Satirist Armando Iannucci has turned from his hit TV comedies Veep and The Thick of It to mining the lethal absurdities of the Soviet Union for his film The Death of Stalin. He talks about the comedy of power. “It seems strangely topical with all the talk about facts and alternative facts, new truths and old truths, and the authoritarianism too. It’s frightening.”By Romy Ash.
Armando Iannucci in the Bolshevik of it
At the beginning of Armando Iannucci’s eponymous television show on Britain’s Channel 4 in 2001, we see him running through the park. When he comes upon a soccer game he runs as fast as he can away from it. He can’t kick a ball and one of his worst fears is about to be realised. A wayward kick hurtles the ball towards him and as he tries to return it he flails. His legs impotent, the ball bounces around him. The scene turns to surreal nightmare as onlookers, kids on bicycles, grannies on park benches and the players themselves start to yell at him. Even passengers on a passing plane are directed by the pilot to look down upon him and laugh. The viewer feels the awkward pain of it all, the masculine fragility, the humiliation. It’s a familiar feeling for many, which harks back to teenage fears and anxieties. “I can’t be the only one who’s shite-scared of being found out,” he says. “Surely everybody’s rubbish at something.”
Iannucci says he was a bookish and uncool kid, who was interested in comedy, music and astronomy. He thought seriously about becoming a priest in his early teens, perhaps, he says, as a sort of rebellion against his lapsed Catholic family. “You go either one way,” he says, “which is very hedonistic and rebellious, or you go purist – do you know what I mean?” As soon as he went to university all his religious leanings fell away. “It felt like a waste. I mean, it’s not that I’m anti-religious – I think religion is interesting. I think it’s interesting that we have religion in the same way that I think it’s interesting that we have comedy. It’s the thing that we have that animals don’t do.”
I’m sitting across from Iannucci, talking over the incredibly loud lounge music playing in the hotel foyer. It’s aggressively relaxing and we laugh over it. “A lot of that series is about taking your really genuine fears, and the fear of being found out,” he says of The Armando Iannucci Shows. “The fear that someone will say, ‘I don’t think you’re up to this, are you.’ Every day I think, ‘I kind of got away with it, but I’m not sure about tomorrow.’ That thing, which I think we all have, you see.”
This understanding of, and intimacy with, the fragility of the human psyche is found in all of Iannucci’s work, since he came to notice with news satire The Day Today, co-created with Chris Morris, and writing for Steve Coogan’s Alan Partridge series. He is best known now for the biting political satire of The Thick of It and Veep. At the heart of these comedies is the observation that politicians are humans too, making very human mistakes. The Thick of It focused on the ministerial office in a small British government department, distant enough from the centre of power that we never see the prime minister. It starred Peter Capaldi as the profane Malcolm Tucker – a character whose writing famously required a swearing consultant. The multi-award-winning HBO series Veep, starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus, can be thought of as an American adaptation of The Thick of It, centring on the office of a United States vice-president.
“What happens to people who go in (to politics) with a set of principal beliefs, but in order to get to power … what happens to those beliefs, or how do they change, or how does power affect them?” Iannucci asks, on his attraction to politicians as characters. “It’s that thing of: I’d love to do this, but if I did this I’d never get back in, and it’s far better to get back in. So I won’t do that. But now that I am back in, I still can’t do it, because if I did it I’d get thrown out … So then it becomes all about staying in power rather than implementing policy. It’s sad when … they must come to a kind of agreement in their own head, that they’re actually happier retaining that role, but not being able to implement their beliefs, than they would be if they were out of power but held on to the beliefs.”
Iannucci says his comedy writing is instinctual, in the first instance at least. “I just get an inkling that there’s something funny there. I don’t know quite what it is yet, but let’s think about it.”
With The Thick of It, what struck him was the stories he kept reading about politicians worried that they’d done something or said something that might be misinterpreted. “So they need to clarify it, but it’s actually the clarification that makes it worse, it draws attention to it, shows that you’re changing your mind. If only they’d just left it alone they would have been fine, the next day everyone would have forgotten about it. So I thought there was something inherently funny about that.”
When he was writing Veep it was the power dynamic that he first found funny. “There was something funny about once being powerful as a senator and then being a vice-president and no longer being powerful – but possibly being powerful if something happened. That struck me as a funny dynamic, which isn’t to say that’s the joke, but it struck me as an inherently fruitful situation.”
This instinctual inkling is the first stage and the stages that come after are hard work: in researching, “identifying types”, “and the casting process then puts flesh and blood onto these types”, and it’s only then that the writing, usually a collaborative process for Iannucci, really starts. “So it’s an instinct that’s followed up by lots of really hard work,” he says. He’s always liked “just the drama of politics … In the UK, it’s very much, if you’ve lost you have to leave that day – pack your bags.”
Iannucci was born in Glasgow and he doesn’t come from an overly political family. “Actually my father, when he was much younger – only about 15 or 16, when he lived in Italy just before the war – he used to write for an anti-fascist newspaper in Naples. As soon as the war started he had to take a pseudonym and went to the hills, and he fought for the partisans fighting against Mussolini and against Hitler. I mean, very dangerous. The reason he had to take on a pseudonym: if they knew who you were they would round up your family. But when he came over to the UK he didn’t talk about that at all, and he didn’t take out a British passport, so he couldn’t vote in the elections. And I did say to him, ‘Why don’t you vote?’ He said, ‘The last time I voted, Mussolini got in.’ There’s democracy and there’s…” He trails off.
“I think the war – I mean, given that he had to join the Resistance and fight against his own countrymen – I think, you know, that must have been traumatic. At the age of 17, 18, that must have been traumatic. It was traumatic for a lot of people, obviously, so he never really talked about it – but he wanted us to not ignore it.”
Iannucci’s new film, The Death of Stalin, is the latest incarnation of his interest in politics, and his first film since his filmic directorial debut in 2009, In the Loop, which took The Thick of It’s Malcolm Tucker to the United States to focus on British involvement in the invasion of Iraq. The Death of Stalin is a tragi-comedy set in the 10 days after Stalin’s death, and turns to laughs the infighting and chaos that ensued.
Iannucci compares the post-Stalin power struggles to gangsters, evoking a Russian Godfather vibe, “in that everyone knows that someone’s going to win and if you don’t win you’ll be killed. It’s that kind of atmosphere. The stakes are very high.
“It’s a move away from the office politics where no one dies – everyone is ultra tense because of the decisions that they’re trying to make, but mostly the decisions don’t really change very much. Whereas here, they’re very casual about the decisions that they make, and the decisions that they make affect literally millions of people.”
He paints a picture of a brutal environment full of “middle-aged overweight men who were almost permanently drunk. Stalin enjoyed getting them drunk – he would keep them up late. He would drink watered-down vodka but he would get them drunk. There’s something sort of seedy about that world.” In such an atmosphere it’s comedy that arises through being afraid to do or say the wrong thing.
Iannucci describes a committee meeting in the Kremlin, where he says the vote had to be unanimous, but that the right decision had to be reached – if you made the wrong decision, you’d be shot. In his smart-casual attire, on a patterned couch in the hotel foyer, he acts out a vote. He looks left to right, tentatively puts his hand up, then starts to applaud a fictional Stalin. “They know that the first person to stop applauding is the one to get shot.” Very, very slowly, he stops applauding, and I imagine all the peers finishing clapping at just the right moment.
During research for the film Iannucci and his team travelled to Moscow and learnt that during the Stalin era many people carried little joke books with them, filled with gags about being shot. “And you’d be shot if you were discovered to have one on you and yet they still felt that you had to have jokes, you had to be able to laugh. It is interesting. We can joke about our situation, we can laugh and we can provoke laughter in others. And they felt they had to hold onto that.”
Russians who lived through those days described the atmosphere to him. “We went out to Moscow, we spoke to some of the people who are now old, but who had grown up through that time. And they were telling us that everyone expected a knock on the door, and the knock on the door came in the middle of the night, and what you used to do is you had your things packed just in case, or you went to sleep wearing layers and layers of clothes. So if you were taken away you were able to take lots of clothes with you to where you were going.”
Iannucci sees parallels with George Orwell’s 1984, as well as links between Stalin’s regime – in which the dictator controlled everything: newspapers and the media, all information – and the current political climate. “Stalin believed that the party should determine the truth and if the party is saying that two plus two equals five then that’s what you must believe in. If you don’t believe in that then you’re a traitor.
“I think it’s also picking up on the world that is dogma now; there is a lot of ideology now. We get in the UK, if you don’t believe in Brexit you’re anti-British, and if you do believe in Brexit then you’re racist. It’s that sort of black-and-white thing. We’ve lost the ability to appreciate that there is a counterargument, that you can actually debate things – and there is an element of comedy about that. There’s an absurdity to it.”
He says comedy is changing in the Trump era. “I used to say that normally a satirist takes something that’s true and bends and twists it until it becomes absurd, but that is what Trump does anyway. In every sentence that he says, he’s doing that all the time. So all you have to do is read a transcript of his words and he’s satirised himself,” he says.
“There is always a danger that caricature turns someone like Trump – who I think is inherently dangerous – into something that is comfortable, a sort of cuddly figure of fun. It makes him safe. It makes him a little cartoon character.”
It makes The Death of Stalin timely, Iannucci agrees. “It seems strangely topical with all the talk about facts and alternative facts, new truths and old truths, and the authoritarianism too. It’s frightening.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 24, 2018 as "The Bolshevik of it". Subscribe here.