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In The Thick of It: Interview with Armando Iannucci

By Constance Roisin

In honour of the ten year anniversary of The Thick of It finale, Armando Iannucci discusses his work with Constance Roisin and reflects on modern politics and the idea of performative society.

This October marks ten years since the BBC political comedy, The Thick of It, finished its fourth and final series. Armando Iannucci, lead writer and director of the BAFTA winning show, hasn’t noticed this milestone. The dates have gotten blurry, he explains to me. No wonder, as since then he has show-run the first four seasons of Veep, directed two feature films: The Death of Stalin and David Copperfield, and his most recent show, Avenue 5, is releasing its second season this month. 

“If you make eye contact with Malcolm Tucker you have spilled his pint”, is one way Peter Capaldi’s  character has been described. I ask Iannucci something I’ve always wanted to know: is Malcolm  Tucker a father? “I think he’s an uncle.” Iannucci replies.  “We discussed this, Peter and I, and we think he’s probably quite a good uncle.” I say I’ve always imagined he’d be a really lovely person at home. “Well exactly.” Iannucci replies. “He’s the best of friends but the worst of enemies.”  

What is Malcolm Tucker intimidated by? I mention a scene in In The Loop, a spin-off film made in the middle of The Thick of It, where Malcolm Tucker is, for once, on the back foot against James Gandolfini, a.k.a Tony Soprano (though he saves it slightly with the closing line “don’t ever call me fucking English again”). “I think,” Iannucci answers, “perhaps finding out that he might be wrong is something he’s secretly worried about.” 

“It’s weird,” he goes on, “I haven’t watched it back in a few years, but I wonder if it feels to you like it’s from a different era, when at least politics had a set of rules which people tried to follow. But  now that politicians are just breaking the rules anyway and saying so what, what are you going to  do, I think today we’d have to tell the story a different way.” I tell him that I was feeling nostalgic the other day after watching an episode where the tory MP Peter Mannion messes up saying the name of a student he meets: “Rajesh Raj” he says. “Hello Peter Pete” the boy replies. In the era of “grab them by the pussy”, this scene suddenly felt so quaint. Iannucci remembers the slogan from that episode – I call App Britain. He compares it to Liz Truss’ recent speech “we will transform Britain into an aspiration nation”. “Aspiration nation” Iannucci repeats. “What does that even mean?” 

I ask him if he feels sorry for the politicians in charge. “Strangely enough” he replies, “it’s the elected  minister who is the one that you feel more sorry for, because they’re the one trying to do something and yet everything around them is conspiring to prevent them. Pressure from the media, pressure from the electorate as well. So I’ve always felt that actually the ministers are the most human of them all.”  He continues: “what I wanted to try and show is that people go into this with the best of intentions, with principles and so on, and it just gets pummelled out of them.” 

The show has, in this way, an almost Shakespearean quality to it. There are betrayals, opposing  houses, rivals and power players. We talk about Steve Fleming (David Haig), the creepiest villain  to come out of The Thick of It, and how his introduction meant that Malcolm wasn’t, in Iannucci’s words, “the king anymore”. Whilst firing Malcolm, Fleming crows to him “the problem is you’re  shifting from the man people love to hate to the man people just hate. From Simon Cowell to Piers  Morgan.” With Fleming, Iannucci says, “we were playing with that idea that series to series you’ve  got to have something new, change the dynamic. Don’t just do more episodes of the last series,  you know, bring it forward, make some changes.”  

It is, however, the two Lib-Dem characters in the last series (played by Geoffrey Streatfeild and  Ben Willbond) who are, perhaps, the least likeable. They are not wickedly talented like Fleming or  Tucker – “he is impressive, isn’t he, Malcom, in the way that, say, Hitler was actually quite impressive” – or somewhat principled like Peter and Nicola Murray (Rebecca Front), the two ministers for Social Affairs and Citizenship. Instead they are just a bit useless, nicknamed by their  colleagues as “the inbetweeners”. “Doesn’t one of them buy a bank in a panic?” Iannucci asks,  laughing again. “I quite liked that.” I mention Glenn’s disappointment that they are clearly not the  party he once thought they were. “Yes yes” Iannucci says, “I was channelling a lot of my anti-Nick  Clegg sentiments back then.”  

In general, however, there are no good and bad guys. I ask if there was a point made not to vilify  the Tories when they became a central focus half way through the show, led by Roger Allam’s  loveable Peter Mannion (“some of my best friends are money-grabbing wankers”). “No it wasn’t that  at all.” Iannucci answers. “Again it’s just that thing of, if we portray the minister, from the word go, as  an idiot, amoral, lying toad, then you’ve got nowhere to go. And I much prefer when, for me, the minister is the programme’s way of saying to the audience: ‘what would you do if you were in their  position. Would you make that decision or would you go the other way?’.”  

Armando Iannucci’s next project, which he hopes will start filming this year, will be about social  media. We talk about the fact that he – so powerful that he doesn’t need to be named – “owns half of the world’s knowledge and data and is expected to have ethics, international law, human rights, privacy…It just doesn’t work like that. And that he claims he can do it is even more shocking.” Tech moguls are sort of the opposite of Peter Mannion and Nicola Murray: they have all the power but nobody is watching them. “Yes. As far as they’re concerned it’s perfect: the spotlight isn’t on them.” 

Truth versus spin. There’s a lot of that in Iannucci’s work, from Malcolm Tucker to the unreliable narrator David Copperfield, to the dictator Stalin. Is this a preoccupation of his? It’s a bit more than that, Iannucci explains to me. “It’s also, I think, personal belief and confidence in yourself. David Copperfield is about identity crisis and imposter syndrome and do I fit in, what do I have to do to fit in? Whether it’s class or race or ideology or how to become part of the team I suppose. But, you know, it’s fundamentally how much do we perform, really, in our daily lives, how much of it is the performance.” So is everyone just like those actors in Avenue 5, pretending that they can fly a spaceship? “Exactly. They’re just hired to look like they’re doing something. And I think that is a universal story, and it’s something that when you get to my age, you realise ‘oh we’re all doing that, we’re all just pretending we know what we’re doing, it wasn’t just me it was also the Bank of England, it was the university administrators, it was the Home Office.’ And the sooner we all accept that, probably the better.”


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