An interview with Armando Iannucci
"I think for the first time in his life Malcolm Tucker would be lost for words."
The day after I spoke to Armando Iannucci, the petition to prevent Donald Trump from making a state visit to the UK reached 1,814,222 signatures.
It’s a document the writer advised people to sign, and one that aimed, he says, to embarrass the US President – something he sees as “a good thing”, claiming this is “far better than smashing windows and throwing fire hydrants around in the street.” That maybe so – but the petition (which made it to over 1,850,000 signatures) did not work.
Armando’s 2009 film, In The Loop, born out of his political comedy The Thick Of It, saw the unforgettable creation that is spin doctor Malcolm Tucker assert his sweary and abrasive self in the States. I ask Armando what the character would make of Trump.
“I think for the first time in his life Malcolm Tucker would be lost for words. He would be absolutely dumbfounded, which I think a lot of people are. Within the space of seven or eight days Trump sacked an acting attorney general, which is something it took Nixon six years to do when the walls were closing in on him. I think mere words alone cannot articulate what Malcolm would feel – he’d make a noise I think.”
Armando is a writer of material that “gives you a snapshot of the climate at the time.” The Thick Of It’s debut episode saw characters Glen, Hugh and Ollie in a car desperately trying to think of a policy popular with the public and free to implement.
The actors were asked to improvise the scene, and we then saw policies suggested on screen come to fruition off it, such as Pet Asbos and a national spare room database (which reared its head in reality as the bedroom tax). “We write stuff because we think it’s funny,” Armando says, “but then we find out it’s actually true which is slightly strange. I’ve had various politicians (including some former cabinet ministers) saying they’ve been in the back of that car trying to think up policies.”
Presently he is making another film, another current climate snapshot in a way, The Death Of Stalin, which depicts “the big power struggle with the Kremlin” following the passing of the Soviet Union dictator. With a cast including Steve Buscemi and Michael Palin, the picture is about “what happens when dangerous autocrats have supreme power” – a topic that is “becoming increasingly relevant unfortunately.”
Also relevant today, to Armando “even more relevant than it ever was”, is George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, which became Amazon’s bestselling book following the ‘alternative facts’ of Trump’s special advisor. The novel is probably going to feature in Armando’s ‘Desert Island Books’ list. This list will be revealed in full when the Oxford-educated satirist – always “an avid reader” and “drawn to language” – joins Will Gompertz in Chipping Norton this April, as part of a preview event for the town’s literary festival. Describing Orwell as an author unafraid of ideas, Armando goes on to call Nineteen Eighty-Four’s satire “bleak”, but also defines the book as “weirdly funny” too, due to “the absurdity of the logic.”
Having often been represented by what he’s put down on paper for other people to say, how do Armando’s nerves cope at live events such as ‘Desert Island Books’? “I like dialogue with audiences,” he tells me. “I’d rather do that than a speech, I’d rather engage.” So the Lit Fest event will involve a Q&A session – that way, he says, you can learn what “people really want to talk about.”
Passionately caring for democracy, citing politics as “in a negative, absurdist phase”, and possessing a fondness for Dickens and Graham Greene, Armando’s ‘Desert Island Books’ takes place at Chipping Norton Theatre on 6th April, 7.45pm. Who knows what Trump will have done by then?
Chipping Norton Literary Festival takes place 27th-30th April.