Armando Iannucci – co-creator of The Day Today, Alan Partridge, The Thick of It, and now In The Loop – is an erudite classical music aficionado who raised the bar for swearing on the BBC. Yet no one (except Alastair Campbell) has a bad word to say about him
It is five minutes past nine in the morning, though you wouldn’t know it from the clocks in the Iannucci household. The one in the kitchen is ten minutes fast, in order to fool the children into not being late for school. The one in the study is an hour slow, or rather it has stopped, the time frozen until someone changes the battery. It seems an uncharacteristically nonchalant oversight.
Armando Iannucci – a busy, busy man – lives in a small village in Buckinghamshire with his wife, three children and two dogs. He has an office at the BBC – where he is a prolific producer of comedies – but it is here that he does his writing. The study is a wooden shed and, to reach it, you pass a trampoline in the garden. He overheard his middle child swear while playing on it a few months ago with a couple of friends – ‘This is f—ing great!’ Iannucci had to poke his head around the shed door and give it a stern shake, followed by a frown.
This may sound hypocritical given that, as the writer and director of the political satire The Thick of It, Iannucci is directly responsible for 93 per cent of the entire BBC output of the ‘f-word’. But he insists that the swearing in that comedy is not gratuitous. He wanted it to have a ‘realistic, documentary feel’ and all his research, talking to new Labour insiders, reading published diaries, revealed that this is how people in politics talk these days. ‘Besides, it’s not like anything else I write has swearing. There’s none in I’m Alan Partridge.’
And besides (again), the swearing in The Thick of It is funny, especially when Malcolm Tucker, the very angry and very Scottish spin-doctor based on Alastair Campbell and played by Peter Capaldi, does it. His most memorable line is: ‘Come the f— in or f— the f— off.’
Nevertheless, Iannucci found the experience of watching The Thick of It with his son Emilio, then 13, a little strange. ‘He laughed and then stopped because he thought he might be laughing at something I would disapprove of. It was slightly uncomfortable and confusing for both of us. He kept looking across at me to see whether I disapproved, sort of forgetting I had written it.
And I was feeling embarrassed about the language. We’d flipped roles.’
Alongside Peter Cook and John Cleese, Iannucci has been one of the most influential and innovative figures in British television comedy, first making his mark in 1991 when he assembled the team – including Steve Coogan, Chris Morris and Rebecca Front – that made the news spoof On The Hour on Radio 4. When it was transferred to television as The Day Today it became an electrifying and withering parody of television news. (‘Those were the headlines. Happy now?’)
It was also surreal. Chris Morris, who seemed more like Jeremy Paxman than Jeremy Paxman, would speak in headlines: ‘On The Hour and I am Christopher Morris – for it is I. Tonight’s sizey stories: Nineteen in fogbound bakery collision; Dinosaurs died out on a Tuesday claim experts; And where now for 107 of Ridley’s children?’
Iannucci, this giant of comedy, is not a tall man. At 44 he is wiry, balding and in possession of a fine set of dark and animated eyebrows. In repose he has an earnest expression which every so often, when you least expect it, is transformed by a toothy smile. He once described himself as a ‘big-nosed Jock wop’ – his father having been an Italian immigrant who came to live in Glasgow where he set up a pizza company. Though he is easy company and unspools articulate sentences in a mild and measured Glaswegian caw, Iannucci does have a tendency to say ‘yeahyeahyeah’ impatiently, when acknowledging a point.
His study-cum-shed reflects his three passions beyond comedy – classical music, the romantic poets and politics. The CD boxes on the shelves behind his desk all have the names of composers on their spines. (Somehow he has found the time to co-compose an operetta, which was recently performed by Opera North.)
The books on other shelves include some on Milton, who lived in a cottage 100 yards from here. (Iannucci is working on a documentary for BBC Two about Paradise Lost, which was also the subject of a PhD he began at Oxford but did not finish.) There is also a doll of George W. Bush on the shelves, one that spouts Bushisms when its string is pulled. Iannucci was given it by his wife [a former NHS therapist whom he met at university] while he was researching In the Loop, a film version of The Thick of It, partly set in Washington.
Simon Foster, a mild-mannered British minister played by Tom Hollander, inadvertently backs a war on prime-time television, bringing down on his head the wrath of Malcolm Tucker. Like all Iannucci’s Labour politicians, Foster is self-pitying, dissembling and vacillating, but not unsympathetic. In Washington, where a US General (James Gandolfini from The Sopranos) is trying to prevent the war, he rapidly finds himself out of his depth.
A crucial vote is pending at the UN Security Council. A dodgy dossier appears. Everyone stabs everyone else in the back…
When I ask if Iannucci’s observations about office politics are based on his experiences of working for the BBC, he shakes his head. ‘Actually they are based on my experience of the studio system in LA. You go there with high expectation and you think everyone sounds impressive but you soon realise that they don’t really know what they are doing either, you’re all bluffing but being paid vast sums to bluff.’
The film had its premiere earlier this year at the Sundance Festival and, such was the critical acclaim with which it was greeted, it was soon signed up for US-wide distribution, thus exposing Iannucci to the full glare of Hollywood ingratiation. But all that means in practice, he reckons, is that you get a lot of fruit baskets delivered to your hotel room.
Another thing he based his observations on is the way people in television are impressed by those who can make decisions quickly. ‘Unimportant decisions like which of five suitcases to use as a prop, and I think a lot of that must go on higher up. The busier you are the less time you have to make decisions. A minister will get a five-minute brief in the back of a car and then he will have to come up with a policy.’
The big question is whether The Thick of It, which began as six half-hour episodes and two specials from 2005 to 2007, will translate into a full hour-and-a-half feature film. In my opinion it does, hilariously. The cameras still skitter restlessly from character to character. And visually, it still has a news-as-it-is-happening feel, where actors are often only half in the frame or partly obscured while reciting a line of dialogue. But it has more variety of pace than the television version – more non-verbal cues, little looks, sighs – and that is as it should be.
But Alastair Campbell, who has also seen a preview, has dismissed the film as ‘unrealistic and unfunny’. He was, he said, ‘too bored to be offended,’ adding that he despairs of Iannucci’s cynicism, and wonders whether the satirist really thinks all politics is basically crass, all politicians venal. Campbell twists the knife by suggesting that Iannucci ‘like Rory Bremner’, is becoming less funny the more serious his subject matter gets.
Ouch. But he would say that, wouldn’t he. And anyway, Iannucci doesn’t think he is being cynical. ‘We try to show the politicians not as evil, but as morally tortured and compromised. I find that more interesting than goodies and baddies. The audience wonders whether they would do the same. I suppose delusion is better than cynicism.
‘Clare Short really believed she was doing the right thing in the run up to the Iraq war and managed to convince herself that it was better not to resign. There is a scene in the film in which the minister does something similar, trying to convince himself that war can sometimes be a good thing. What about the Crimean War? We got nurses out of the Crimean War.’
And, to be fair, Iannucci always does his homework. He established via research trips to the Pentagon and the CIA’s HQ in Virginia, for example, that a lot of Washington is run by ‘very intelligent but fairly un-streetwise 23-year-olds with degrees in Terrorism Strategy Studies’.
Though he is fascinated by politics, he doesn’t think he is a political animal as such. ‘I hate the idea of labels and saying you are member of one party or another and signing up to all sorts of policies that you don’t have a view on or don’t believe in. Because I’m not a politician I don’t have to be consistent in what I say and how I behave.’
The media, I point out, is always accused of undermining the political process, but surely comedies such as his are much worse offenders, undermining and ridiculing in a much more ruthless and efficient way. ‘Yeahyeahyeah, I know.
I don’t know whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing. Hazel Blears said a few months ago that The Thick of It put people off politics and why can’t we make the West Wing? Show our British politicians being noble? But I think people would laugh at that for the wrong reason, because they wouldn’t believe it. It’s to do with our natural default position of disbelief and cynicism.’
Though The Thick of It was a critical hit, plans for a second series were derailed when the deadpan actor at its centre, Chris Langham, was arrested and charged with possession of indecent photographs of children. ‘My instant reaction was to think about Chris and how I could be supportive,’ Iannucci says now. ‘Not, oh, what will this mean for the project? It was more puzzlement than frustration. I didn’t want to do any more of the series until we knew the outcome of his trial.
‘We were able to do a couple of one-off specials which didn’t write Chris’s character out of the script but said he was in Australia.’ The two met up just before Christmas and would like to work together again, but not on The Thick of It. The BBC won’t even show repeats of the first series. Both accept that Langham’s rehabilitation will be a long, slow process.
When I ring round a few of Iannucci’s friends and colleagues, several mention his loyalty. Rebecca Front, who has known him since Oxford, says she has never seen him lose his temper. ‘If he ever gets frustrated he hides it – he doesn’t like conflict. He’s easy going but he will let you know when he doesn’t like something you’ve written, and he’ll do it in a way that doesn’t leave you feeling offended, which is a great skill. There is an “Armando Way”, an “Armando House Style”, and he tends to work with people he feels can deliver it. He tends to lose interest rather than lose his temper.
‘We had him and his family around for lunch the other day with some other friends of ours and they remarked afterwards about how low key he was. I think they had expected this full-on King of Satire to walk in.’
The playwright Patrick Marber was also one of the Day Today team. ‘I feel I owe my whole career to him because he saw things in me which I couldn’t see in myself,’ he says. ‘I think he’s like a good football manager, a Cloughie figure. Not a great praiser but he wouldn’t diminish you either.’
Iannucci is a fastidious man who worries about his diet: he won’t eat carbs at lunch, as he is convinced that they sap his energy levels. He admits to a certain physical awkwardness, saying that he finds kicking a ball and trying to look cool impossible, but reckons that he has become much more comfortable in his skin since turning 40 – he had always felt that was his natural age.
‘Armando always looked and behaved as if he couldn’t wait to turn 40,’ confirms Chris Morris, who then does an uncanny impression of his friend for me. Back in 1990, he says, Iannucci approached him and the two drove round and round in a car talking through their ideas for a new and experimental type of comedy.
‘What we both liked was the idea of delivering absurdity in an authoritative voice. Making the ridiculous appear sensible. Sometimes Armando would be downcast when he felt things on The Day Today were too floppily formed and needed tightening, but he was always able to make subtle-minded decisions that were, in the best sense of the word, cool.’
Iannucci doesn’t know whether this is a product of being not quite Italian and not quite Scottish, but he has always felt slightly detached from whatever community he is in. ‘Without being weird,’ he adds, ‘I don’t want you to think I’m a sick loner.’ Though he was a studious child who immersed himself in the world of books and classical music, he got the comedy bug at an early age. ‘I started quite young at school,’ he says, ‘compeering a charity event at an old people’s home. I would do stand up and impressions and enjoyed the laughter. It’s very addictive. It’s a lovely sensation to say something and hear a whole room laugh.’
Though he likes to leave comic acting to ‘proper comic actors’, he does perform himself from time to time, fronting some of the shows with which his name is associated, such as The Friday Night Armistice, or The Charm Offensive on Radio 4. ‘I was aware when we were doing The Day Today that if it was successful the public would home in on the cast rather than the creators,’ he says now, ‘and I did agonise a little with Chris over whether I should be in it. But then I realised I simply wouldn’t have been good enough compared to him or Rebecca or Steve.’
He knew he had found a gem in Alan Partridge on the first day working on The Day Today. ‘As soon as Steve did that voice we knew this Partridge would fly. It was very much Alan in the room, not Steve. Steve doesn’t write at a laptop, he paces up and down. So it was me and Peter Baynham taking turns on the computer, writing ideas down while Steve stayed in character. The trouble was he would keep it up all day. He would be Alan all day.’
That must have been a laugh, I say. ‘You’d think so but after eight months of it I just wanted to kill him. I remember thinking “I’ve been in a room with f—ing Alan Partridge for eight months. Won’t someone just shoot him.”’
When he and Baynham (who co-wrote Borat) get together with Coogan they often find themselves wondering what Partridge would be up to now. ‘I think Alan is desperate to get on one of these has-been celebrity reality shows,’ Iannucci says. ‘I think he’s feeling bitter about being so low status he hasn’t been asked on one. I think he is cornering the producers to get on living TV or Bravo.’ He claps his hands. ‘Ghost Hunt! That’s what Alan would like to be in at the moment.’
Steve Coogan has a reputation as a party animal – the drink, the drugs, the womanising – whereas Iannucci is, by his own admission, more a cardigan and comfortable shoes type. ‘I would never give Steve advice about his lifestyle. It is so alien to me. He knows that and I know that there is nothing in my life I could compare his situation to. We have a great relationship that tends to be very much about work. But I think recently his experiences have… well, he has turned a corner, as he puts it. Put it like this, I don’t counsel him, nor do I think he would accept counselling.’
When I ring Coogan, who is on tour in Australia at the moment, he describes Iannucci as a private person, not overly demonstrative or theatrical. ‘He’s not given to grand gesticulations and is economical with his emotions,’ he says. ‘But I think what we have in common is that we both like to expose the underbelly of things and prick pomposity.
Coogan says he always felt protected by Iannucci, who acted as a ‘buffer’ between him and the bureaucrats at the BBC. ‘He is the senior party, he’s like the sensible older brother,’ says Coogan. ‘Our relationship has never been about who is the funniest. I was more instinctive, he was more intellectual. My creativity was directionless so he could always rein me in and give me a focus.’
Coogan says the Day Today team knew right from the moment Iannucci gathered them all together in a studio that what they were doing was cutting edge and uncompromising. ‘He sort of unleashed us. In a way it was anti-comedy, not chasing the laughs, not doing comedy to win the approval of the audience. There was an attractive coldness to it. I think Armando’s taste has evolved since then. There is a painful vulnerability to his characters that wasn’t there before.’
Though his work can be politically attuned and socially topical, it can be whimsical and absurd, too. In his brilliant 2006 television series Time Trumpet, a nostalgic ‘list show’ set 30 years in the future, Charlotte Church vomits herself inside out while exploring the outer limits of binge-drinking, Tony Blair pays television cameramen to expose themselves while filming Gordon Brown, thus causing him to lose the thread of his argument, and Tesco mounts an invasion of Denmark.
Comedian David Baddiel first met Iannucci on The Mary Whitehouse Experience in 1989. ‘Armando has never given up on the idea that comedy, as well as being silly and making you laugh, should also be an intellectual pursuit at some level,’ he says. ‘His linguistic humour was apparent, he was always coming up with new words that seemed somehow right, like “mentalist”. I love the way he uses the
f-word in The Thick of It. There is a real poetry to it. You know like, “what’s the story in Bala-f—ing-mory?” The “f—ing” is so well placed there, giving an almost Rabelaisian lyricism to the obscenity.’
Though Iannucci is associated with what is known as ‘the comedy of embarrassment’, there also seems to be an anger behind his comedy. I ask him if he worries that as he gets older and more comfortable he will lose his edge? ‘Not really. I have never felt as angry about anything in my life as I felt about the invasion of Iraq. I went on the march and took the train from Gerard’s Cross, which is in the stockbroker belt, and to my surprise it was packed with protesters with lunch boxes and sturdy walking boots, and polite notices like “Really, Mr Blair, think again”.’
He was 17 when his father died, did that leave him angry, thinking ‘why me?’ ‘Yes, but it’s more I…’ He hesitates. ‘He died the summer before I went to Oxford and he was so pleased… He had this van he drove around in and he said he was going to drive down to Oxford and see me… So the immediate thing was sorrow that he never got to see that moment happen. He hadn’t been to university himself. He had been 16 in the war and joined the partisans and left afterwards to come here. Just got on a boat.’
There was no swearing at home when Iannucci was growing up in Glasgow. ‘Well, there was some swearing, from my dad. But it was in Italian. Because he was always working hard, it tended to be more my mum that I saw and it’s nice that she was able to come to the premiere of In the Loop in Glasgow, with two of my aunts. She was used to the swearing, having seen The Thick of It, but still, we have this photo of three little old ladies in the front row watching a 40ft Malcolm swearing his head off and…’ he gives an embarrassed shrug and his unexpected, toothy smile.