When news satire is beyond a joke : LIFE

Armando Iannucci, one of the most original comedy talents in radio and television, is taking time off to think about things
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Armando Iannucci, funny name, funny guy, has had a good year. He produced and co-wrote two of the more original new television comedy series of the year, The Day Today and Knowing Me, Knowing You (the Alan Partridge show) and got a prize in the re cent British Comedy Awards. What for? "I'm not sure. They called it a Special Award. Perhaps it was for a lifetime's achievement, in which case it will be downhill from now on."

Joke. Well, partly. How can anyone aged only 31, in his first year making television comedy shows, be worthy of a lifetime award? On the other hand, the future could well be downhill, or sideways, or backwards. They are so clever, so clear-sighted, our new breed of comedy persons, they could move on and do anything. Or nothing. You can hear undiluted Armando on Radio4 at 3.30 this afternoon, and for the next three days, in a bijou series called In Excess, filling in at this funny, floating, weightless,timeless part of the year. He will just be himself, thinking aloud on various topics, such as money, and doing a few interviews with money people. Hard to explain, really. So let's not.

His best friends know him as Arm. "I've been called it so long I've forgotten it means a part of the body." He was born in Glasgow, of Italian parentage. His name, he says, caused no problems, growing up in Glasgow, because there were so many Italians around. "My grandfather, while in an internment camp during the war, cut Charles Forte's hair." Name dropper. He still has a Scottish accent, rather gentle and Kelvinside-ish, which appears more pronounced on radio than in what passes for real life.

His dad, who was born in Naples, came to Glasgow in 1950 and married his mother, daughter of an Italian immigrant. What did your dad do? "He ran a pizza factory." So he was middle class? "This concept of middle class or working class is so British - I wouldn't use it.

"Among Italians, someone who is a joiner is no different from someone who owns a restaurant. They are the same. The restaurant owner at any time might go back to being a waiter, or being a joiner. My father might have been involved in a pizza factory, but in reality he was a philosopher." Well, I'm glad we've got that straight.

Armando was sent to St Aloysius, a fee-paying Catholic school, where he turned out to be very, very clever, so much so that at 16 he was offered a place at Oxford. He was too young to take it up, so he went to Glasgow University for a year, then to Oxford at 17. What did you think you would do in life? "By the age of 17, I had decided not to decide." Oh stop being so clever, you know what I mean.

"When I was a wee boy, aged about 12, I wanted to be a stand-up comedian. I used to tape things like Hitch-hiker's Guide to the Galaxy on the radio, and act the parts to my friends. I loved a show called Atkinson's People on Radio 3. That was Rowan Atkinson. No one remembers it now. But when I got to Oxford, all I wanted to do in life was get a degree." So he did, devoting his whole time to getting a first in English. It was only when he started on his PhD thesis, religious language in Milton, still unfinished, that he returned to thoughts of comedy.

At college he began doing little one-man shows. Like, well, impersonating capital letters. Pretty easy, he says, except for Z and W which required the help of someone in the audience. He also impersonated Scottish football teams, asking the audience to shout out a name. "I usually had someone planted, to make sure it was mainly Scottish Second Division names, such as Queen of the South."

Then there was his impersonation of the Pope being swallowed by a giant pike. Could you do that for me now? "Not here," he said. We were in a restaurant, near the BBC. I said I was sure they must be used to such excitements, but he still refused. "A pikeswallowing the Pope envolves a great deal of running around and shouting, as you might well expect."

One of his characters was Ken Theft, a name he still likes, who was a disturbed left-wing comedian. Another was the Shy Juggler, no name given, because he was too shy. "I would invite someone from the audience to help, then we'd go behind the curtain forthe juggling. You'd just hear things dropping." Gosh, what fun. He progressed to proper Oxford shows, appearances at Edinburgh, and bingo! he was spotted by someone from BBC Radio in Glasgow and given a job presenting a youth programme. A goo d beginning, but not quite what he wanted.

"I thought I was funny, but I wasn't sure how to tell people out there I was funny. How would they ever know?" After nine months, he moved to London, producing Light Entertainment programmes such as The News Quiz and Quote Unquote. While on a producer's course, supposedly making factual programmes, he used the factual programme-makers' skills and methods to produce a send-up of a factual programme, which at first listen sounded like the real thing.

He thought he had created a new genre, till he heard someone called Chris Morris on a rival network, Greater London Radio, doing similar shows, so he rang him. Together with other young persons of a like mind, such as Steve Coogan, aka Alan Partridge, they created for Radio4 what became On the Hour.

By 1993, they had won various radio comedy awards for their various clever, witty, parody radio programmes, hence their move in 1994 to television, transporting wholesale their skills and some of the same characters into the more important, more glamorous medium. Or is it?

"Radio programmes often only get properly recognised when they move to television, but there are lots of good ones which never transfer. You could argue that radio is more important at present, as radio figures are going up while television-watching is decreasing.

"There is a lot of stupid stuff on TV. Too much of it talks down to people. The networks are trying to target people, so they treat them like fodder. Television is full of intellectuals, especially in the BBC, who think they have got to be stupid and make stupid programmes - and it shows. ITV is much better at making stupid programmes. Blind Date is terrific. That first National Lottery programme with Noel Edmonds was appalling, the worst show of the year. I think if you looked in his eyes carefully, you would have seen that he knew it was appalling.

"We moved to TV because TV has more money, more resources and can get bigger audiences. In some ways it has been more enjoyable. With radio, you're often editing up to three o'clock in the morning, all on your own. In television, you can delegate more and enjoy it. But it is more nerve-racking. I now know it is easier to make good radio than it is to make good television. It is also easier to make bad television than it is to make bad radio. I'm beginning to sound mathematical ... "The borderline between good and bad on television is very narrow but you can't tell till it's too late. With radio, you instantly know it hasn't worked. With TV, you can record a whole show and not know if it's any good till it comes out of the little box in the corner of the room. This is why you see multi-million-pound films that are absolute rubbish. They didn't know till it was too late."

Thanks for the tutorial, Arm. So, what series are you working on in 1995? "There won't be any." What? The Day Today and Alan Partridge got great reviews, and respectable audiences, surely they want you back?

"There is this theory that if something's good, you must make another 72. We're not going to. We'll come back, soon, with other ideas, but for the moment I'm not producing any more TV shows. I'm taking a year off." But you've only been with us half an hour. Most people will probably not even know what The Day Today was - now you're telling us it's finished. "Hard luck. I never saw myself as a television producer. It just happened." The Day Today was a cod news programme, done for real, with real locations, but without jokes as such, or studio audience, so that if you tuned in, not knowing, you might well think the news items were genuine. But very stupid.

Inherent in the format was its own disintegration, which of course its creators, being so awfully clever, realised before the bosses. Once you have parodied the news programmes, that's it, basically. You can't keep on doing it.

Didn't you realise this when you began? "Yes." And did it worry you? "Yes. And we made it harder for ourselves by our own constraints, insisting on making everything totally authentic. If we had allowed jokes, we might have been able to carry on longer."So what are you doing now?

"Thinking about various comedy ideas. I'd hate to sound academic talking about it ..." Oh go on. "... but I think we've got to get away from parody, and also from news satire. There's been so much of that on radio, in programmes like Week Ending, or TV like Spitting Image. It sounds good, thinking up 25 sketches on 25 topical items, on John Major, or VAT, or BSE, or whatever. `Hello, I'm from the Ministry of Agriculture, can I have a BSE burger please?' That's clever at the time, but what's the point? News satire does become boring. You can make a joke about East Timor, but you might as well write about it in a leader column, and have as little effect."

Perhaps the problem is that you are all too clever and not, er, creative enough? Your critical faculties, how should I put this, are overdeveloped? "I hear what you are saying. Steve is very creative, at creating characters. I like to think I can create jokes. That's what I want to do. Writing or making programmes is just a slog. The best fun is standing up there and making an audience laugh, though my ultimate ambition is to make films. I'm a great fan of Woody Allen."

Meanwhile, in the coming year, he wants to do more writing and spend more time with his family. He met his wife when she was reading philosophy and theology. Since then, she has moved into medicine. They have a 10-month-old son and live in Chalfont St Giles in Buckinghamshire. That doesn't sound a very right-on place for a young, thrusting comedian.

"We're in the rough part of Chalfont St Giles. We did live in London, but we didn't like it. London's a bit of a mess. And no one smiles."

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