Interview: Armando Iannucci, writer and director

ARMANDO Iannucci receiving an OBE was enough to make former Labour spin doctor Alastair Campbell tweet ‘hypocrisy’. But, hears Stephen McGinty, the Scottish scourge of the political classes is having none of it – he’s just turned his sights on the Americans

ARMANDO Iannucci receiving an OBE was enough to make former Labour spin doctor Alastair Campbell tweet ‘hypocrisy’. But, hears Stephen McGinty, the Scottish scourge of the political classes is having none of it – he’s just turned his sights on the Americans

WHEN he launched the weapons of mass destruction Armando Iannucci was in bed in rural Buckinghamshire, sipping a cup of tea and pondering his role, that afternoon, as the bread vendor at his children’s school fête. Aware of the Powell Principles, coined by Colin Powell, the former head of America’s armed forces, which state that any provocation should be met with overwhelming force, he felt he had no choice but to unleash his comic arsenal. For, on that Saturday morning nine days ago, it had been announced that the Scot described as “a modern-day Moliere” for his political satires such as The Thick Of It had graciously accepted an OBE for services to comedy, prompting Alastair Campbell, the former government spokesman and reluctant model for Iannucci’s foul-mouthed monster, Malcolm Tucker, to tweet that he had sold out “by joining the Establishment he claims to deride.”

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From the upstairs bedroom of his rural farmhouse, Iannucci responded quite mildly at first, a literary blast into the dirt in front of Campbell’s feet so to speak, or tweet, by pointing out that it was probably more establishment to march into “other countries for no reason”.

But this served only to prompt his adversary to swagger foolishly into the comic crosshairs by replying that his wit was already appearing “tired and blunt” and that “three little letters can have more impact than you realise”.

To which Iannucci replied: “WMD”. It was a direct hit that left Campbell stumbling from the wreckage, with the blackened face and smouldering hair of a cartoon character, while Iannucci sauntered off to try his hand at flogging hand-crafted artisan loafs.

Speaking in London at a BAFTA screening of his new comedy, Veep, which begins tonight on Sky Atlantic, Iannucci is relaxed about the spat.

“I don’t think I am anti-establishment,” he said. “I’m anti those in the establishment who abuse their position within the establishment but Alastair as I call him, (I call him other things … ****) I actually don’t care what accent you have, how much riches you have, it is what you do. If you are in public life it is what you do. If you use the responsibilities you have.

“I am a member of the establishment in that I make shows that people watch. If you produce works that are watched and enjoyed by large numbers of people you are a part of the establishment.”

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The son of an Italian owner of a pizza factory, Iannucci was born in Glasgow, educated by the Jesuits at the city’s St Aloysius’ College, and seriously considered training for the priesthood before studying English at Oxford. After graduating with a first, he embarked on a PhD about the religious themes in the works of John Milton but, perhaps after discovering a musical link between the opening lines of Paradise Lost and the theme tune from the Flintstones, he realised comedy was his true forte and abandoned academia for radio. At first he worked at Radio Scotland on shows such as Not The Archie Macpherson Show before moving to Radio 4 where he produced the current affairs parody On The Hour and developed, with Steve Coogan, I’m Alan Partridge.

Yet it was the success of The Thick Of It, the political comedy that takes the world of Yes Minister and updates it before rinsing it in perhaps the foulest language ever broadcast, that led to his current project for HBO, the American broadcasters behind The Sopranos, Game of Thrones and True Blood, in which he skewers American politics by following the misfortunes of Selina Meyer, the vice-president of the United States, who is played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus, famous for her role as Elaine in Seinfeld.

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The role of VP, in the American constitution, comes with just two powers – the right to step into a dead man’s shoes and to break a tied senate vote – was famously described by John Nance Garner, who served as Roosevelt’s deputy, as “not worth a bucket of warm piss”. While Dick Cheney was allowed to enjoy tremendous power during George W Bush’s first term, the majority of the incumbents of the vice-presidency have found the role hugely frustrating.

As Iannucci says: “America is all about being coming first, being number one, winning and beating everyone. So if your job is really a big badge that says: ‘I came second’ it is slightly demeaning, and vice-presidents know that when they are around people, those people are respectful because of the office, but as soon as they leave the room they are laughing at them. But they will always be respectful to them because they know also that one day that guy could be president … and have them killed.”

Although played by a woman, he is adamant that it is not a nod to Sarah Palin, who ran for vice-president alongside John McCain, and who has already been mined for comic gold by the likes of Tina Fey on Saturday Night Live.

“We wrote the pilot script for a woman, we just thought it would be more interesting and it would mean nobody would read it as Joe Biden or Al Gore or Dick Cheney. She is not Palin, she is just herself.” In fact, the comedy makes the point that Selina Meyer was a successful politician and senator who previously had power. The choice of Louis-Dreyfus has been hugely successful, according to the critics in America where the eight-part series recently ended.

“Julia is a great comedy actress. I agreed to meet with her thinking it might be a bit formal, I was a big fan, but that she would be surrounded by 101 people. She arrived on her own and we just sat and had tea, and we just gassed on for three and a half hours. Just making each other laugh.

“She grew up in Washington so she knew that type of person and that role. She is amazingly funny and wants to be funny and she is a pro, not starry, she just wants to be good and, having been famous in America for the last 15 years through Seinfeld, she knows what it is like, like Selina, to go into a room and have to smile and be very positive, even if she is feeling shit or has toothache. She brought that to the role as well.”

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The language, while still littered with swear words is milder, in comparison, to The Thick Of It, which he puts down to the difference between Westminster and Washington. “There isn’t so much swearing in the show as there isn’t so much swearing in Washington. We learned a lot about swearing in American politics. There isn’t much swearing at the State Department because they are diplomats, but there is a lot of swearing at the Pentagon because they are the army. Financial Republicans swear a lot, religious Republicans don’t swear. Democrats swear more than Republicans.”

The launch at BAFTA’s headquarters in Piccadilly, which was decorated with stars and stripes and little flags bearing Veep’s smiling face, was an opportunity for Iannucci to enjoy a few beers, and to talk about the difference between working for HBO and the BBC: “One episode of Veep cost more than the entire budget for The Thick Of It”, and how he still plans to make an Alan Partridge film: “It is Alan in Norwich, not Alan goes to Hollywood, and he is on North Norfolk Digital. It has been taken over by a big media conglomerate and has its name changed to Shape.”

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Until then, fans can enjoy the return of Mr Partridge in a new programme for Sky Atlantic, which is also broadcast tonight, called Welcome To The Places Of My Life. “He is going around Norfolk and Norwich and meeting local people and chatting with them, and I shouldn’t really say because it’s a show that I have done, but it’s just really funny.”

As a disgruntled Lib Dem, Iannucci has said he has enjoyed venting his frustrations with the coalition in the new series of The Thick of It, which he is editing at the moment for broadcast in the autumn. But, as he explained earlier this year, he has no wish to see the union consigned to the dust bucket of history, especially since it would diminish his Order of the British Empire: “I’m not an ardent nationalist. I’m proud to be Scottish but I also feel British. It would be a shame if Scotland left the United Kingdom. On the other hand, I don’t think it would be a disaster. Every state seems so influenced by its connections with every other state that it’s difficult to define what is it about a state that gives it its own identity.”

But, after skewering Westminster and Washington he has, as yet, no plans to launch any verbal WMDs in the direction of Holyrood. “I just have not seen enough. I need to see more.”

• Veep is on Sky Atlantic tonight.