Armando Iannucci

Armando Iannucci isn’t here. We’ve arranged to meet in a restaurant at 3pm, but so far, he hasn’t turned up. As I glance at my watch, a nervous thought flicks through my mind: what if he’s forgotten? It’s possible. After all, he is possibly the most powerful figure in British comedy today and seems to be in constant demand, regularly appearing on everything from Newsnight to Have I Got News For You. Considering his huge number of commitments, it’s conceivable that this interview might have been overlooked. Sitting at the bar, fiddling with a straw, I make another cautious scan around the restaurant, and suddenly breathe a sigh of relief as I see him walk through the door. As he walks over and we shake hands, he is full of apologies for his tardiness, though I assure him it’s no problem. We make our way over to a table at the back of the restaurant, and as we navigate around other tables, I can’t help but notice that he’s somewhat shorter than I had expected, though his friendly expression is comfortingly familiar – resembling, in the best possible way, an eager Italian garden gnome. Indeed, I’m a little surprised by the apparent lack of recognition from our fellow diners. No-one seems to have noticed that arguably the greatest comedy writer of the past two decades has walked into the room, though this anonymity might be just how Iannucci wants it.

He is in Oxford to promote his new book, The Thick of It: The Missing DoSAC Files, a convincing and typically witty parody of a lost governmental folder, and as we sit at a table by the window, this is the first topic that comes up. Given the phenomenal and deserved success of the television series, I’m surprised that there hasn’t been a tie-in book before. He nods, and admits, ‘We talked about it. But we very rarely do merchandising of stuff, and we thought that… we don’t want to do a book of bits that we wrote for the show and never used – we want to do a book that is specially written.’ The book itself – a large and fairly glossy affair – sits on the table between us, and I venture a quick flick through the pages. It’s eerily authentic, full of vicious email exchanges and internal memos, with the more explicit excerpts usually coming from the show’s most infamous character, Malcolm Tucker, a somewhat thinly disguised reflection of Alistair Campbell.

Since it began on BBC Four in 2005, The Thick of It has rapidly gained a reputation as one of the sharpest political comedies of the decade, and owes debts both to Yes, Minister and The Office. Even in the corridors of Westminster, it has apparently become required viewing, though I suggest to Iannucci that many politicians still seem quick to dismiss it. He leans in slightly closer, and smiles a conspiratorial smile. ‘The number of politicians who publicly say that shows like The Thick of It actually do politics down and put young people off politics are outweighed by the number of politicians who privately come up to me and say that, if anything, in real life [politics] is a lot worse.’

It’s a show that thrives on its sense of realism – he admits that he wanted to make a show ‘that just shouted dull facts at you, dull accuracy’ – and it has made Iannucci extremely popular with every kind of political show on television. On the night of the General Election, for instance, he seemed to be on every major channel to offer his own observations. I ask if he feels a little overexposed, and he considers this. ‘I don’t know.’ Another pause. ‘I mean, I do get these emails from Newsnight and This Week and so on saying, ‘Would you like to come on and talk about the cuts?’ And part of me thinks, ‘No, I’d like an expert to come on and talk about the cuts and for me to watch him, rather than for me to come on.’ I don’t feel fully equipped to make a judgement, and nor do I think my view actually is necessarily one that I want others to have.’ Nonetheless, he continues to make regular appearances on various political and comedy shows, and as I make a quick glance at the surrounding tables, I’m still confused why no-one seems to have recognised him.

This apparent anonymity might be due to the fact that he lacks a clear comic persona, appearing instead as an affable – albeit remarkably witty – everyman. Indeed, leaving aside his fairly recent ascendance to the BBC’s go-to-guy for amusing political commentary, Iannucci has seemed more comfortable to remain behind the scenes for the past twenty years, quietly carving out an enormously successful career as the writer responsible for, amongst other things, The Day Today and I’m Alan Partridge. I ask if he has ever been tempted to make a move further into the spotlight, and he nods slowly. ‘I like doing stuff up on stage in front of live audiences… [But] all I can do in those situations is be myself, and try to see where that takes me.’ Is he never tempted to explore another persona? ‘I’m not an actor… I don’t get any sense of, ‘Ooh, I wish I was doing that.’ I’m more than happy to watch them do it and for me to kind of enjoy it on the screen, and then sit down and edit it… It sounds very demeaning of the actors, and I don’t mean it to be, but I do feel it’s like playing different instruments in an orchestra. And suddenly the right tone comes out, or the right chord, and it just feels right. When it all comes together, and all the bustling around and the dialogue all strike a real, sustained comic note, that’s very satisfying.’

A conductor of comedy? It might be the best way to describe his guiding hand, subtly steering almost all of his shows towards greatness, while it certainly indicates a degree of seriousness in his approach. When I bring up the topic of the long-rumoured Alan Partridge: The Movie, he reveals, ‘We’re in the process of writing it just now. But… we want to do it slowly and surely, and not…’ He hesitates, before deciding, ‘it has to justify itself as a film, as opposed to a TV show. But on the other hand, it mustn’t lose the intimacy that it had. So we’re not going to go mad, and do a kind of ‘Alan goes to Hollywood’ thing – it’s very much going to be Norwich-based action.’ It’s clear from his answer that this is a project he’s given careful thought to, as seems to be the case with everything that Iannucci becomes involved in. Integrity, he explains, is the key: ‘I always try and give myself the cut-off point – this is the bottom line, and if we go beneath the bottom line then I won’t make it… In my head, I’ve worked out when I’ll just say no, and rather have it not happen.’ With such high standards, he is perhaps the closest thing you can get to a comedy perfectionist.

Given this, I ask if there are any shows in his career that didn’t quite meet his high standards. ‘Well, there are various pilots that I’ve made that have never seen the light of day, and I hope never will.’ He laughs at this, though it’s clear that he’s not really joking. He thinks for a moment, before reflecting, ‘Well, it’s funny, because I don’t really look back on them. I haven’t looked back at Alan Partridge and Time Trumpet, so I may well dig them out and look and them and just think, ‘Oh my God! What was I thinking?’… [But] I caught a bit of Alan Partridge recently, and because I’d completely forgotten it, bits of it made me laugh… That was kind of nice. But with other bits, I just thought, ‘Oh, I should have cut that bit, that went on a bit.’ So I’d rather just keep moving rather than stop and turn around.’

While his perfectionism pays off – as his near flawless track record demonstrates – it never seems to slow down his work rate. Currently, Iannucci has a huge number of projects on the go; not only is he beginning work on the new series of The Thick of It – which he confirms has been re-commissioned, and that they are deliberately waiting for the new regime to settle in before they commence writing – but, as the interview progresses, he reveals more and more projects with which he is involved, including, but not limited to, a second feature film (following the huge success of In the Loop), twelve ten minute Alan Partridge ‘vodcasts’, the Alan Partridge film, and a documentary on Dickens – which aims ‘to remind people of why [his novels] were considered so great, so readable and so powerful when they first came out’. As the interview comes to a close, I’m impressed with just how many plates he seems to be spinning, but Iannucci shrugs. ‘It’s just, you know, you get slightly jaded as you get older and you realise that sometimes you can work forever on something and then it doesn’t happen.’

Is comedy his sole calling though? Does he never feel tempted by darker, more serious material? He admits, ‘I don’t know,’ before chuckling warmly. ‘There’s no plan. And even if I did try and do a drama, I’m sure it would be a drama with a comic edge.’ In everything he does, it seems that Iannucci is inevitably drawn to the more absurd aspects of life. As we stand up and shake hands, I put this to him, and he nods in agreement. ‘That’s my instinctive reaction is to kind of find [absurd moments] – that gets me through life, really. So I hope that continues. I hope I don’t lose my sense of humour – that would be terrible for me.’ He pauses, before laughing. ‘But I’m sure that other people would cope.’ As we part ways and he weaves his way through the oblivious diners towards the exit, I can’t help but smile at this. Although people might cope if he lost his sense of humour, it is likely that they would feel the loss nonetheless. On the evidence of the past twenty years, it seems beyond question that British comedy is immeasurably improved when it has Armando Iannucci for a conductor.

[Originally published by Cherwell, in print and online, on 12/11/10]

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