Spin doctors and policy shockers: Armando Iannucci interview

Co-written with Owen Keating

Considering the massive impact that Armando Iannucci’s characters have had on British comedy over the last fifteen years, it’s easy to imagine the man behind such a comedy revolution might be overshadowed by their unavoidable relevance to him, or by the fact that he’s responsible for their projection into the public’s conscience. Thankfully it would be impossible for anything to overshadow our interviewee.

Iannucci remains as incisive a force for political progression as ever
Iannucci remains as incisive a force for political progression as ever

Gregarious, quick to engage and even quicker to quip, Armando Ianucci is supremely interesting. It takes a certain intelligence to find oneself studying for a PHD on the works of Milton at Cambridge, and an even greater degree of self-confidence to drop such an eminent qualification to pursue a career in the cutthroat world of comedy. However, listening to Ianucci discussing his education, you’d think it simple to make such a big decision. He says of his PHD, “I just realised I’d never finish, so I stopped.” That’s that, then.

Not quite. Despite abandoning academia to write jokes, he’s quick to stress the benefit of his prestigious education. He admits to a “fascination” with Satan in Paradise Lost, simply because he’s overwhelmingly charismatic, with “the best speeches, the best vocabulary”. Ianucci also draws parallels between Satan and the political machine he now so fluidly comments upon, and as we later find out, influences.

He’s particularly effusive about our society’s fascination with the villain, specifically their methods of control and manipulation. Unsurprisingly for such a political comedian, Ianucci professes a fascination for Satan’s use of spin to tell us what we already knew, “Heaven‘s overrated”.

This fascination manifests itself nowhere more so than in Malcolm Tucker, the abuse-spitting spin doctor at the heart of The Thick of It. Tucker is fantastically nasty, threatening colleagues with everything from Diabetes to disembowlment, all in a Scottish brogue not dissimilar to Iannucci’s own. Could there be any more than a passing similarity between the two?

Thankfully Armando assures us he is nothing like his monstrous creation. For a start he’s not that sweary; he finds mindless expletives a bit overpowering. “The trick” he says “is to make the swearing feel real”; the Blair years were ridden with testosterone-laden swagger, and as such, characters critiquing modern  need a suitably vibrant lexicon.

Iannucci says that it’s the words around the swearing, the “baroque threat” of Malcolm’s aggression that creates the comedy. “Fuck this fuck that can be a bit relentless”, he says, highlighting the impact of the physical violence that underpins so much of Tucker’s diatribe.

In this most recent series of The Thick of It, Tucker exudes evil like never before. He’s in opposition, interminably frustrated and struggling with “conflicting and contradictory” party relations, according to his creator. Is this frustration indicative of a tougher political arena than the previous series? Iannucci certainly thinks so. While The Thick of It retains its lack of overt party specifics, it still offers “a shot of what’s really going on”, to the extent that recent episodes have actually started to foreshadow the real news to startlingly prescient levels; Jimmy Saville, anyone?

In this latest series the coalition is new, unmanageable territory for all sides of the political spectrum. In both reality and fiction, the honeymoon period has been replaced with a seething cauldron of personal agendas and voter apathy, with young, inexperenced staff  tasked with managing vast, difficult projects.

Iannucci is typically opinionated about the shortcomings of the current system. His show, like the system it critiques, is more concerned with the pressures exerted on politicians than the people themselves. The media, Iannucci says, has created a constantly vicious circle where if a politician “looks a bit gawky or falls over, then he’s finished”. The sky’s no longer the limit, it’s the channel that broadcasts the demise of our politicians.

Our interviewee is undoubtedly sympathetic to our plight, helpless ministers are abused by self-interested, incompetent advisers, trapped in a system that in real life has capitalised on widespread confusion as to who actually does what to legislate vast, previously undiscussed changes to our country.

Oddly enough the real politicians love Iannucci’s take on their world. Ed Milliband has used ‘omnishambles’, one of Malcolm Tucker’s pre-watershed soundbites in policy speeches, and according to Iannucci, Ed and his peers seem to be embracing the image of politicians and the pressures they face that The Thick of It portrays.

Well, most of them do, anyway. Alistair Campbell, former accomplice of Tony Blair, criticised Iannucci for “going against the values of Malcolm Tucker” in accepting an OBE. “But Malcolm Tucker is horrible!” Iannucci chuckles in response. He doesn’t endorse the bile-spewing values of his creation, who “fundamentally represents an abuse of politicians”. Indeed, he says, it’s more worrying that Alistair Campbell places Tucker on such a pedestal, and sees him as someone who values are now to be strived for. It’s people like Tucker, Ianucci says, that help create ” a recipe for paranoia, which leaves politicians at best exposed and at worst, hopelessly vilified.

Despite all this, Iannucci firmly describes himself as “pro-politics”; he just wants to change the system. He doesn’t see his work as judgmental, but as a portrayal of “where I think we are at the moment”. Character like Chris Addison‘s Ollie Reader show an overdependence on inexperienced youth, something Iannucci would counter by placing an emphasis on recruiting “older, better qualified MP’s”. He yearns for the days where politics was something you did after a successful career in another field, rather than just another career ladder to climb and, presumably, fall off.

Armando Iannucci is a once-in-a-generation kind of comedian; his intelligent, far-reaching work permeates the very fabric of uor society, from politicos to Partridge. His work is as universal as it is neccessary and talking to him was a genuine privilege.

Article continues at Exeposé Online

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Author: Louis Doré

Freelance Journalist studying at City University, London on MA Newspaper Journalism.

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