Armando Iannucci on The Thick of It, Steve Coogan and (not) living the American dream

“The mistake is to think that because America has this tremendous influence internationally, therefore all Americans are brilliant”

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Armando Iannucci on The Thick of It, Steve Coogan and (not) living the American dream
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Ginny Dougary
Armando Iannucci

Armando Iannucci was too busy filming his own political satire - after a three-year gap, at last there’s another series of The Thick of It, hurrah! - to stay glued to the real-life drama of the Leveson Inquiry, but he has hinted that it, or something very like it, may feature quite heavily in the new show.

“Inquiries? They’ve become the new black, haven’t they? People will look back and think of 2012 as the ‘summer of inquiries’, you know. They all begin to blur into one…” he says.

We are sitting in the restaurant of a fashionable Soho hotel, and the Scottish comedian and satire writer (and television and film director, radio producer, librettist, soon-to-be novelist… you get the picture) is just about avoiding getting a foam moustache from his immensely frothy iced coffee. He talks as he writes in a witty and fairly uncompromising way, but in a gentle, low-key manner.

He is a good friend and a longtime collaborator of Steve Coogan. They first started working together in the early 1990s, when Iannucci was a writer and producer of the radio show On the Hour. But I wonder whether it doesn’t appeal to Iannucci’s own sense of satire that we are living in such topsy-turvy times that a comedian and an actor, whose own colourful episodes are well known, have become the new moral arbiters?

“Yeah, yeah,” he agrees. “Steve will say, himself, he can’t believe that it’s reached the point where he and Hugh Grant are the ones going ‘This is… [too much]’.”

He has spent part of the past year as creative director at Coogan’s production company, Baby Cow - working principally on shows featuring probably Coogan’s best-loved character, the self-deluded former sports journalist and chat show host Alan Partridge, now a forever has-been on a Norwich local radio station. There’s a feature film in the pipeline, but not, he says, “Alan goes to Hollywood” because “’Alan stays in Norwich’ is probably a funnier story.”

The two men, who have quite different tastes and lifestyles, know each other well enough for Coogan, certainly, to make affectionate jokes at Iannucci’s expense. He has teased him for being square in the past and said, “If I ever read that Armando had bought a sports car, I would be devastated.” I’m equally assuming that we will never see a headline that reads, “My night at a lapdance club by Armando Iannucci”? “No, I can categorically state that I have never been to a lapdance club, with Steve or anyone else!” he says.

Armando was brought up in Glasgow, one of four children - he has two older brothers and a sister - with an Italian father, another Armando, who emigrated from Naples after the war and a mother, also of Italian heritage but born in Glasgow. His parents always spoke English at home because their main priority was that the children should feel fully integrated: “My mum’s experience growing up in Glasgow during the war was of her family being in an internment camp and not being part of the community.”

The young Armando was educated by Jesuit priests at St Aloysius College in Glasgow and describes himself as a lapsed Catholic but one who is still interested in religion. After going to Oxford at the age of 17 to read English literature (where he got a First), he had started his PhD thesis on 17th-century religious language, with particular reference to Milton’s Paradise Lost, before abandoning it for comedy. He tells me that when he did a TV documentary on Milton three years ago, he received a nice note from his supervisor afterwards saying, “Consider it done”.

I’m not sure whether he believes the Jesuit saying, “Give me the child until he is seven, and I will show you the man”, but there are narrative threads to his life, certainly, that started at an early age and still remain. So what sort of boy would you say that you were at seven? “I was always very quiet and bookish at home, whereas at school I was a joker - always doing impressions of teachers and things like that.”

At school shows, he would be the one telling the jokes and he did his first stand-up at the age of 12. He would steal his material from the radio and also stayed up to watch election nights on television from a young age, as well as - rather incredibly - reading Hansard for fun. “It just appealed. I don’t know why,” he has said. “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 70s.”

The comedies he watched were less Monty Python – “I was never fanatically into them” - and more old-fashioned variety-show stuff, such as Morecambe and Wise, It’s a Knockout, Bruce Forsyth’s Generation Game and Les Dawson.

Mrs Iannucci ran a hairdressing salon while her husband set up a pizza factory with two friends: “It was the story of any small business. Some years were quite good, other years were bad. I can remember going from a really nice big house to a really tiny flat and then to a kinda nice tenement flat,” he recalls. At one point, his family were tenement neighbours to another Italian-Scots family, the Capaldis, whose son, Peter (who didn’t know Armando Jr) ended up playing the Prime Minister’s sweary, shouty spin doctor Malcolm Tucker so magnificently in The Thick of It, and its spin-off film In the Loop.

Iannucci describes his father as “a kind of manual intellectual. In Italy, when he was very young - in his teens - he was a journalist, writing for an anti-Mussolini newspaper, and when he came over to the UK, he was a joiner and a shop fitter and stuff. [He made the kitchen units in the Capaldis kitchen, for instance.] But in the evenings, he’d make friends with journalists and artists at the local pub and they would be the people he brought home.”

When he was only 56, Armando Sr died of a heart attack. His health had been poor for some time but his death came at a particularly bad point, just as his son was due to go to university. “I wish I had known him better,” he says. “He was quite a character, with a very, very strong Italian accent to the point where sometimes I couldn’t understand him. He was very hardworking and so not around all the time. My two older brothers [the next one up is six years older] filled me in a bit but there’s a lot more there that I wish I had known.”

I wonder whether being robbed of his own father so young has made Iannucci terribly health-conscious himself, but he says, the impact has been more to do with him being very strict about having time off with his family. “I am aware of the importance of time, so especially during the past four or five years, I’ve been very rigid: I stop at this time… I don’t work at weekends. If I’m doing a show in America, I make it clear that I’m not going to move to America and I don’t want it filmed in LA.”

The other thing, he says, is that in order to be creative, you must take breaks: “This goes back to politics… What a lot of politicians complain about once they are in office is that it’s unstoppable - they haven’t got time to kinda pull back. I think it affects your decision-making process because you’re tired all the time. When I’m at home, for instance, I always have a 20-minute nap after lunch.”

You and Margaret Thatcher! “God!” he says.

He met his wife, Rachael, at Oxford - she is a speech therapist - and the family now live in Hertfordshire, having moved from Buckinghamshire because of schools. They have three children; the oldest - Emilio - is about to go off to study drama, and the younger two, Marcello and Camilla, are still at school.

Now that Camilla is learning to play the piano, it has given him the impetus to take it up again. He abandoned it five years ago, after getting to Grade One: “I need targets and I could only make myself practise if I did the exam. They do the exams in people’s houses and I was sitting in the kitchen next to a lot of seven- and eight-year-olds and the examiner came out and looked at me, and said, ‘Are you a candidate?’ and I said, ‘Yes, I am’ [slightly defiant voice] and she said [patronising voice], ‘Oh, jolly good for you!’”

He loves classical music and his ambition would be to play a few Bach Preludes: “nothing too massive”. Some years ago, he wrote the libretto for an opera about the plastic surgery industry, Skin Deep, which was premiered by Opera North in 2009, and he was in heaven. “Being such a fan of music, I’ve always wondered how I could get involved in it and doing that opera was the closest I’ve come.”

There’s nothing much Iannucci wants to give away about the new series of The Thick of It, but he does say that he could never be a politician himself: “I don’t think I could survive. It’s the whole idea of accepting the party line. I just can’t have someone over me telling me what to do. When I started as a radio producer, within 18 months I’d got to BBC management, and I lasted three months, which was when I just thought, ‘I’ve got to get out’.”

In 2006, he seems to have had a rather disagreeable time as an executive producer, trying to adapt The Thick of It for an American audience. ABC rejected it, after viewing the pilot, and Iannucci also washed his hands of it, saying, “It was terrible… conventionally shot and there was no improvisation or swearing.”

He has interestingly mixed views about the States, partially informed by The Thick of It (bad), In the Loop (good) and Veep (very good), which stars Seinfeld actress Julia Louis-Dreyfus as US Vice President Selina Meyer; recently shown on Sky Atlantic, it’s just been given the green light for a second series. “The mistake is to think that because America has this tremendous influence internationally, therefore all Americans are brilliant.”

“When we were doing the pilot of The Thick of It at ABC there were just scores of people working on it, all called Vice President this and that, and a lot of them were buffoons. And what has been great with HBO [makers of Veep] is that they are the opposite. It’s very much ‘Let’s keep it small and try to make it as good as it can be.’ What you realise is that they are people at the top of their game, and you are actually benefitting from their experience.”

He gets a buzz from New York, “but I get an absolute sigh of despair whenever I go to LA. I find it a huge, shapeless, heartless city full of people talking about television and films, morning, noon and night. I just wish they would shut up and read a book!”

The new project that Iannucci has co-written and is directing is a slapstick movie based in London “about a guy who becomes famous for the wrong reasons on YouTube - just for something that somebody has filmed of him, and he wants to track down the person who shot it.”

I wonder whether he would ever consider making a film or series that was straight drama, with hardly any laughs. What interests him, he says, is a blend of the two. He quotes late Dickens (one of his favourite writers): “In, say, Little Dorrit, there are really funny moments as well as all the tragic stuff”; and Woody Allen (his all-time comedy hero): “If you think of Crimes and Misdemeanors, it has moments of high comedy but also of high seriousness.”

Some years ago, he interviewed Allen for Esquire magazine, and more recently hung out with the director on the set of Midnight in Paris. Are you stalking him? “No, my wife and I were out there because it was our 20th wedding anniversary and we got engaged in Paris… and I was able to spend 30 minutes [with Woody], just the two of us, on the streets of Paris, talking about shooting and lighting and casting.”

Iannucci, now close to 50, has an OBE (his rather brilliant, speedy riposte to Alastair Campbell s jibe at the announcement: “Three little letters can have more impact than you realise”, a few months ago, was his own three-letter tweet back –“WMD”), a brace of awards and a clutch of honorary doctorates, but he’s far from complacent.

“I don’t feel, creatively, that I’m anywhere near where I would like to be,” he says. “I want to do more films and I want to try something a bit more experimental or a bit more kind of ridiculously destined to fail or something. When you watch great films, like Brazil or Dr Strangelove - I just feel like I’ve got better projects to come. I hope. I mean, I’m very proud of stuff I’ve done but I just think, internally, there’s more. I’m not finished yet!”

The Thick of It starts tonight at 9:45pm on BBC2

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