INTERVIEW: 'In 10 years time, Viz will be run by Dominic Lawson. It'll be a nine-section paper with Lifestyle, Appointments and Property'

James Rampton talks to Armando Iannucci, comedy man of the moment
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The Independent Culture
On the seventh floor of BBC Television Centre, you turn left out of the lift. Past the sign for the World Service Arabic Newsroom, past the nerve-centre of the Ceefax operation and the BBC's subtitling service, you arrive at Room 7001 and its humble door marked "Saturday Night Armistice". Inside is a sparse, standard-issue BBC office, enlivened only by a Dame Hilda Bracket annual propped up by the window. This is where the BBC's hottest comic property goes about his business. Although this young man has never had his own show before, he is already on first name terms with the clued-in comedy audience. There's Jennifer, Dawn, Lenny, Rik, Ade, Ben, Rowan, Griff, Mel and Alexei. And now there's Armando.

Armando Iannucci made his name behind the camera, as the co-writer and producer of the highly acclaimed news spoof, The Day Today (On the Hour on radio), and the cod chat-show, Knowing Me, Knowing You ... With Alan Partridge. On the strength of these two shows, Iannucci picked up a Special Award for Comedy at last year's British Comedy Awards - the first time such an accolade has been bestowed. It is exceedingly hard to resist the word "wunderkind''.

Phil Clarke, a senior producer who worked with Iannucci at BBC Radio Light Entertainment, does so, but only in a manner of speaking: "He is just as much a star as a producer. All his shows are unique. Jobbing producers here found it difficult working in his shadow. He was streets ahead of us in his ideas and his execution.

"His ideas are very simple at the outset, but they have longevity. A lot of producers look for that, but very few achieve it. As a producer you can't help but listen to other people's shows with a critical ear. When they're really good, you can be jealous, but you have to just sit back and enjoy them. It's like the difference between Eddie Izzard and a good stand-up on the circuit. What makes a person a star? It's that spark of originality. The X Factor."

Geoffrey Perkins, the new head of comedy at the BBC and a man with a formidable track record as a producer on radio and television (from Hitchhikers' Guide to the Galaxy through to Harry Enfield), is also a fully paid-up member of the Armando Fan Club. "What he's done in such a short space of time is astonishing. He has a combination of qualities which not many producers have: he works incredibly hard, he is incredibly intelligent and, frankly, he can recognise a joke when it appears.

"He has an attention to detail, but the detail is worth attending to. As a producer, you can be a trainspotter packing a programme with detail, at the end of which audiences think, 'what was the point of that?' "

Great things are expected of Iannucci, and he is rightly wary of the hype surrounding his first solo project. He is putting his glittering reputation on the line by venturing in front of the cameras for the first time, tonight, with Saturday Night Armistice, an entertainment show recorded the night before transmission to ensure topicality. "There is a great allure to being in front of the camera," Perkins, who appeared in KYTV, warns. "I just hope he doesn't disperse his enormous talent too thinly."

The show has many of the elements which have run through Iannucci's work like letters through a stick of rock (and for which others have sometimes taken credit): a cool, detached, fierce intelligence, and an absolute mastery of technique. He is able to subvert a conventional form to show up its essential absurdity: the exasperated chat-show host driven to slapping an uppity guest, the aggressive newscaster who reduces an interviewee to tears. The viewer will be happily proceeding up a well-known staircase before being suddenly tripped up by a missing step.

Take this clip from 999 cut together for Saturday Night Armistice: "if you'd like to know more about keeping children safe", the earnest tones of Michael Buerk ring out, "put unpleasant or even dangerous things in their mouths". Puncturing the balloon of pomposity with the needle of surrealism (as Iannucci would put it) has been his strongest asset; the challenge for him now is to develop his others.

Iannucci explains why he's making the leap across the studio. "I really wanted to do an audience show just because I'm an egotist. Also, having spent the last two and a half sodding years trying to keep a straight face with The Day Today and Knowing Me, Knowing You, obviously then you want to run around a bit and shout jokes in people's ears."

Born in Glasgow of Italian parents, Iannucci went to Oxford at the age of 17, and gained a First in English before embarking on an as yet uncompleted PhD thesis on religious language in Milton. Spotted performing in a show at Edinburgh, he was offered a job hosting a youth programme on BBC Radio Scotland. After nine months there, he moved to London where he began producing such shows as The News Quiz and Loose Talk.

Still in his early 30s, Iannucci is already an old hand at the publicity game, knocking back interviewers' serves with the same ironic topspin that has characterised all his shows. Just as The Day Today played with the conventions of television journalism, so Iannucci plays with the conventions of an interview.

"How do you stay within the bounds of taste?" I ask. "Our fourth writing partner is a 68-year-old woman called Delores," Iannucci deadpans. "Anything we write, we give to her and she tells us whether it scares her, or whether she just thinks it's in bad taste."

Then I wonder if any of the lampooned celebrities have ever taken offence. "Maggie Philbin stormed into the office the other day,'' he claims, "punched me, went 'you bastard', and stormed out again. She's completely covered in tattoos actually."

Finally, he informs me where he met his co-presenters. "We were all mercenaries in Angola. We used to do cabarets about mercenary-dom. It went down well, but it's embarrassing to think of those early mercenary skits. We're all worshipped as gods in Chad."

Small and dark with bright, alert eyes, Iannucci is riding high enough to send up interviews in this way, but he knows only too well that behind every newspaper plaudit lurks a backlash (the London listings magazine Time Out, having lionised Armando in the past, recently mauled the pilot of Saturday Night Armstice). "We're going to pre-empt it by creating our own backlash," Iannucci says, immaculately poker-faced, "by slagging ourselves off in the press for being too clever and too knowing."

Iannucci is a team player. Former collaborators Patrick Marber and Steve Coogan play no part in Saturday Night Armistice, but the The Day Today link is maintained through writer/comedians David Schneider and Peter Baynham, with whom Iannucci has been brainstorming sketches for the past couple of weeks.

There's nothing unusual about comedy writers working in packs, but it does nothing to dispel the popular image of the New Comedy Establishment, with Iannucci cast in a leading role.

"What does Establishment mean?" Iannucci wonders. "That we all wear blazers and ties? What is Establishment about our comedy?" The answer is, its success. "Ah, like British Gas. We're going to float ourselves on the stock market. This is the first television programme I've done, so how could I be established? I think there's a general thing of 'ah, yes, but you're all friends, that's wrong. Yeah, you just get your friends in'. But what are you meant to do? If you work with someone who's good, are you then meant not to use them again? You can use them again, but not like them?"

The other mantle that the loose-knit configuration - who also include Chris Morris, Rebecca Front and Doon Mackichan - is saddled with is the Future of Comedy. "Everyone's the future of comedy who's funny at the moment," Dave Schneider reflects. "If you get called the future then the danger is that then someone else will be the future and you're the past. Tomorrow is yesterday in two days' time."

Butting in on the man who has been his stage partner on and off since they met at Oxford 10 years ago, Iannucci adds: "I don't really clock into this theory of the generations - like Beyond the Fringe to Monty Python ... That implies that comedy is a linear thing, as if there is only meant to be one comedy person at a time. But at the moment there's everything from Reeves and Mortimer to Roseanne. It's one of those things people like you say to earn a living." At this his face cracks into a smile.

Because of the topical nature of much of their work, Iannucci's generation have also been dubbed "the new Not the Nine O'Clock News". "It didn't help that the BBC launched The Day Today as "the Not the Nine O'Clock News of the Nineties," Iannucci sighs. "It's flattering, but it's wrong. The thing that worries me is that if you follow that logic it means that in about 15 years' time, we'll be fat, balding old men doing Heineken commercials, or doing a witty newspaper review on David Frost's show, or a restaurant column."

"Armando is the Peregrine Worsthorne of the future," Baynham chips in.

"Peter Baynham - the Voice of Reason ... in Viz," Iannucci ripostes. "In 10 years' time, Viz will be run by Dominic Lawson. It'll be a nine- section paper with Lifestyle, Appointments and Weekend Property."

This sort of shuttlecock-style repartee bounces around Saturday Night Armistice. When I arrived at Room 7001, the three were watching Michael Jackson's new video and discussing the possibilities of spoofing it. Schneider suggested that he and Baynham should don plastic trousers and bobbly jumpers and dance very badly, while Baynham thought about cutting into the video with a Jacko lookalike doing totally legal things - "like filling in a tax form".

"Or flossing his teeth," Iannucci rejoins.

Iannucci contends that the show "is not meant to be an 'ooh, we're out to shock people' kind of thing. It's not in-your-face. It's a down-your- back show. You know, the bit you want to scratch but can't quite reach - it scratches that bit. Saturday Night Armistice - it's irritating and always there."

Iannucci eschews the obvious comparisons with Rory Bremner or Have I Got News For You or That Was The Week That Was. "I'm being serious now," he says as he fiddles with the blinds, "which is why I've put this stupid voice on. You'll have to write it in a stupid font. The show is not meant to be 'a look back at the week's news', 500 things that have happened.

"It's just whatever we happen to have found amusing, irrespective of whether it happened last week. It's not supposed to be a lecture on what's happening around the world. If you immerse yourself in the papers, you find all these strange stories at the bottom of page seven, but no one else has seen them, so what's the point of doing something with them? You're just trying too hard then."

Then it starts again. "All we read is Today," Baynham chimes in, "and stories on page 15 of The Universe."

"And now a wry look back at the week's Catholic satire," Iannucci adds with a flourish. You get the feeling these guys are happy in their work.

Iannucci's end may be wildly original, but his means are supremely disciplined. He has a reputation as a one-take man in pieces to camera, and everything he does is meticulously plotted. Or, as Schneider puts it, pointing out Iannucci's neat pile of chronologically-arranged newspapers and folders full of closely-typed script-meeting notes, he's "anal".

There are other words that spring to mind. Single-minded and stubborn, for example. Geoffrey Perkins recalls that Iannucci turned down an offer to make the television version of R4's News Quiz (which became Have I Got News For You) because "he still had lots of things he wanted to do in radio". Similarly, Iannucci and Chris Morris took The Day Today away from Hat Trick - who had first developed it with them - to Talk Back because in the words of Perkins, a former Hat Trick director, "they wanted complete control".

Perkins elaborates: "Armando has great self-confidence, which is justified by the nature of the shows he's done ... I'm sure he's a control freak in a lot of ways, but so are several other people involved in shows that he's done - quite how that's been resolved, I don't know. He has a very, very good grasp of what he wants, but he's not a control freak with no sense of humour who uses the force of his personality to bulldoze his ideas through."

After Saturday Night Armistice, Iannucci is writing a feature film for the BBC set in a supermarket, producing another series of The Day Today and an Alan Partridge Christmas Special (called Knowing Me, Knowing Yule). "It might come from his house, a sort of Alan's House Party," Iannucci speculates. "But I think actually he's done some sort of weird deal with World of Leather which he doesn't want to talk about. If he's found out, he could be in trouble."

For the moment, though, the comedy man of the moment has his ironic gaze set on Saturday Night Armistice. "This show could be terrible. It could go absolutely badly and have terrible consequences for me and my family. In which case, we'll claim it was sending up the Rory Bremner show."

'Saturday Night Armistice' begins on BBC2 at 9.50pm tonight

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