Armando Iannucci: 'How I conquered America'

Can the man behind the very British monsters Alan Partridge and Malcolm Tucker repeat his success in America? You betcha...

Click to follow
The Independent Online

The hardman of political satire" is how a newspaper once described Armando Iannucci. Maybe he's just too weary after wrapping the latest series of The Thick of It, but if I was expecting someone abrasive, someone inhabited by the spirit of Malcolm Tucker (The Thick of It's imaginatively foul-mouthed government enforcer), then what I'm actually confronted with is politeness and equability. He doesn't seem to have an unkind word to say about anyone, let alone a four-lettered word – not even for his Oxford University near-contemporary David Cameron.

"What I took away from my Oxford experience was that thing of not judging people," he says. "I don't have a thing against David Cameron because he's from Eton, because actually he can be quite nice. I don't care what school he went to." If anything, Iannucci is less enamoured of one of Cameron's predecessors as prime minister, Tony Blair, whom he can't forgive for waging a mendacious war in Iraq. "It's a tragedy because he's such a talented politician. If only he hadn't taken us into a war that cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. That peccadillo to one side, he had a good track record."

Iannucci's opposition to the Iraq War resurfaced a couple of weeks ago in his Twitter spat with Blair's spin-doctor, Alastair Campbell, whom, it is commonly believed, is the model for The Thick of It's Malcolm Tucker (he wasn't, says Iannucci). Campbell tweeted after Iannucci accepted an OBE – accusing the satirist of hypocrisy in "joining the establishment he claims to deride". Iannucci quickly tweeted back that, "It's probably more establishment to order your army to march into other countries for no reason." (Last week, Iannucci seemed keen to draw a line under the incident. "I just woke up on Saturday morning and for a bit of fun tweeted twice," he said. "He [Campbell] is still going, touring the news studios.")

As diverting as all this was, Iannucci has moved on from New Labour to target the Liberal Democrats, the party he voted for in the last election, and whom he dubs "the inbetweeners" in the new series of The Thick of It. "It was a terrible, tragic error," he says with mock solemnity, "not only to have voted Lib Dem but to have said I was going to vote Lib Dem. If I was in any form of elected office I would have resigned by now." At least he is in a position to extract comic revenge, waiting to write the new series of The Thick of It in order to give himself time to "get under the skin" of the coalition. "If we'd done it earlier it would have been about how they're all getting on and... nah... this is fundamentally about two groups of people with different philosophical approaches to everything, yoked together."

A great subject for comedy, then, although the 48-year-old writer-director isn't too forthcoming on details. "I don't want to give too much away but Malcolm Tucker [Peter Capaldi] and Nicola Murray [Rebecca Front] are in opposition. Peter Mannion [Roger Allam] and his team are in government, Terri [Joanna Scanlan] – she's a civil servant, so she's still at DoSAC [the fictional Department of Social Affairs and Citizenship]. Peter, as a junior minister, has someone from another party who's in coalition [with him], who's desperately trying to have just one day when he can say, 'It was our idea... we got that through.'"

Iannucci has, of course, been widening his scope beyond Westminster to embrace American politics, first with his Oscar-nominated In the Loop, a 2009 satire on the "special relationship" in the war-mongering Blair-Bush era, and now with Veep – his very sharp and funny HBO comedy starring Seinfeld's Julia Louis-Dreyfus as US Vice-President Selina Meyer. "I wanted a female vice-president because we felt it would take us away from being a critique of Cheney or Biden or Gore," he says. "Of course, then people say: well, is it Hillary Clinton or Sarah Palin? And we say, 'No, it's Selina Meyer.'"

Meyer is in the same desperate mould of Iannucci's Thick of It politicians, scrabbling to remain relevant while squeezed between the White House and special-interest groups, power and powerlessness. Does he like politicians? "Yes... fundamentally most people are quite nice... it's just the pressures they're put under, the limitations of what they can do. Maybe I've got it wrong, but for me the most sympathetic characters in the show are the elected politicians."

A "political junkie", Iannucci recalls being glued to television election nights as a boy. "Bob McKenzie and his Swingometer... I'd stay up for that," he says. "Before Parliament was broadcast I'd read Hansard. It just appealed, I don't know why. In the same way people can say who was in the Liverpool team in 1974, I strangely know the intricacies of government in the 1960s and 1970s."

Iannucci, as his name suggests, is of Italian extraction. His father (also called Armando) emigrated from Naples after the war, marrying Iannucci's Scottish mother and setting up a "Heath Robinson-type" pizza factory amid the tenement blocks of Glasgow's Springburn area. "During the Second World War he joined the partisans and had to flee up to the hills," says Iannucci, "and after the war he wanted to distance himself from that whole traumatic experience, so he came to the UK and lost touch with that [Italian] side of the family. He died in 1982, and I've got all these cousins I don't know at all."

Coincidentally, Iannucci grew up only a few doors away from, but unknown to, Peter Capaldi, the Scottish-Italian actor who would embody Iannucci's greatest comic creation to date, The Thick of It's Malcolm Tucker. "Our parents knew each other really well. My father used to make kitchen-shelf units and that sort of stuff, and Peter says he grew up with one of my dad's kitchens."

Like his later comedy partner Chris Morris, Iannucci was educated by Jesuits. "I have a lot of time for the Jesuits," he says. "There is the strict type, but there is also the free-thinking, always-be-inquisitive type. We had a healthy dose of encouraging the questioning." A healthy enough dose, in fact, to take him to University College, Oxford, to study English. Was it a culture shock? "I was the first in my family to leave Glasgow. I remember arriving in Oxford – Brideshead Revisited was going out at the time – and the first voice I heard was someone's mother going (putting on a posh voice), 'Hatty – where would you like me to put your fridge?' and I said, 'God, she's got a fridge and she talks like that.' In fact, she was the girl in the room next to me and she became a great friend. It's a great leveller... at school I was always the brainy one and suddenly you arrive at Oxford and you realise you weren't as clever as you thought you were. I met some really brilliant people there."

One person he met during his six years at Oxford (he went on to do an MA on 17th-century religious language) was his future wife, Rachel Jones, whom he got to know while serving as the co-ordinator of the students' advice service, Nightline (in that pre-mobile age, Iannucci was chuffed to have a telephone in his study). The couple married in 1990 and now have three children – Emilio, 18, Marcello, 12, and 10-year-old Carmella – and live far from the political-media haunts of London, in rural Buckinghamshire, where Jones works as a hearing therapist.

Along with Iannucci and Morris, others of those he met at Oxford – Stewart Lee, Richard Herring, Patrick Marber, Rebecca Front and David Schneider – went on to form the nucleus of the seminal Radio 4 newsroom spoof On the Hour, which later transferred to television as The Day Today. "There was no plan," he says. "The group of us came together for that show and then we started to spark in all sorts of combinations."

The Day Today's most successful spin-off character was Alan Partridge, Steve Coogan's cheesy Norfolk radio DJ, and these days Iannucci works as chief creative officer for Coogan's production company, Baby Cow, having written the two series, I'm Alan Partridge and Knowing Me, Knowing You, as well as the online series, Mid-Morning Matters – a television version of which will begin on Sky in July. "We're in an interesting time at the moment," he says, à propos of his online experience with Mid-Morning Matters, "when schedules and even channels don't matter now. Suddenly it means that commissioners and network executives are less important. Suddenly the content is the thing."

He has also written a forthcoming Alan Partridge film. "We've got the funding in place and a director on board," he says. "It's primarily for a UK audience. If it breaks out from that, fine, but it's not a big studio thing. It's not going to turn itself into something that is not Partridgian.

Having been positively received in America, Veep has been re-commissioned by HBO, and Iannucci starts writing it later this month – although a permanent move across the Atlantic is not on the cards. "I'm not really interested in going to America," he says, "but if [Veep] means I can establish contact with American actors that I like, then that's great." In the meantime he's been so busy editing what is going to be the final series of The Thick of It – "Though the door is still open for us to do specials" – that he has found difficulty keeping up with the drama of the Leveson Inquiry. Whether or not Malcolm Tucker will be summoned by a similar sort of inquiry in the new series is something Iannucci refuses to be drawn on. And anyway, topicality is not what the series is about. "I'm more interested in the underlying structures – the stresses and strains underneath it all – than real-life incidents, such as whether they've done a U-turn on pasty tax. Although, interestingly, policies being suddenly dropped is the crux of the opening two episodes."

On the subject of stresses, strains and underlying structures, I ask Iannucci about Scottish independence. "Instinctively, I feel Scotland should stay part of the union," he says. "Also, I worry that the Scottish economy isn't quite strong enough. On the other hand, I feel countries are so inter-dependent now that it wouldn't be massively different." Could this be the rare sound of the hardman of political satire prevaricating – indeed, being a politician – or is he genuinely unsure about the issue? "I've worked in England for the past 20 years and I don't feel entitled to be publically part of that debate. I'm interested in watching it, but I don't feel I have a strong enough opinion one way or the other."

One way or the other, he now needs to recharge. "I just want to sign off on The Thick of It and spend the summer doing nothing and allowing the mind to go blank a bit," he says, before giving an inkling as to what Armando Iannucci "doing nothing" consists of. "I want to spend the summer thinking about something that's going to be more of a challenge – something that could fail." And if that's unlikely, Iannucci at least makes the prospect of failure sound more interesting than most people's successes.

'Veep' begins on Sky Atlantic tomorrow. 'The Thick of It' will return in the autumn

In brief: The shows that made his name

'On The Hour'

Surreal Radio 4 parody of news broadcasting that ran from 1991-1992. Gave birth to Alan Partridge's career, starting with TV iteration The Day Today

'The Saturday Night Armistice'

Satirical BBC2 look back at the week's events that ran from 1995-1999. Once sent busload of Princess Diana lookalikes to pap News International journalists

'The Armando Iannucci Shows'

Existential Channel 4 series from 2001 in which Iannucci took a topic – from "twats" to "time passing" – and weaved sketches and monologues around them

'The Thick of It'

First broadcast on BBC4 in 2005 before transferring to BBC2, the Bafta-winning docu-burlesque skewered modern politics and led to new US hit Veep