has been dubbed ‘the hard man of political satire’ by the Daily Telegraph, but Steve Tomkins found the creator of The Thick of It, In the Loop and Veep surprisingly emollient when he met him in Soho on 16 January 2015.
Photography: Andrew Firth
You were educated by the Jesuits, but they don’t seem to have scarred you for life…
I had a lot of respect for them, actually – what I liked about them was that they were always interested in the mind. I know there’s another kind of Jesuit who are disciplinarians and thwackers, but I seemed to get the slightly more libertarian kind of Marxist free-thinkers.
In RE lessons, you were allowed to write a question anonymously and put it in the question box, and then they would try and answer it. Of course, us being 13- or 14-year-old boys, they were all about masturbation and sexual perversion and, you know, ‘Is it sinful if you are drugged and then engage in bestiality?’ Next question…
Has much of it stayed with you?
I’ve always been fascinated by the fact that every tribe, every culture, every civilisation has some kind of spiritual dimension. That isn’t proof of God’s existence, but it’s an interesting aspect of humanity and I think it is something that needs to be treasured and nurtured. You know, there are certain aspects of religious behaviour that have caused harm and injury; but I’ve never wanted to denigrate or belittle religious belief. I think the belief that there is something better, a higher set of values – that actually you can do good and you can improve your life and the lives of other people – that’s a good thing, and I think it’s no coincidence that every society, big or small, has developed something like that.
Which is not to say that we shouldn’t take a look at religions and their absurdities. There’s always something funny about people’s take on religion.
If I wanted to preach, I would have become a priest. If I wanted to advocate a political system, I would have become a journalist or a politician. I want to make people laugh
You did think of becoming a priest yourself at one stage, didn’t you?
Yes, in that sort of teenage obsessive way. I was kind of interested in those questions like ‘How do you live your life?’ and ‘What’s the alternative to confrontation?’ – as well as that adolescent thing of being highly emotional. And I was always very shy, especially with girls, so, you know, it’s no surprise. But as soon as I got to university, the idea of poverty, chastity and obedience [palled] – I could probably do the poverty thing, but…
I remember going to confession when I was 11 or 12 – we weren’t, like, a churchgoing family and so I was making an effort – and I confessed that I hadn’t been to Mass for about four weeks; and I could just hear this old Irish priest behind the grille going, ‘Yer devil! Yer little devil!’ I remember, even at that age, coming out thinking: ‘Well, he can fuck off! That’s the last time I’m going through that.’ I thought: ‘How dare he speak to people like that? Who does he think he is?’ And I never went to confession again.
Your eventual vocation, as it turned out, could hardly have been further from obedience. I mean, satire puts a spoke in the wheel…
Well, exactly, yeah. I’m a strange fish, really, because I am sort of obedient and yet not. I kind of work through institutions – you know, I’m still in touch with my old Oxford college, and I get on quite well with the management at the BBC and I seem to fit in that world – and yet at the same time I’m always thinking, ‘This is nonsense, this is!’ and wanting to subvert it. I don’t know whether it’s just a subconscious kind of espionage – you know, the best way to get to the heart of it is to embed yourself in it and see it from the inside and then report back on what it’s like – or whether it’s coming from an Italian community, and Scotland, and coming to England and there’s part of you that wants to fit in and feel naturalised…
Have you ever considered satirising religion at length, as you have satirised the media and politics? After all, religious organisations exert a lot of influence over people and satire is a tool for challenging power.
Oh, yeah. But I’ve never seen it as my mission to, you know, ‘have a real good go’ at the Vatican, or at attempts to [revive the] Caliphate, do you know what I mean? Religion is something that personally I find interesting in terms of how you work out what your values are, but I’ve never really seen it as a big institution that affects me in the way that the school system does, or local government – or Google or Facebook. Or McDonald’s.
You referred to a sense of mission. Is that something you have in the things you do choose to satirise?
My starting point is always what is funny – but also what makes me annoyed or angry, or what I find absurd, and how can I channel that anger or frustration into something that then becomes funny? You know, if I wanted to preach I would have become a priest, if I wanted to advocate a political system I would have become a journalist or a politician; and I’ve chosen not to do any of those things. I want to make people laugh. If it also makes them think differently about something, or behave differently towards something, that’s fine; but I’ve never had a mission statement or a manifesto.
For me, the most human and the most sympathetic characters in The Thick of It are the elected politicians. They’re the ones you feel sorry for
So, you don’t set out to influence the way people think?
I think that’s the route to madness, you know? If someone comes up to me and says, ‘I really appreciate what you said about such-and-such,’ that’s fine. If you can open up something – you know, ‘How does government work? Well, this is how I think it works. See what you think’ – that’s fine. But I don’t feel it’s my role in life to tell people what they should be thinking. I almost feel it’s slightly rude to.
What about being a negative influence? The Thick of It1A sitcom satirising the inner workings of modern British government that was broadcast initially on BBC4 in 2005 and 2007, and then on BBC2 in 2009 and 2012. portrayed people in power as being both self-interested and out of their depth. Did you ever lie awake at night and think: ‘God forgive me! I’ve undermined democracy’?
No. I think that the bulk of people go into politics because they have a genuine belief in public service and really want to make a difference; but I sort of feel that it’s up to them to demonstrate that in what they do.
For me, the most human and the most sympathetic characters in The Thick of It are actually the elected politicians. They’re the ones you feel sorry for. It’s the unelected advisers – and the pressures the politicians have to face every day from the media and the electorate over some remark they made in the middle of the night when they were tired, or some decision they made because they didn’t have time to think. It’s that, really, that I’m trying to put across. It’s an increasingly impossible job.
You know, a lot of the big decisions that affect our lives are made by people who are under enormous stress and strain. When we were researching In the Loop and Veep in Washington,2In the Loop (2009) is a film co-written and directed by Iannucci as a spin-off from The Thick of It. Veep is a US comedy about a fictional Vice President (subsequently President) of the United States, broadcast by HBO from 2012 ultimately until 2019. a lot of people were saying: You’d think these big strategies would involve meeting after meeting after meeting, but no, there’s a meeting, because there’s no time – and if you’re not in that meeting you aren’t involved in the decision. When Madeleine Albright was Secretary of State,3From 1997 to 2001 she taught her staff ‘bladder diplomacy’, which was basically how to stay in an eight-hour meeting without having to go to the toilet – because if you went to the toilet you might miss being part of a decision that was made.
It’s also to do with the fact that they don’t have as much power as they used to, do you know what I mean? In the late Forties, [the British government was] setting up the welfare state and the National Health Service, but I don’t think a Cabinet minister has that amount of power now. And if knowledge is power, that knowledge is with people other than governments: it’s with your Facebooks and your Silicon Valleys and your banks and your trading systems and your… You know, it’s a nexus that’s more powerful than any individual. If you want to look at the real influences in people’s lives, you don’t go to Westminster or Washington, you go elsewhere.
And then in America people feel disenfranchised because, you know, whenever there’s a high-school massacre, there’s inevitably a public demand for gun control but it just doesn’t happen, because there are enough congressmen and senators whose interests are served by keeping the gun lobby happy to vote it down. If you look at the polls, Congress has an approval rating of something like 14 per cent – and people say, ‘Who are the 14 per cent who think it’s doing a good job?’
Is there not a danger of demoralising the electorate if you suggest that it makes no difference who we elect?
Well, the reality is, five years [ago] nobody voted for the ‘bedroom tax’,4See fullfact.org/bedroom-tax. the reorganisation of the National Health Service, massive austerity cuts and caps on benefits – because none of those things were in any party manifesto. None of them. You know? The politicians are telling us: ‘D’you know what? It doesn’t matter who or what you vote for, because it’s all bollocks, what’s in the manifestos. Just see this election as a referendum on the last five years. Don’t worry about the next five – we’ll sort it. We don’t need to talk about that.’ And that is why there’s so much disillusion at the moment.
No one’s telling us what they are going to cut in the next five years. They just say, ‘Tough decisions will have to be made,’ but they won’t say what those tough decisions are. They say we’ll have a referendum on Europe, but they won’t say what their view on Europe is going to be. They talk about constitutional change but they won’t say what their favoured position on the constitution is. They’ve got into the habit of being as cautious and as silent as possible. They are much more plugged into the media and information technology than ever before, and yet they use them to say as little as possible.
Can we go back to your childhood? What were the values you grew up with at home?
My father was born in Naples and came over in about 1950. When he was 15, 16, he worked on an anti-Fascist newspaper and as soon as the war broke out he had to take to the hills and join the partisans. He always talked to us about the value of education and a free and enquiring mind. He never took British citizenship and he never voted in UK elections. I asked him, ‘Why don’t you vote?’ He said: ‘The last time I voted, Mussolini got in, so what does that say?’
My mum was born in Glasgow, though her parents were Italian. My family were all very hard-working – my mother was a hairdresser, my uncles were barbers, my aunts ran a café, and like a lot of immigrant families then they just worked night and day. It was never a settled upbringing. My dad ran businesses and some of them worked and some of them failed, and so our fortunes went up and down in a very Dickensian manner.
I’m still running around with a rucksack I borrowed from my son, because I’ve never quite got round to buying a briefcase. I’ve never got into the trappings of success. I just enjoy making stuff
But I’ve never really wanted to try and make money or… In fact, I was just complaining to my assistant that I’m 50 years old and I have my own HBO show and I’m still running around with a rucksack I borrowed from my son, because I’ve never quite got round to buying a briefcase. I’m still sitting in a dingy office and I think sometimes: ‘Why haven’t I got [a posher office than this]?’ And then I think that actually I’m not really like that. I’ve never got into the trappings of success. I just enjoy making stuff.
Your father died just before you went off to university…
I remember him saying he was going to buy a little car and drive down, he was so thrilled that one of his children was going off to Oxford. It was a shame he never saw me there. I remember feeling, throughout my first year certainly, ‘Should I be here? Should I be enjoying myself?’ Because, you know, times were hard…
But I had a very good time in Oxford. What I loved was the fact that you could be thoroughly academic and no one would tease you about it – it was actually OK to read lots of books, and to go to lectures that had nothing to do with your subject, just because you were interested, and to talk about stuff without feeling a bit embarrassed. You know, that was good.
What was it like being of Italian extraction in Glasgow?
I was talking to someone about this the other day and I’d forgotten it all but it all came flooding back. I was always very British, at home and at school, but when I was eight or nine you would still occasionally get called a ‘greasy dago’ or an ‘oily Eyetie’ – although it seemed a bit behind the times even then. With the whole [UK Independence Party] thing it occurred to me that when people come in from outside there’s this sort of instinct to label them as different; and yet you wouldn’t think that about the Italian community, or the Indian community, now. I’m sure that in 20 years’ time we won’t think it about the Romanian community.
Which isn’t to say there aren’t areas in the country where there aren’t problems because of the way the dynamic has shifted so suddenly or whatever; but fundamentally I find the whole Ukip insistence on difference disturbing and menacing, to be honest. You know, I don’t think Nigel Farage5Interviewed for High Profile in December 2011 is an evil man – I feel he’s probably got the best interests of his public at heart – but I still haven’t really heard from him anything in any detail that’s a bit more conciliatory. Or workable.
I suppose we should talk about Charlie Hebdo.6This was a reference to the recent killing by two Islamists of 11 people at the offices of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris – see britannica.com. Is it deliberate that your satire has never ranged outside your own culture?
Well, yeah. I don’t feel I know the ins and outs of the Islamic faith well enough to feel I can confidently joke about it, do you know what I mean? I mean, you write about what you know.
I had a look at the offending cartoons and they were a bit rubbish, you know what I mean? They were a bit crude and childish. It’s just that, you know, I should be able to say that as a criticism of [the cartoonists] rather than shooting them in the head.
Did you hear what the Pope said…?
If you portray the world as it is, then that’s being honest and there’s nothing wrong with that – but before you know it, people are saying: ‘Oh, that’s so offensive!’
‘If you had a go at my mum, I’d punch you’?7On January 15, Pope Francis was quoted in the media as saying (referring to an aide who was standing beside him): ‘If my good friend Dr Gasparri says a curse word against my mother, he can expect a punch. It’s normal. You cannot provoke. You cannot insult the faith of others. You cannot make fun of the faith of others.’ Well, he did use to be a nightclub bouncer in his late teens, so… I don’t quite know what message he was trying to get across there. Was he saying they were right to shoot?
Maybe he meant that it’s easy for people outside a faith to mock it without having any understanding of the emotional impact of what they’re doing.
Well, absolutely. Yes, and I did wonder whether it was the right thing to do, knowing that the latest edition of Charlie was going to be bought by three million people, to put a cartoon of Muhammad on the front, knowing that a whole country – indeed, a continent – had been traumatised by what had just happened. It was almost like a taunt. I did wonder about that.
And things mean different things to different cultures, don’t they? I remember a sketch in On the Hour8A surreal parody of current-affairs broadcasting, produced and co-written by Iannucci, that was broadcast on BBC Radio 4 in 1991–92 about John Major smacking the Queen. We may know that that isn’t an attack on the Monarchy, but we can’t control how it might be understood in a different culture.
Yes. If you did that joke in Thailand you would be sent to prison, because it’s actually against the law to say anything derogatory about the royal family.
Is anything sacred?
Yes, I’m sure there are things that are; but I don’t have, like, a checklist. You know, I just go by my instinct.
Do you ever come up with a joke and think, ‘That’s funny, but I’m not going to use it because it would be wrong’?
Only if I think: That’s funny but actually it will undermine something that’s better about that scene. Sometimes when I’m editing The Thick of It I remove a funny line because I think: In the heat of the moment, there’s no way he would come up with that line and it kind of punctures the reality of the moment – and it’s the reality of the moment that is the funniest thing, but the gag stops it being funny. As they say to young writers: You must learn to kill your darlings.
But there is nothing that is too unsavoury or too offensive?
No – but then you are subconsciously acting towards your own set of values anyway. You know what I mean? The sort of thing that you’d think, ‘I shouldn’t put that in,’ you probably wouldn’t come up with in the first place.
You’ve got to write for you, and write what you feel is funny and will work, because I think people can sense that. People are quite happy to watch something when they feel, ‘These people had their heart in it when they made it.’ I think the worst thing in the world, especially if you’re writing comedy, is to write for someone else.
It’s kind of weird that I have been responsible for a show that’s had the most amount of F words in 30 minutes ever and all that. It’s not something I set out to do – I mean, I’m not a swearer myself. But if you [feel you] ought to portray some [world] as it is, then you’ve got to portray the language as it is and the behaviour as it is. That’s being honest, so there’s nothing wrong with that – but then, before you know it, people are saying: ‘Oh, that’s so offensive!’ But I never think: ‘What’s the most disruptive thing I can do?’ I just think, ‘What’s the funniest thing I can do?’ – and then it turns out to be a bit disruptive, or kind of unusual.
There is a recurrent sense of powerlessness in much of your work. Why is that theme so important to you?
It might be something about – for a lot of my parents’ generation, authority figures always seemed like they knew what they were doing; but, as we are discovering, they didn’t really know what they were doing – or they were doing terrible things! And I think it’s good to know that. So, if I’m looking at politics or something, it’s: forget how grand these buildings look on the outside, once you go inside they’re just offices where people work and, you know, some people are good, some are bad, some are hard-working, some are lazy, some are bright, some are stupid – and all of them are just trying to get through the day.
And that’s kind of illuminating.
A slightly longer version of this interview was published in the March 2015 issue of Third Way.
|⇑1||A sitcom satirising the inner workings of modern British government that was broadcast initially on BBC4 in 2005 and 2007, and then on BBC2 in 2009 and 2012.|
|⇑2||In the Loop (2009) is a film co-written and directed by Iannucci as a spin-off from The Thick of It. Veep is a US comedy about a fictional Vice President (subsequently President) of the United States, broadcast by HBO from 2012 ultimately until 2019.|
|⇑3||From 1997 to 2001|
|⇑5||Interviewed for High Profile in December 2011|
|⇑6||This was a reference to the recent killing by two Islamists of 11 people at the offices of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris – see britannica.com.|
|⇑7||On January 15, Pope Francis was quoted in the media as saying (referring to an aide who was standing beside him): ‘If my good friend Dr Gasparri says a curse word against my mother, he can expect a punch. It’s normal. You cannot provoke. You cannot insult the faith of others. You cannot make fun of the faith of others.’|
|⇑8||A surreal parody of current-affairs broadcasting, produced and co-written by Iannucci, that was broadcast on BBC Radio 4 in 1991–92|
Armando Iannucci was born in 1963 in Glasgow, where he was educated at St Aloysius’ College.
He studied philosophy and English literature at Glasgow University and English literature at University College, Oxford (where he gained a master’s degree in 1986 but never finished a PhD on 17th-century religious language).
In 1988, he began making comedy shows for BBC Radio Scotland (including No’ The Archie McPherson Show). The following year, he moved to London, where for Radio 1 he made shows such as Armando Iannucci, involving several comedians he was to work with for many years, including Steve Coogan, David Schneider, Peter Baynham and Rebecca Front.
In 1991–92, he worked with Chris Morris on the radio series On the Hour, which transferred to BBC2 in ’94 as The Day Today. This spawned the character Alan Partridge, for whom he subsequently co-wrote several radio and TV series as well as the 2013 film Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa. Between 1995 and ’99, he wrote and hosted on BBC2 The Saturday (later Friday) Night Armistice.
In 2001, he created for Channel 4 the eight-part series The Armando Iannucci Shows.
He returned to BBC TV as creator, writer and director of the multi-Bafta-winning political sitcom The Thick of It in 2005 and the spoof documentary Time Trumpet in 2006. In 2009, he directed the film In the Loop, which was nominated for the Oscar for best adapted screenplay.
Other work in this period includes his Radio 4 series Armando Iannucci’s Charm Offensive (2005–08) and the libretto for the operetta Skin Deep, a collaboration with the composer David Sawer that was premiered by Opera North in 2009. He also was ‘showrunner’ for four series of the political satire Veep (2012–15) for HBO.
He was appointed an OBE in 2012 for services to broadcasting. He received the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain Award at the 2011 British Comedy Awards, and has also won two Sony Radio Awards. He holds honorary doctorates from Exeter and Glasgow.
He married in 1990 and has two sons and a daughter.
Up-to-date as at 1 February 2015