Swearing allegiance to the flag

Published

Tom Bonnick speaks to the director and stars of In the Loop about Washington motorcades, being too clever for success, and finding comedy in unexpected places

For someone who commands a position of utmost respect and near-unanimous reverence within his field, Armando Iannucci is remarkably blithe to his achievements. Perhaps this is because, even though he is responsible for some of the most enduring television and radio shows of the past fifteen years — The Day Today, I’m Alan Partridge, The News Quiz — he has never been exposed to the levels of fame of the shows’ stars.

While Steve Coogan and Chris Morris made their names reading Iannucci’s jokes, the writer and producer steadily built up a resume that included a ridiculously high proportion of intelligent British comedy.

2005’s The Thick of It seemed destined to continue the honourable tradition of perpetuating its creator’s near-anonymity. Set in the fictitious Department of Social Affairs, and filmed in a dizzying fly-on-the-wall style, the show was a cult hit after its initial run on BBC Four, but its critical success was eclipsed by star Chris Langham’s conviction for downloading indecent images of children in 2007. Two specials followed the series, broadening the canvas to include the opposition party and removing the spotlight from Langham’s incompetent minister. The show has now evolved into a film, In the Loop, which carries across from the series the same visual aesthetic, realist style and deadpan humour. The focus has shifted from Social Affairs to International Development, and the domestic microcosm of government has been expanded to encompass the American Secretary of State in the run-up to an unspecified and dubiously motivated war in the Middle East. However, the film, Iannucci insists, is not simply The Thick of It: The Movie.

“I don’t want people to think that you’ve got to have seen the show to see the film. I see it as a kind of cousin. Or brother-in-law.”
When I meet Iannucci and two of the film’s stars, Peter Capaldi and Chris Addison, the director professes an ignorance of the limelight into which he has been thrust that is accompanied by such childlike glee that it is impossible not to find endearing.

“I’ve never been to a premiere. I don’t quite know what happens.”

Capaldi joins in. “This is a Glasgow premiere, though. It’s just Tennants everywhere.”

Such supposed naivety comes across in Iannucci’s work as a real empathy for the underdog, as if he identifies personally with the plight of the everyday individual. Neither the film nor the show ever reaches the highest echelons of political power, concentrating instead on the day-to-day work of civil servants and junior politicians.

The obvious parallels between the plot of In the Loop and the war in Iraq — the film includes sexed-up dossiers, war-mongering Secretaries of State, British diplomats facing crises of conscience — belie a set of themes which are at once both less simplistic and more absurd.

“The story of the war; how the Brits were sort of sucked into feeling important, getting a bit giddy about going to Washington and being in the Oval Office and forgetting what they were there to do — that struck me as a funny story.”

For the film, Capaldi has reprised the role of Malcolm Tucker, the hilarious, baroquely foul-mouthed spin-doctor who exists in a state of permanent aggression; ready to spring into furious action at any moment.

The character is the only one to transition from The Thick of It: evidently, neither Iannucci nor Capaldi were willing to give up such a gold mine of dramatic and comedic potential.

There is an interesting irony to Capaldi’s performance that makes it almost impossible to pin down. Tucker — easily the most interesting figure: seductively, charismatically Machiavellian, quick-tongued, and omniscient — seems somewhat incongruous with Iannucci’s obvious dislike of political spin and the work done by the character, thought by most to be based on Alastair Campbell — and perhaps this is what makes him so irresistible to his creator and viewers.

I have a fantasy that Capaldi will resemble Tucker in real life; that I will be shouted at for asking stupid questions and maybe — just maybe — get called a horsecock. Inevitably, he is nothing like the monstrous figure he so magnificently brings to life on screen. Throughout our meeting he is consummately charming; rather soft-spoken. He displays an impressive talent for being able to sound modest without seeming disingenuous, constantly deferring the praise which has been lavished on the film, and his character in particular, to the writers, Iannucci, and his co-stars. When I ask whether it is ever frustrating not being able to swear as fluently as Malcolm can, he is effusive not only in his admiration of his peers, but also in his own supposedly limited capabilities.

“It’s a constant frustration. Not just the swearing – I can’t speak; I can’t reach the end of a sentence effectively at all, whereas the writers provide these fantastic lines. That’s what I get worried about. His [Tucker’s] mind is very fast, and a bit of mine is. But not the bit with words.”

The only moment which causes me to excitedly inhale, in anticipation of the spew of expletives The Thick of It has taught me to expect, is early on, when I am sitting alone waiting for everyone to arrive. Through a wall I hear a familiar Glaswegian twang bellowing for a pastry in what is obviously an affected diva-esque tone, although I pray that it is not.

Later, when Capaldi is asked a question about returning to Glasgow for the UK premiere of In the Loop, he replies with a relaxed smile on his face, and I exhale with a mixture of relief and disappointment.

“It’s nice. I get to see my mother and sister. For free. And there’ll be a croissant along in a minute, and you’ll see it has my name on it.”

When the film first started attracting attention, on the back of its Sundance screening, the reaction was a distinctly confused one. On the one hand, critics went out of their way to comment on how funny it was, how acute, and how refreshing it was to see truly astute political satire on the big screen. Another camp felt differently. Sure, they still thought it was a great film — the problem was that it was too great. The jokes were too clever, the brushstrokes not broad enough, the characters too morally ambiguous. When I left a screening some months ago, I overheard a typically snooty critic opine to their companion that they didn’t think Joe Public would “get it”.

Iannucci doesn’t agree. “If you peel away the politics and the naturalism and stuff like that, it’s structured like a screwball comedy. And I think people like that it’s different to what they’re getting.”

So, does he anticipate much success? “It’s not going to be Star Wars. Hopefully a word of mouth will build up. If we can persuade enough people ‘Don’t worry, it’s not really about politics’, I think it may generate…” He begins to trail off and the faux-naïve grin returns. “I have no idea how these things work.”

The other obvious reason for hesitancy that has been seized upon by the Lack-of-faith-in-the-public crowd is that now is the “wrong time” for the film — that when America has fallen in love with its leaders again and renewed faith in itself and its politics, it does not want to watch a sarcastic, polemical film that takes swipes at government and reminds the public of their complicity in the events of the past eight years. I would argue the opposite: that these are times when exactly this sort of film ought to be released, if for no other reason than so as to wake people up from complacency. (I would also argue that any time is the right one for a film as funny as this one.)

To this charge, Iannucci responds with the manner of a cheesy salesman, gung-ho and earnest (Is this the wrong time? “No! This is the right time!”)
I suspect that this is masking a slight exasperation at so many people wondering aloud whether Iannucci is too clever and mean to be a success. His more measured response, however, betrays a mind that has seriously considered the question.

“When we showed it at Sundance, the response was unbelievable. I think they just wanted to get it out of their system. The audience were relieved to see it in front of them, being dealt with. But also, there is that sense that it could happen again. Because it’s not about evil, nasty people. It’s about slightly fragile people occasionally making the wrong decision, or not quite having the courage of their convictions.

Already, we’re getting Hillary Clinton being very bullish about Iran, and Obama talking about a surge in Afghanistan — I’m not saying there’s going to be another war, but I think it’s important to see how these things happen. It’s not to do with one person pressing a button; it’s to do with the collective atmosphere really.”

Chris Addison sees it slightly differently: the film is actually uplifting, precisely because of the years under Bush and Blair.

“It would have been gallows humour if McCain had got in, but now it’s the laughter of relief. I think there’s something appealing about that.”
In a way, both The Thick of It and In the Loop’s style of comedy can be characterised by their ability to find humour in unexpected places. It is a mark of how rounded they are as pieces of drama that even with writing so uniformly excellent, the funniest moments in each are often the long, awkward silences which follow one of Malcolm’s rages or a fresh new ministerial gaffe.

“Sometimes,” says Iannucci, “I took out lines because they were funny — they felt like, under those circumstances, that character wouldn’t say something like that. They wouldn’t have the wherewithal to come up with something so elaborate — the funny line suddenly makes you aware of the artifice.”

In this sense, Iannucci’s comic sensibilities seem similar to those of Ricky Gervais’, except In the Loop does not simply finish the joke with the social faux pas lingering in the air, as The Office did. Like Stewart Lee or Eddie Izzard, Iannucci’s real gift lies in carrying each riff to its logical, albeit absurd, conclusion — and nowhere does this technique work better than in the machinations of political office.

In the Loop is in cinemas now.