The comedian spinning politics
Armando Iannucci’s new film puts him squarely on the red carpet, but after years at the coalface of British comedy why is he so little known?
YOU COULD, if you were in the mood for parlour games, describe Armando Iannucci as the most important figure in recent British comedy. Yet the great man can still walk down most streets without having his clothes torn from his back.
“I was invited to the Baftas this year,” he tells me. “And I had to enter with all the proper stars. Sharon Stone was ahead of me and the flashing of cameras was really quite alarming. They are all waiting to see who’s getting out of the next car. ‘Oh There’s Graham Norton!’ Then I get out and it’s: ‘Eugh. Who’s that?’”
I’ll tell you who he is. Twenty years ago, Iannucci, a well-spoken Scot of Italian extraction, gathered together an eye-wateringly impressive team of writers and directors to make a radio series called On the Hour. When that show transferred to television as The Day Todayit propelled rising stars such as Chris Morris, Steve Coogan and Patrick Marber onto the main stage, but Iannucci, writer and producer, remained in the shadows.
You may have seen his eccentric stand-up. You may have caught sight of him on panel shows or in the bizarrely brilliant TV series Time Trumpet. But his main roles remain those of creator and instigator. Without him there would have been no Alan Partridge.
In 2005, even his biggest fans were impressed when he delivered the deliciously vicious political sitcom The Thick of It. Following the efforts of a cynical press officer – why are you looking so sheepish, Alastair Campbell? – to impose his will on weak-minded ministers, the series owed a giant, acknowledged debt to Yes, Minister.
“No doubt about it,” Iannucci says. “It’s interesting what’s changed, though. In Yes, Minister, the civil servants were the anti-heroes and they were trying to stop things happening. Now they have been pushed aside and it is the political advisers who are making all the running. These days, you almost feel sorry for civil servants.”
Now The Thick of Ithas been expanded into a terrifically funny, electrifyingly foul-mouthed film called In The Loop.Iannucci writes, produces and directs. It’s not quite a sequel to the series. Peter Capaldi returns as Malcolm Tucker, the merciless quasi-Campbell, but few other characters remain from the TV incarnation. Somewhat confusingly, Chris Addison, who played a sat-upon adviser in the original, plays a different, slightly less sat-upon adviser.
The picture explains how an apparently innocuous remark by a British minister – “War is unforeseeable” – can, in the age of media rapid response, take on an absurdly magnified significance. Malcolm and his team find themselves in Washington where, echoing the WMD debacle, they participate in the launch of an unnecessary war.
“There was a realisation at the time of Katrina that American government was huge, monstrous and shapeless,” he says. “It’s not this grand machine. But you realise when you look closely at government that it isn’t full of idiots or evil men. It’s full of ordinary frail people doing their unsatisfactory best. That’s why things go wrong.”
You know you’ve grown up when you realise the people in charge are not much smarter than the bloke next door.
“That’s right. We had some advice from Joe Biden’s chief of staff. He’s a nice fellow. He’s very good-looking. He’s got a good job. But we were amazed when he told us about going to a function and getting very excited. ‘Bradley Whitford was there,’ he said. ‘Josh from The West Wing.’ We wanted to say: ‘But hang on. You’re the realJosh from the West Wing!’” Despite contributions from properly powerful men and the presence of James Gandolfini as a boorish general, In The Loopretains the same grungy feel that helped make The Thick of Itso unique. The camera continues to bounce about the place. The dialogue feels improvised (though it is, in fact, mostly written) and the performances are naturalistically low-key. I wonder whether Armando concerned himself with making the project “cinematic”. I note that, as in the Are You Being Served?movie, the team have gone on holiday.
“Yes. Just like in Holiday on the Buses,” he laughs.
“That notion of being cinematic did crop up. And I said I am going to roundly ignore it. The differences between TV and film are to do with pace. The comedies I’ve really laughed at – This is Spinal Tapand Airplane!,say – have not been particularly cinematic. I think you have to ignore that temptation to open with a huge crane shot just because you can. That doesn’t make it funnier. In fact it does the reverse.”
The film has already stirred up a satisfactory amount of buzz. Reviewers at the Sundance film festival saw the American sequences as both a comic summation of the Bush years and a warning against future complacency. In the United Kingdom the only significant objections have so far come from none other than Alastair Campbell. Writing in the Guardian, Tony Blair’s former director of communications claimed that the film did not offend him (perish the thought), but that he was rather bored by it.
“I never get too close to these people,” Iannucci says. “I don’t know them. If you do you get to see the nice side of them. Almost everyone is nice deep down. There are a few who are nasty through and through, but not many. The Thick of Itis not about that. It’s about alerting people to the consequences of their actions. There was no conspiracy with the WMD thing. It’s just that people were a bit crap at their jobs and, as a result, other people died.”
If things had gone differently Iannucci might have been the one getting an ear-bashing from Campbell. The son of an Italian businessman, he was raised in Glasgow and, for a few brief moments, considered entering the priesthood. Instead he ended up at Oxford where he toyed with a PhD on Paradise Lost. In one moment of idle despair, he made a surprisingly serious effort to secure a position in a high-flying division of the civil service.
“I didn’t know what I wanted to do,” he says. “I filled out the forms for the fast track in the civil service. I very nearly got into the treasury. I could have been one of the people introducing the poll tax. At the final interview they said that they didn’t think I’d take it seriously. Fair enough. I have to take my hat off to the treasury. They got that one right. Later on I put the PhD in a drawer too and decided to go for comedy.” Iannucci’s comedy always takes a very singular approach to language.
From The Day Today’sbrilliant pastiche of rolling news to the neo-Elizabethan profanity of In the Loophe has found a way of making the most ordinary words suddenly seem disturbingly outlandish. (When I suggest that this might be linked to the fact that he grew up in a house where two languages were spoken he says “he never thought about that”, which is a nice way of saying “what utter rubbish”.) His work is full of phrases that are much funnier than they have any right to be. “I was always somebody who impersonated the teacher at school,” he says. And I always enjoyed writing parodies of writers in college. I realised that I had become interested in how to use language to pull the wool over people’s eyes.” That’s a definition of the spin-doctor’s art.
“Yes. That’s right. You use simple words when the concept under discussion really isn’t that simple. I find something hilarious in an ordinary man talking bollocks.”
THE TEAM THAT CAME TOGETHERfor On the Hourstill exerts a heavy influence on comedy and culture. The reclusive Chris Morris scared the horses with Brass Eyeand Nathan Barley. Patrick Marber packed theatres with Dealer’s Choiceand Closer. Steve Coogan continues to be Steve Coogan. Meanwhile Iannucci, now 45, has continued to mastermind some of the oddest and most hilarious shows on television. In recent years, he has been working on a BBC scheme to discover new writers. Is this wise? Does he really want to help the BBC discover the new contenders for his crown?
“Comedians are competitive,” he agrees. “I hate the fact that there are so many awards and competitions. It’s like you are not allowed to have more than one comedian who is any good. If you’re not the hot one then piss off!” He snorts in mock disgust.
“It’s not like that with shoe shops. I mean we don’t allow ourselves just one shoe shop.” Very nicely, very oddly put. It’s like something Armando Iannucci might say.
In the Loopis on limited release from April 17