Don’t ask Armando Iannucci if ‘satire is dead’

Armando Iannucci

The film and TV writer answers your questions on advising Boris Johnson, dining with Alan Partridge and more

24 February 2022 | Rich Pelley | The Guardian | With additional material

The film and TV writer answers your questions on advising Boris Johnson, dining with Alan Partridge characters and whether he still has OJ’s confession

How bored are you with people asking how bored you are with people asking if reality has become impossible to satirise? ritasueandbob

I’m extremely bored. But I don’t think it has. A lot of people have forgotten that life is real. It’s not something you can invent and occasionally rewrite. Life is something you’re stuck with, to deal with head on and not hide from.

How would Malcolm Tucker, Ollie and Glenn advise Boris Johnson and Keir Starmer? TimJefferies

To Keir Starmer, they would say: “Just be yourself, whatever that is. Dig deep, find out who you are and be that.” To Boris, they’d say: “Whatever you are, be the opposite. Don’t be yourself. Any personality trait that you are currently manifesting, could you please reverse that? Do your utmost not to be the person you are.”

When writing The Death of Stalin, was it hard to strike the balance between historical accuracy and humour? readherring123

‘The comedy supports the tragedy, but doesn’t undercut the drama’ … The Death of Stalin. Photograph: Nicola Dove/EOne

The more true stories we discovered, the more we thought: “Let’s put them in,” because that’s where a lot of the tragedy and comedy comes from. We discovered that Stalin’s overpromoted son lost the national army ice hockey team in a snowstorm and tried to replace them with his friends because he was too scared to tell his father – they were terrible.

I spent a lot of time in the edit trying to tread the line so that the comedy supports the tragedy, but doesn’t undercut the drama. I wanted the audience to feel uneasy watching the film, because that’s what most people at the time felt on a daily basis. I wanted to recreate that sense of rumbling unease.\

Was The Death of Stalin really banned in Russia, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan? NoMoreMrNice

Yes. It got a certificate to be shown in cinemas [in Russia], but they suddenly withdrew it, in a very Soviet move. It became the most talked-about film in Russia and the most illegally downloaded film in Russian history.

The Death of Stalin Trailer #1 (2018)

The Personal History of David Copperfield is a wonderful film. Any plans to film another Dickens novel? Xanthe

It’s at the back of my mind, but I want to get away from the usual suspects, like Oliver Twist and Great Expectations, and look at others with meaty stories, such as Little Dorrit or Martin Chuzzlewit, which is a great satire of the US.

‘I wanted to make something that was not just a historical artefact’ … Dev Patel in The Personal History of David Copperfield. Photograph: Dean Rogers/AP

What do you think of the criticism that colour-blind casting miseducates people about historical racism by presenting a world in which it seems that race doesn’t exist? Quidist

I never came across that criticism, but if it was there, then fine. I don’t have an agenda. I don’t say: all films must be made this way. I wanted to make something that was fresh, vivid, contemporary and not just a historical artefact.

We wrote and shot The Personal History of David Copperfield not long after Brexit, with all the language about closing borders, exclusion and turning people back. That’s not how I regard Britain. I regard Britain as very open, generous and welcoming, with a rich ethnic mix that we should celebrate.

Also, from a practical point of view, I want to be able to choose the best cast available. I don’t want to stick up a notice that says: “Casting for David Copperfield, whites only,” because that strikes me as very inefficient. I want be able to draw from 100% of the talent pool.

I have a friend who says one day you will call a press conference and announce everything that has happened since 2016 was scripted by you. Is that true? JacobJones

THE PERSONAL HISTORY OF DAVID COPPERFIELD | Official Trailer 

Yes, I’ve booked the Four Seasons Total Landscaping in Pennsylvania. I’ve hired Rudy Giuliani and he’s going to announce that everything since 2016 has been a wind-up, for charity.

You said in 2014 that the licence fee should be abolished in favour of a subscription service, along the lines of HBO. Do you still hold that view? WhitbreadBighead

Well, I said that the BBC should introduce a subscription service internationally to take the pressure off the licence fee domestically. If the BBC was making money selling itself royally around the world, that would keep the licence fee as low as possible for domestic users.

We know the licence fee is going to have to end, because we watch television in a different way now. But we have to come up with a system that still allows the public service broadcasting remit: local community service, education, children’s programming, fantastic documentaries, risk-taking dramas and working with writers and performers from all around the country.

What the BBC does very well is connect us. We found that during the pandemic. There’s only so much high-end production drama you can watch – and Netflix and everyone are great at making those. But I don’t think Netflix would have come up with things as intrinsically British and idiosyncratic as The Great British Bake Off or The Repair Shop.

Photograph: Suki Dhanda/The Observer



If they offered you the post of director general of the BBC, what changes would you implement? PS: I am not Nadine Dorries, so this isn’t a job offer. OhReallyFFS

Well, Nadine, I’d put on a suit, look the part, talk about strategy, 360 development and enhancing the vision for the broadcasting landscape while preserving the public sector with public broadcasting priorities.

But primarily I’d tell the government to fuck off. The BBC is meant to be an independent broadcaster, funded by the licence-fee payer, not the government. The government shouldn’t be telling the BBC what to do, so they should just fuck off. I probably wouldn’t last beyond day one in the job..

Everyone knows someone like him, but it’s never yourself’ … Steve Coogan as Alan Partridge. Photograph: StudioCanal/Allstar

Who would you rather have dinner with, [the Alan Partridge charactersJed Maxwell or the late Tony Hayersseoulsaint82

I would love to challenge Tony Hayers with programme ideas, because he was of a generation of TV executive who exudes a sense of the BBC’s ethos, but is never confident enough to have an opinion. I’d enjoy sitting Hayers down and firing questions at him like: what do you think of This Country? What do you think of Toast of London?

Why do you think Alan Partridge has remained so loved for more than 30 years? MountainAspect

Everyone knows someone like him, someone they work with or a relative, but it’s never yourself. No one has come up to me and said: “Oh, I love Alan Partridge. It’s me.” Obviously, Steve’s transformation is amazing; he just inhabits the character. But we didn’t overdo it. We did an Alan thing every four years.

He’s in the media, so he’s sort of reinvented himself to capture where the medium is going, whether it’s radio, TV, YouTube or podcasts. He’s a monster, but a monster we are familiar with and can cope with.

Exactly what was supposed to be in the drawer in Alan Partridge’s room at the Linton Travel Tavernlescud

Well, both Steve and I know, and it’s very funny, but I think if I told you … I did tell someone once at a live event. It’s very, very specific, so I’m sure my answer is somewhere out there on the internet.

Do you write in a lightning, white-heat flash, or is it squeezed out, considered, pruned, edited and primped? Adnilsetab

A bit of both. Like all writers, I keep putting stuff off. That’s why I like writing with other people, because the leaps of logic that take you to the funny happen a lot quicker when you’re in a room with two or three other people.

Have you still got OJ Simpson’s confession? TheSpleen42

No! The props people took it off me. It was boxed up somewhere in the BBC at Television Centre , but now that’s a block of flats. I don’t know where it is.

Punching above his weight … Peter Capaldi in The Thick of It. Photograph: Ed Miller/BBC

Peter Capaldi, Lewis Capaldi, Sharleen Spiteri, Paolo Nutini, Tom Conti, Jack Vettriano, Lou Macari … how come the Scots with Italian roots punch so well above their weight? PeteTheBeat

Fantastic diet, great weather … Italians in Scotland are one of the earliest national groups that settled after the first world war, so they have deep roots. My mother’s parents came over after the first world war and my father after the second world war. Maybe it’s that we’re boisterous, but because the weather is so miserable in Scotland we stay indoors, get creative and pour all our emotional energy into something else.

The Definitive Malcolm Tucker Rant Anthology | The Thick Of It – BBC

When Scotland play Italy in the Six Nations, who do you support? Readout_Noise

Italy are so terrible that I cynically go for Scotland. In the World Cup, it’s the reverse.

I interviewed you for a newspaper piece in 1989 where we discussed the moribund state of TV comedy and you said that it needed somebody to shake it all up. I had no idea you were thinking of yourself. What gave you the confidence? Did you ever think that your career would turn out as spectacularly? Captainsnort

That must have been while I was doing BBC Radio Scotland. Not long after, I went off and became a comedy producer in London. I had a weird mix of feeling underconfident, in that I was very shy, but I was sure that I could do something in comedy, however niche. I don’t know if I was talking about myself in that interview. But, as a listener and viewer of comedy, I remember thinking: this needs a good punch.

Which is easier? Writing comedy or standing for parliament? sometimelater

I don’t know. I’ve only done one! I did nearly get into the Treasury. I sat the civil service entrance exam and got through to the final interview, but in the end they turned me down because they thought I wouldn’t take it seriously enough. That was probably wise. I’d have gone absolutely off my head and would probably have invented some weird perverse taxes, just to annoy people.

As the world has changed dramatically in the last 20 years, isn’t it time The Armando Iannucci Shows returned to help us make sense of it all? Troughton22

I’d like to do a film version, although not necessarily with me in it. I don’t think I’m that great a performer. But looking at behaviour and absurdity comes closest to who I am. I enjoy that sense of storytelling, where everything is real except one thing is barking mad.

Satirists should be the scourge of the establishment – feared and hated. Do you worry about becoming a court jester who exists only to gently mock but never seriously challenge the king? ByDogHasDohDoze

I’ve never really called myself a satirist. I know other people call me that because of The Thick of It. But is Alan Partridge satire? I just make funny stuff. I don’t get up in the morning and think: “Who shall I satirise today?”

Having said that, I do write stuff that I’m passionate about, even if it makes me angry. Tony Blair taking us into a needless war got me angry, and that’s what made In the LoopMy Covid poem is a response to the anger and frustration about how I felt the last two years have been handled. So as long as I can preserve my own personal sense of effrontery, then I feel I’m doing what I want to.

 Armando Iannucci will be live in conversation at the Glasgow film festival on 6 March

James Porteous

James Porteous is an author, photographer and researcher. Clipper Media News is a daily publicatioin featuring news and views you can use.

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