"It was great to be given the award. Though it’s slightly worrying in a way, because you start to think; is that it? Does that mean there’s not going to be anything else? Will it be all downhill from here?"
As a writer, producer, presenter and director, Armando Iannucci has produced an outstanding portfolio which includes On The Hour, The Day Today, I’m Alan Partridge, The Saturday Night Armistice and, most recently, The Thick Of It – which spawned the movie spin-off In The Loop. We caught up with him when he came to Nottingham to receive an award at Broadway...
You've just received the Screenlit award for your writing. That must be quite an honour...
Yes. It was great to be given the award. Though it’s slightly worrying in a way, because you start to think; is that it? Does that mean there’s not going to be anything else? Will it be all downhill from here?
Your old mate Chris Morris was also around for the festival...
Yes. I saw Four Lions in January and it’s great. We still do the odd little quiet thing together, and we are always showing each other our stuff. We last worked together on Stuart Lee’s stand-up show last year. The trouble is that whenever you do a project on your own it takes 18 months, and finding that time where you’re both completely free is very difficult. I imagine it will be the one-off projects that we do from now on
Chris has become seen as some kind of terrorist within the establishment. Everything that he does is very controversial, whereas you seem a bit more establishment-friendly…
I think we make it controversial together, rather than him just wanting to cause controversy. With something like Four Lions, he was out to do a comedy that came from the perspective of these people being amateurs - in fact, he went to a lot of trouble to ensure the details of it were accurate. The only controversy comes from people who make assumptions about the subject matter. When you see it its very funny, but it’s written in such a way that you're always onside with the story.
Unlike what happened with Brass Eye…
I was on holiday when the Paedophile Special scandal happened. We were getting all these headlines at the hotel shop, but these British newspapers were all three days out of date. What was quite funny was the response to the programme - that in itself seemed like a kind of satire. I remember listening to a man on the radio complaining about it, yet admitting that he hadn’t actually seen it.
It was just like an episode of The Day Today, wasn’t it?
Well, yes. The response to it just shows you that a lot of what we call 'controversy' is actually manufactured. Its point-scoring from people whose job it is to come up with the public anger for the day.
Did you realise how big The Day Today would become?
We were all young and we hadn’t really done much. We thought we were onto something, but we thought it would be a little cult thing - we didn’t realise the impact that it would have or how big someone like Alan Partridge was going to become. It was hard work, but there was no pressure or expectation as we were all unknowns. Having the space to just be left to your own devices and able to pour all your energy into something felt really exciting. It was always a surprise when we opened a newspaper and saw a report about it.
Where did the ideas come from? Did you sit around and watch loads of news, and think ‘This is just ridiculous?’
There was certainly a bit of that. What Chris and I liked were the things which looked very real and authentic, but actually were complete bollocks from start to finish. The more serious and more honest you make them, the more ridiculous and funny they become. That was the starting point. It wasn’t like we had a manifesto about news values and the duplicity that goes into editing the news. We were just trying to think of another format to tell jokes. Fundamentally, it’s a sketch show - but we didn’t want it to look like a sketch show; we wanted it to look very real.
What crap TV have you been watching recently?
I’ve been watching a lot of the election stuff, unfortunately. I’ve become a bit of an election junkie.
What did you think to the televised debates?
I think what they’ve done is fantastic - blowing the whole thing open is great. Although I slightly worry that from now on all politics will boil down to how presentable someone comes across in three ninety-minute discussions, as opposed to the five years of work and policy that’s gone into it. However, I think in the last three or four elections policy was never discussed anyway. If anything, at least you get politics discussed on prime time TV three times for ninety minutes and watched by millions of people.
Let’s talk about The Thick of It. The character of Malcolm Tucker clearly owes a lot to Alistair Campbell - did you intentionally base that on him and were other characters based on politicians?
Obviously it’s inspired by Campbell - but it’s an amalgamation of him, Mandelson and all the other spin doctors of this world. There’s a whole load of them who you don’t know about, a whole backroom of people in Number 10 whose job it is to go out and twist arms and tell Ministers what the party line is. Cameron has got one in his party right now - Andy Coulson, who used to run the News of the World. I never wanted it to be an impression of anyone, and that’s why we don’t say which party it is that Malcolm works for. It was really just trying to capture the atmosphere of that kind of working environment.
How did you research the show?
I just talked to people and most were very happy to talk back. I actually wanted to know the dull stuff, like what time does the Minister get up every morning and who carries his bags, or if the editor of the Daily Mail rang who would take his call - that kind of thing. I spoke to a few female ex-cabinet ministers and they all said you need to wear comfortable shoes because you're running everywhere, so forget your high heels. A very interesting thing is when someone comes up to you and asks; “How did you find that out? I thought I kept that quiet” You just make things up, but some of them have happened in real life and it’s just an intelligent guess based on what we know.
You gave David Cameron a good slating in your book The Audacity of Hype. Does that scare you, now he's PM?
No. I don’t think he’s scared of me. So I’m not going to be scared of him either.
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