the 25 February 1980 and followed the parliamentary career of former minister for the Department of Administrative Affairs Jim Hacker played by The Good Life’s Paul Eddingiton. Assisted by permanent secretary Sir Humphrey Appleby played by Nigel Hawthorne and Derek Fowlds’ portrayal of private secretary Sir Bernard Woolley, Hacker attempted to make sense of the bureaucracy that surrounds local government. The series was an instant hit and regularly attracted high audience figures, and reached 90+ on the audience Appreciation Index.
At the peak of its popularity, Jonathan Lynn and Anthony Jay decided to call time on Yes Minister after three series in 1982. Following hearing this news, now Managing Director of the BBC Bill Cotton called a meeting with Lynn and Jay where he desperately persuaded them to write more and wanted to know what it would take to return the sitcom. The pair jokingly replied with the idea that Jim Hacker could be elected as Prime Minister to which Cotton became increasingly excited and told them to go away and write it. Yes Prime Minister was first broadcast in January 1986 and survived for a further two series. It was clear that the public appetite to see a satirical take on political affairs hadn’t gone away.
By this time Jonathan had extended his artistic repertoire to incorporate film direction. This was nothing new for the man who had grown up at the National Theatre directing some of the most iconic figures of the twentieth century. It is somewhat unique to encounter a figure who is equally comfortable behind the stage and in front of it and this experience proved vital grounding for his later Hollywood career. Being responsible for the 1985 murder mystery comedy Clue based on the popular board game Cluedo. This was closely followed by the 1992 action comedy Nun’s On The Run starring his old Footlights counterpart Eric Idle alongside the comedy actor Robbie Coltrane. As a director Jonathan has worked with the cream of film including Brad Pitt, Cuba Gooding-Jr and Bruce Willis. As a director, Jonathan isn’t phased by dealing with large egos and maintains that everyone on set is there to do a job so any egos should be left at the door. This might be one of the reasons as to why Jonathan remains in high demand throughout the entertainment world.
Now into his mid seventies, Jonathan shows no sign of slowing down and is looking forward to returning to London next year with his new play which plans to premiere in the West End. Despite international success, it’s clear that the writer and director remains extremely proud of his contribution to popular culture and still holds a strong connection with Britain. It was a fantastic honour to interview the legendary Jonathan Lynn and with his great enthusiasm for his work, it’s exciting to see where it will take him next.