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The Men from the Ministry: back by popular (Finnish) demand

Edward Taylor’s radio plays continue to enjoy enthusiastic Finnish following


The Men from the Ministry: back by popular (Finnish) demand
The Men from the Ministry: back by popular (Finnish) demand
By Annamari Sipilä in London
     
      A dapper English gentleman stands in the doorway.
      He is not wearing a bowler hat, nor does he have an umbrella in his hand. However, his cardigan is an unusually stylish shade of lilac - a pleasant contrast to his white hair.
      "Welcome. How nice that you could come", the gentleman says, making a gesture to come inside the large London flat. He walks in first himself.
      In a perfect world, Big Ben would ring out the hours, and the voice of a Finnish radio announcer would read out "...the series was written by Edward Taylor, and..."
      This is because Finns are accustomed to hearing his name.
     
The Finnish Broadcasting Company (YLE) has been airing Edward Taylor’s radio series The Men from the Ministry (whose Finnish language title translates as "The Bowler and the Brolly"), since 1979.
      Every now and then the series has been on hiatus, and the series of adventures of the follies of British civil servants has been repeated frequently by popular demand.
      The most recent round of repeats began in January, and will take three years to complete. YLE is broadcasting all 156 episodes in chronological order every Saturday at 3:00 PM.
      "I suppose that people all over the world like to laugh at the follies of civil servants. However, the enthusiasm of the Finns is in a class of its own", says Taylor, 73, as we sit in his living room.
      He has had Finnish visitors before, and a small vase designed by Alvar Aalto sits on his windowsill.
     
Originally, Taylor was not supposed to become a script writer. He wanted to be an actor.
      "I applied to Cambridge University simply to get into their famous Footlights Revue drama club."
      His performance at the Footlights Revue was a success in London in 1955. "I pranced around on stage, and hoped that I would be discovered as an actor. However, the second-best thing happened."
      A talent scout for the BBC hired Taylor as a scriptwriter. His first contract was for a year. Taylor’s career at the BBC ended up lasting a full 36 years - until his retirement. He wrote and produced about 2,300 programmes.
      "The Men from the Ministry was the biggest success. People around the world listened to it on the BBC World Service."
      Taylor’s pianist wife Sue pours coffee. There are two types of coffee bread, light and dark, baked by Mrs. Taylor.
      "Have some, so I don’t have to eat it all myself", Taylor insists.
     
The Men from the Ministry originated in the early 1960s, as the result of a long and liquid lunch with actor Richard Murdoch (1907-1990). The actor’s career had hit a dry spell.
      "Murdoch asked me to write something funny for him."
      Inspired by the wine, Taylor promised to help him. He went to his desk, took out a piece of paper, and got an idea: civil servants! Not much had been written about this odd subspecies of the human race.
      Gradually Taylor built a cast of characters for The Men from the Ministry.
      For Murdoch he wrote the role of the younger civil servant, Mr. Richard Lamm. As Lamm’s co-worker, he created Mr. Hannibal Hamilton-Jones.
      Then Taylor came up with a frightening supervisor for the civil servants: Undersecretary of State Sir Henry Pitkin, a man partial to wine and women. "Every comedy needs to have a Nemesis - an avenger", Taylor explains.
      The gentlemen needed a feminine counterweight. She was the secretary Mildred Murfin.
      He placed this foursome in a "General Assistance Department" of a ministry in the centre of London. Although the department was Taylor’s own invention, he found out later that a department by that name actually does exist.
     
Those who have listened to the foibles of Lamm and Hamilton-Jones are quite aware of what life is like at the department.
      Civil servants usually arrive at work an hour or two late, make tea for a time, and finally they reluctantly latch onto some task or another that has been put off for months.
      The project invariably fails. Foul-ups follow one another, and the two face the danger of being sacked, or at the very least, getting a transfer to a remote island in Scotland.
      However, a new turn of events always puts things back in order, and Lamm and Hamilton-Jones come out of the mess intact.
      "Many civil servants have asked if I have been spying on them, as it was all so familiar to them", Taylor says.
      The BBC broadcast The Men from the Ministry for 16 years. When the British voices went silent, the taping of the Finnish version had only recently begun.
     
Taylor describes how director Rauli Ranta contacted him in the early 1980s and asked him to send more scripts. The writer was happy to oblige. After all, his sympathies toward Finland went back to when he was just eight years old.
      At the end of 1939 Taylor was at the cinema with his mother, when the newsreel showed pictures of the north.
      "The Finns were fighting the Russians courageously. It made a great impression on a little boy."
     
Taylor is again working on new episodes of The Men from the Ministry. They will be ready in the autumn, and will go only to Finland.
      Taylor shows the scripts that he has just finished, with a cover page with the title Writer’s Block.
      In the episode, the secretary Mildred begins to write food columns in the ministry’s staff journal. Not everyone likes Mildred’s plan, as her column threatens to usurp the position of a certain gardening column...
      Taylor’s writing is slowed down by his poor eyesight. He only has five percent of his vision left. "Fortunately my wonderful wife helps with everything. She is indispensable."
      Taylor and his wife always take the summer off. However, this year they will have to go to the Edinburgh Theatre Festival, where their 16-year-old daughter Imogen will perform with her group. She wants to go into acting when she grows up.
      When Imogen was eight, she asked her father to write some jokes for her. She used them in an amateur talent competition.
      "She got the first prize."
     
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 16.5.2004


ANNAMARI SIPILÄ / Helsingin Sanomat
annamari.sipila@hs.fi