In a brief stop-over in Dublin to add a James Joyce Award to his heaving mantelpiece, Emer Sugrue sits down with Armando Iannucci to talk about the politics of television, the politics of the United States and Britain and the politics of politics
When Armando Iannucci stood up to give annual BAFTA Lecture last month, his message to the television industry was simple: “Make good programmes. ‘Make good programmes’ is all I’ve ever believed; it’s all I’ve ever wanted to believe. Don’t underestimate the intelligence of your audience. Make good programmes, and they will come.”
Iannucci certainly practises what he preaches. He has created and written shows including I’m Alan Partridge, The Day Today, Time Trumpet, In the Loop, Veep and The Thick of It, amongst dozens of producer credits on comedy shows from Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle to The News Quiz. His award winning series The Thick of It satirises politics at the highest level and fully expects his audience to keep up with it’s sharp with and frantic pace. The programme takes on the day-to-day life of inept cabinet ministers, their clueless staff and the man who tries to keep them all in line and under control, spin doctor and connoisseur of cursing Malcom Tucker.
The forth series, which started airing last month, has seen many changes from the previous series, reflecting the change in political circumstance in the real world. While the The Thick of It was originally designed to shine a light on the problems of the long in power Labour Party and particularly their reliance on spin-doctors as summed up in Tucker, a character heavily based on Former Prime Minister Tony Blair’s Press Secretary, Alistair Campbell. The tables have now turned however. After 13 years in power, Labour have been cast into opposition in favour of a Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition. The new series adapts to the new circumstance by putting the previously minor opposition characters into power, and swapping back and forth each between the two sides, before pushing them together for the final three episodes.
“I just felt it’s sort of inevitable really because otherwise it would be more of the same. Times have changed, the party in power is different, the whole dynamic is different and we need to reflect that. In turn that would probably be quite good for the show because it will introduce whole new characters, but also our old characters will be in completely new situations that we’ve never seen them in before. It’s refreshing.”
“I was intrigued to see how people would react because I knew it was going to be very, very different and therefore peoples expectations would be. I knew Malcolm wasn’t going to be in the first episode. I thought there would be some people who’d really hate this, but I think you’ve got to keep changing, got to keep moving and I think now people have cottoned on.”
Most of the speculation in the run up to the series was how Tucker, a man used to incredible political influence, would cope with being in opposition. “Dyed-in-the-wool, die-hard Thick Of It fans will think ‘What are you doing?’ and there’ll be others who are new to the show thinking ‘Who is this Malcolm?’ So we’ll see, we’ll see by the end of the series. The story line suddenly explodes next week and that takes you right through to the end of the series … Episode 6 is an interesting one, completely different from anything we’ve ever done before.”
This has been rumoured to be the final series of The Thick of It, which Iannucci reluctantly confirms. “I think so. I mean I haven’t said no, just the cast have all kind of moved on to do 101 different things so it was really difficult to get everyone together. Everyone wants to do it but, just logistically, it was a nightmare trying to get everyone together. And now of course because we have all these different parties it means the cast is enormous, but it’s certainly left open at the end if we wanted to do like a special or one off or a catch-up or something. We could do it but just personally, I sort of feel I’ve taken it as far as I want to take it.”
Alongside proclaiming the importance of making good programmes, Iannucci also used his BAFTA lecture to defend the home of many of his works, the BBC, and he called for the organisation to stand up for itself against government and media criticism.
“I think it is very nervous of bad headlines for some reason, especially bad headlines from the Daily Mail, so it instantly apologises. If ever it’s accused of a crime, no matter if it’s a crime it hasn’t committed, it still hands itself into the nearest police station. It was doing it again this week, it was apologising for a report talking about a conversation the queen had, and it wasn’t like it was a massive breach of national security or anything but by apologising it just made the matter worse. I think it forgets that we all quite love the BBC, and it forgets that actually that kind of support it has in the country is much, much more important and much bigger than any kind of strange right wing opposition that it gets in tabloid newspapers.”
The BBC has had massive cut backs in recent years, with the closure of many of it’s regional broadcasting centres and thousands of jobs lost over the last few years. Rather than government demands however, this seems to be an internal policy. Iannucci muses on the BBC’s impulse for self-annihilation. “It’s almost like it wants to get in there first. It’s sort of a choice between being punched in the face and punching yourself in the face; it likes to punch itself in the face because some people are out to get it and I’ve never really understood why.”
“You see the thing is the BBC can’t win. If they get good ratings, they get criticised for getting a lot of money, and spending licence payers money on stuff that is too commercial, and then if they get bad ratings they get criticised for spending licence payers money on stuff that isn’t finding an audience and so they really don’t know which way to turn. But that’s why I feel it would be better if they just decided what they want to do and stuck to it, and were just more vocal about it rather than bending every which way whenever someone criticised them.”
Although most of Iannucci’s work has been with the BBC, he has also created shows with the US channel HBO. HBO has been getting huge praise worldwide and unlike any other channel, it relies neither on advertising money nor government funding. As a subscription service, they make their money through people ordering the channel. This allows them to make original programming free from the constant drive for viewers, and according to Iannucci, gives much more freedom for television writers than even the BBC currently provides.
“HBO were just great. They do have lots of money because they sell all of their stuff all around the world and they don’t actually have to make that many programmes… Having said that, their model will make programmes, and actually it doesn’t matter what the ratings are; they don’t take money for commercials. It’s all about how many people will subscribe to it. And they’ve discovered that people will subscribe to it if they make programmes that are really good. They don’t mind if there’s a programme on late at night that’s not getting many viewers because they’re actually being talked about the next day. That’s all they’re interested in, that sort of ‘buzz’ from programmes and to get buzz they have to make things that stand out.”
His current project is also with HBO, as the second series of Veep is currently being written and due to start filming in November. While Veep is ostensibly a US remake of The Thick of It, it is in reality a completely different experience merely based on a similar premise and format. In Veep we are shown the every day workings of the Vice President of the United States, Selina Meyer and her staff, as she tries have some measure of political influence and get through her meetings and photo-ops without embarrassing herself or the President.
While the lack of real power is a similar theme among both shows, the characters and the whole personality of Veep has a very different feel to The Thick of It. While The Thick of It has a slightly frantic vibe from all the outspoken characters, Veep has a calmer air, but a less honest one. The staff shield the Vice President from criticism where possible, and tell co-workers that things are fine when they really have no idea how to solve a problem. Iannucci agrees saying “They’re not very good at being direct. They’re all very good at being positive but they can’t bring themselves to be negative.” It feels no less true to life than The Thick of It, yet the contrast is striking. Iannucci attributes this to the vast differences between British and US politics.
“The thing about American politics is it’s continually all about getting re-elected. It’s all about raising funds so no sooner are you are elected than you’re thinking of your re-election and therefore you’re trying to get into certain groups and raise money and its all about patronage and who’s going to support you, so actually I think its a completely different mindset from Britain.”
“I’ve been interested in American politics for a while and you just research it and and the more you research it the more you meet people certain types of people and you start basing your characters on that type – lots of young geeks who are very ambitious and slight older, less principled and more people who run think tanks and lobby firms – and you gradually build up a picture of how Washington works. Its interesting because when it started going out, the feedback we got from Washington was ‘yeah, yeah, that’s how it is, that’s what the city is like’”
While Veep may have picked on the position with the most interesting visibility-to-power ratio to keep with the theme of frustrated ambitions of The Thick of It, one key difference between the two countries in Iannucci’s mind is the ability and power to make changes and push policy.
“What does happen in American politics is they have power. They’re able to do things and that power is spread out far and wide in Washington. You have departments; the senate, the House of Representatives and they all have some kind of power, whereas in Britain they don’t unless you’re the Prime Minister. And even then you’re restricted by the treasury and by the economy. You discover that in Washington, irrespective of what party is in power and who the President is, there’s about 500 people in Washington who run the country.”
Some of the stories Iannucci has picked up from his research are quite alarming. “You have someone who is 24 and wrote a paper on American policy in Central America: what America should do with it’s budget for Central America and he presented it to his boss, who was too busy; so she presented it to her boss, who was too busy; so her boss then said “Oh, why doesn’t he do it?” and suddenly the 24 year old was in charge of America’s budget for Central America, even though he’d never bought a car or knows how to buy a house. So that I thought was frightening.”
With more worrying anecdotes from the world of politics than could fit in a book, never mind an interview, how does Armando Iannucci get access to such insider information? It’s spiritual predecessor, the 1980s political satire Yes, Minister was revealed decades later to have had unauthorised consultations with government advisor to gain insight into the political process. Iannucci laughingly denies any level of infiltration. “No, I just go round and I ask questions and say ‘Look, I’m not making a documentary, I’m not out to expose a scandal, I’m not naming names. I don’t want to know actually the dirty stuff; I just want to know the normal stuff, the day-to-day stuff. What time do people get in, what time do they get home, who do you work with, what’s the office like, what’s the atmosphere like? Then gradually as they’re telling you that, they tell you the good stuff. But fundamentally we make these stories up. We base it on how we think it might work, but we make it up because they have to be funny. Then occasionally we found out they actually happened, just by coincidence.”