Edinburgh International Books Festival interview: Armando Iannucci

How did the creator of razor-sharp satires The Thick of It and Veep try and reflect the strangeness and sadness of life in lockdown? By composing a 700-line mock-heroic poem that balances humour, anger and more

Thus far, the creative response to the pandemic from writers and artists has been largely absent. Too soon, perhaps, but not for Armando Iannucci, who was scribbling down his thoughts even in the strange early weeks of the first lockdown.

Perhaps that’s not surprising given that, as a comedy writer and director working on shows like The Day Today and The Thick of It, he is long used to responding to events as they happen. What is more unexpected is that what emerged from his pen in the early days of the pandemic was the beginning of an epic poem.

When lockdown halted filming on his HBO comedy Avenue 5, he says, he read “the books you’ve been promising yourself to read”, in his case The Odyssey, The Aeneid, Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf (he has an unfinished PhD on Milton’s Paradise Lost from his university days). All this fed into Pandemonium, a 700-line poem in which characters like Orbis Rex, Young Matt and his Circle of Friends and blind Dom’nic are pitted up against “a wet and withered bat from Wuhan”. It’s funny, grotesque and sad. Across a quietened Britain, “grief [is] sung in silence”.

Armando IannucciArmando Iannucci
Armando Iannucci

“I think it was just some attempt, just as a personal form of therapy really, to process all the different experiences,” says the 58-year-old. “The fact that we were all having the same experience, watching it on the television, banging pots, and yet we all had our own private story to tell about how we were coping with it. Without realising it, I seemed to arrive at a form which allowed me to do the private and the public, the tragic and the comic. Not summing it up but trying to take an emotional snapshot of where we were.”

Yes, he was angry, at the waste of life, at the contracts awarded to cronies, but he wanted it to be about more than anger. Describing political leaders in mock heroic terms “at least gives them a fighting chance. If I’m not immediately saying ‘This guy is an idiot’, if I’m saying ‘This guy sees himself as a hero, so let’s see how he behaves’, and then you can judge him against the heroes of old. Because I also think they were the people determining our physical wellbeing, we wanted them to succeed.”

Now though, he’s angrier, and plans to write an extended version of the poem for a performance next year taking in Partygate and the eventual demise of Boris. Iannucci lost his mum in the first lockdown: not to Covid-19, though he believes her death from dementia was hastened by the enforced isolation. “We had to say our last words on Facetime and go to a funeral where my Glasgow side of the family weren’t able to come. When they say that’s when Boris was having his parties, you can see why people are very angry.”

There seems to be little Iannucci can’t do: the co-creator of Alan Partridge, lead writer and director on The Thick of It, presenter of his own show for Channel 4, creator of American political satire Veep (which won 17 Emmys), and now director of films In the Loop, The Death of Stalin and The Personal History of David Copperfield. He has also presented radio programmes on classical music, and wrote the libretto for the operetta Skin Deep with composer David Sawer.

Growing up in Glasgow with an ear glued to the radio, he wanted to a part of the world which made The News Quiz and I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue. The PhD was a “respectable” back-up plan, but he spent most of his time writing comedy and quit academia when offered the chance of a job with BBC Scotland, leading to a comedy producer’s job in London.

When On The Hour became The Day Today, propelled by the success of characters such as Partridge, he moved into television (“I didn’t have a plan to be a TV producer, it just happened”). And when the success of The Thick of It lead to a chance to make spin-off movie In the Loop, “I thought, ‘oh it’s a film: good, I’ve been meaning to do a film for a while’.”

Looking back, Iannucci says, you could almost get nostalgic for the world of foul-mouthed spin doctor Malcolm Tucker and his earnest but ineffectual New Labour ministers. “The thing about The Thick of It was that it showed you how the rules could be bent and twisted. Now we have someone like Johnson is saying ‘We don’t need rules!’” The rise of Donald Trump clearly did not help. “The message we took from Trump is ‘You can lie, and it’s fine, you’ll still win, even though they know you’re lying’. Just saying something often enough convinces enough people that you must be telling the truth. In a slightly compacted form, that’s what Johnson’s doing. I don’t even know if it’s conscious lying, it might just be part of his DNA, to say whatever will shift the blame from him. But when you’re the Prime Minister, who else can you blame? The Queen? God?

“Both Trump and Johnson illuminated the fact that a lot of our procedures which keep people in check very much rely on people being good eggs, doing the decent thing. But if somebody isn’t a good egg, we realise there’s nothing written down which says that they’ll take the rap, they’ll apologise, they’ll leave the post because it’s untenable, they’ll listen to the argument because there are a lot of people behind it.”

While people tend to describe him as a satirist, Iannucci doesn’t use the word himself. “I just think I write stuff that hopefully connects with what’s going on in the world, and hopefully is funny. When something terrible happens, my instinct is not to say ‘oh good, I can really use that’, I just think ‘oh God, what are we going to do?’ I think about what draws my attention emotionally, what am I excited by or fearful of or angry about or confused by or happy with. You write with that emotion in mind, as a starting point.”

He’s also fed up with people saying that absurdist nature of current politics is the end of political comedy, but perhaps it does require a different response. “Either you make very, very specific, immediate, short things, which is why the stuff that comes up on Twitter seems quite effective, or else you step back and say, ‘I’m not going to write about the events of this week, I’m going to write about what’s behind the events.’”

That’s why his next big project will be about social media. “For me, this is where all this has led, this is where the power and the influence are, the Facebooks of this world who have all our data. And the whole question of truth, where anything we say is now regarded as being as valid as anything which is factually true.” He sighs, then smiles. “We’re already doing our research, and the more we do, the more depressing it becomes.”

Armando Iannucci is at Edinburgh International Book Festival, Central Hall, on 19 August at 8.30pm, www.edbookfest.com. Pandemonium: Some Verses on Our Current Predicament is published by Little, Brown priced £9.99