In the thick of it

ARMANDO Iannucci's name is so familiar that it seems strange to find him looking so, well, ordinary. Small, balding and slightly dishevelled in white shirt and chunky cardigan, the effect is less comedy icon than geography teacher. If he doesn't quite look the part, then he doesn't talk much like it either. This softly-spoken Glaswegian is charming and chatty, and displays none of the acid tongue that one might expect from the country's leading satirist.

Yet Iannucci is a giant in his field. Such is his comic cachet that he has been described as "the single most influential person at work in British comedy". As producer, writer, director and presenter, his CV boasts some of the landmark shows of the past decade, from I'm Alan Partridge and The Day Today to the Saturday Night Armistice (later shifted to Friday) and The Thick of It. He has been the subject of a South Bank Show programme and, earlier this year, delivered a series of lectures on the future of comedy at Oxford University.

These days, Iannucci also runs his own development unit at the BBC, which he joking calls the "East Periphery", and where he develops scripts with other writers. He and his team have just finished a pilot for a Goodies-style sitcom, set in a science testing laboratory and performed in front of a live audience. Currently running on BBC2 is his spoof nostalgia show, Time Trumpet. Set in 2031, it sees older versions of current celebrities, from David Beckham to Jamie Oliver, looking back at the early 21st century. It reveals, among other things, Iannucci's enduring preoccupation with the language of politics. In one episode the guests reflect on the "war on terror", recalling a time when it reached such a pitch that "terrorists were flying buildings into aeroplanes".

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"I'm interested in this idea terrorism has become this tangible thing we can declare war on," Iannucci reflects. "This is how politicians manipulate language now. You might as well declare war on inflation and force people into national service to fight it."

The Thick of It, Iannucci's Bafta-winning comedy, takes similar sideswipes at politicians while casting a satirical spotlight on the governmental process. The series is set in the fictional Ministry of Social Affairs and stars Chris Langham as a beleaguered minister struggling with the power relationships and trying to devise policies that will please the public and the media. Such is its success that a second series is in production and an extended version is planned for Christmas.

For Iannucci, a self-confessed political junkie, it has been the natural vent for his frustrations with New Labour and the politics of spin. Yet, biting as it is, the show isn't entirely without sympathy towards its protagonists. Some of the best moments come from the micropolitics and the difficult relationships that might spring up in any working environment.

"Well, you've got to like some of the characters, otherwise it becomes a horror-fest," says Iannucci. "I wanted not only to show how I think government ministers work, and the pressures they're under, but also how we are really responsible for those pressures. Look at the clamour for Blair to come back from his holiday in the midst of the airport threat. The whole point was that nothing happened.

"John Reid announced there was no emergency, that they'd stopped one. Yet Blair was expected to come back in order to handle this lack of emergency.

"The more I've developed The Thick of It, the more I've come to realise that it's a pretty horrible life being a politician. They choose it, but we don't make it any easier for them."

Despite frequently being portrayed as a political crusader, Iannucci maintains there's no great moral purpose behind his work. Politicians rarely make him angry, they just make him smile. "I just like funny stuff and happen to use what's in the public eye as a subject. If something like The Thick of It does make politicians think about how they control the media, or makes the electorate think about the pressure on politicians to perform, great, but that point isn't explicit."

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That's not to suggest Iannucci doesn't get a fire in his belly over certain issues. He is well known for his opposition to the war in Iraq, and joined the public demonstrations in London in 2003.

"It was interesting because I came in on the train from Gerrard's Cross, which is more Tory than Winston Churchill," he recalls. "The train was absolutely packed. [The protestors] looked like people who normally go rambling with flasks of tea and their walking boots, and had very polite placards saying 'Now really Mr Blair, this is going too far'. Which goes to show that it wasn't just a left-wing issue. It was something that bothered people from all backgrounds and political persuasions."

Looking back on Iannucci's body of work, it's clear that he's as critical of the media as he is of government. "I'm certainly interested in how it goes about shaping our opinions and if there are any flaws in the way it works," he says. "I like to think people aren't as affected by the screaming headlines as the papers believe. You can detect that there has come that point where people are generally just fed up with Blair, and you can see the papers taking that as their cue to publish negative stories. They probably wouldn't have done that five years ago because people wanted to give Labour a chance."

But just as the media has to gauge the public mood in order to compose soundbites, Iannucci must also take the changing political landscape into account. Certainly, the shift in the majority has heralded a new focus for The Thick of It.

"In the Christmas special we're looking at the Opposition. We'll have the regular cast but we'll see their opposite numbers. David Cameron seems like a parody of Blair to me. I think people are now saying 'OK, you can put wind turbines up on your house, but what are you going to do about the economy?' He's got about a year to come up with stuff, I think. I know their worst nightmare is that Blair steps down quickly, Brown takes over quickly and calls an election quickly. They're not ready yet."

I note that it's often claimed by the media that people aren't interested in politics. If this is so, then doesn't it make Iannucci's job superfluous? "Not if I can make it interesting," he replies. "I think people are not so interested in party politics, in the tribal sense. I think people have grown detached from that and switched their focus to single-issue politics. People get interested in what affects them. Maybe it's also the realisation that politicians can't affect these issues as much as they used to. It's all about Microsoft and Coca-Cola and George Bush. You don't sign a petition and take it to parliament any more. There's simply no point."

Iannucci has been performing since he was a schoolboy in Glasgow. He attended a Jesuit school before going on to Oxford, where he got a first in English. His first proper job was providing comedy segments for a youth music show on Radio Scotland, though his big break came after he moved to London and made a ten-minute spoof news programme while on a documentary training course. The comedy department were impressed and the show became On The Hour.

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Among his co-writers was Chris Morris, with whom he would later collaborate on The Day Today. Unlike his ex-writing partners, Iannucci's life seems disconcertingly normal. He lives with his wife, Rachel, a former hearing therapist, and his three children in Buckinghamshire where, in between writing, he reads and listens to classical music. These days Iannucci is in demand as a guest on serious political discussion programmes such as Question Time and The Daily Politics. "I go on shows that I like and would watch," he says. "Occasionally, when they've asked me to go on as a comedian, it rather perversely tends to make me think that it might not be the type of show that I'd like. It's the old Groucho Marx thing - never belong to a club that would have you as a member."

Still, he admits to being uncomfortable with having to have an opinion on everything. "It would be great if a politician, when asked his opinion on the situation in, say, East Timor, just said 'I've no idea, I haven't really thought about it'. I've never really been confident in my opinions - I form them over a long period of time. And I change my mind a lot too. I hate it when people dig out something that a politician said about 25 years ago when they were a student.

"Who cares what they thought then? It's not relevant."

He is, as he outlined in his Oxford lectures, largely positive about the future of TV comedy, although he deplores current mainstream sitcoms tailored for middle-class families who only watch BBC1.

"If you look at sitcoms 20 years ago it was things like Porridge, Fawlty Towers and Yes Minister. They were all funny, intelligent and dramatic. It's almost like we've invented this notion that popular comedy has to be bland. It's always a great mistake to underestimate the intelligence of the public. You've got to think what people will remember in the future. They won't fondly look back at Celebrity Love Island or the sixth series of Big Brother, but they will remember Yes, Minister." At this, Iannucci pauses and looks slightly wistful. "I only hope that they'll remember something of mine, too."

• Armando Iannucci: You Couldn't Make it Up! chaired by Peter MacMahon, Scottish Government Editor of The Scotsman, 1pm today, Parliament Venue 1 (see