“Twitter took over with the #nickcleggsfault thing, and it was kind of interesting seeing how the standard electoral weapons, like front pages or indeed pollsters, have now become outmoded.”
Armando Iannucci is discussing his new role as unofficial Twitter election commentator. Away from the hustle and bustle of London, we are in the foyer of the Park Plaza hotel in Nottingham. Iannucci is here to receive a lifetime achievement award for his ‘Outstanding Contribution to Screenwriting’ from the ScreenLit festival at Broadway Cinema.
Most of us will know him as the creator of The Thick of It, The Day Today and I’m Alan Partridge. Nevertheless, he is still a rather anonymous character and makes light of the fact. When he attends award ceremonies (most recently the Oscars for his film In the Loop), he has to do a ‘walk of shame’, occasionally ducking down to avoid spoiling paparazzi shots of George Clooney and Keira Knightley. It is, however, a profound mark of his talents that 2009‘s In the Loop, a distinctly British comedy, was considered by the Academy for Best Adapted Screenplay. In the Loop’s precursor, the continuing television series The Thick of It, has also been showered with awards and critical praise.
For those who aren’t familiar with The Thick of It, it revolves around a haphazard government department in Whitehall, and its well meaning, but incompetent Secretary of State played by Rebecca Front (a role previously taken by Chris Langham). It’s often lauded for its improvisational quality and fly-on-the-wall production, with some describing it as Yes, Minister meets Larry Sanders. The abusive and foul-mouthed character, Malcolm Tucker, (supposedly based on New Labour Spin Doctor, Alastair Campbell) is the programme’s most recognisable entity. With lines such as “He’ll fuck you harder than Ron Jeremy but with less warmth.” he’s difficult to forget.
Later on in the evening, when Iannucci receives his award, presented to him by Peter Capaldi (The Thick of It’s Malcolm Tucker) in front of a packed audience at Broadway, he admits he was surprised to hear he was to receive a lifetime achievement award. “I came here with a combination of guilt and fear; the fear because this award means that my life-time is over. And the guilt because much of the writing I do is in collaboration with a lot of talented people. I wouldn’t be up here getting this if it weren’t for the talent of the other people I work with.”
Iannucci is acutely aware that, although he has been prolific in his comedic writing career, he is frequently part of a team. But he seems to prefer it that way. “The official answer is that I think you can get some surprising stuff out of [collaborating], but the unofficial answer is it’s just because I’m lazy. It’s just easier, and nicer sitting in a room with people and bouncing ideas off each other. But I do enjoy the challenge of coming up with something on my own.”
Comedy writing, especially the type that Iannucci specialises in, needs constant tweaking. He has made no effort to hide the improvisational elements of The Thick of It, but suggests that at least 85% of what we see on screen is scripted. A lot of the tweaking happens before. “Comedy helps to bounce ideas off people. You can test gags out, but you do end up having long disputes over the position of a word. I really don’t mind what the process is, as long as we end up with the funniest thing possible. Whether that comes from me sitting down on my own or with four or five writers, or whether it’s taking all of that work and chucking it away because somebody on set has come up with something funnier, I sort of don’t care, as long as we get the funniest thing. But with something like The Thick of It, it’s also about making it feel very real and natural, and therefore it’s about putting all the work into the script. But then putting a lot more work into making it not look as if it has been written. Whereas it has, almost word for word. And that involves encouraging the actors to sort of talk over each other and try a few little things out. “
The Thick of It has been commissioned for a fourth series by the BBC and will return to BBC2 with Rebecca Front as hapless minister Nicola Murray, but Iannucci is inclined to wait for the dust to settle after 6th May before progressing properly. This also allows any events that happen between now and the next series to influence the series. Gordon Brown’s ‘bigot’ blunder on Wednesday for example, would provide much comic amusement, if a similar scenario hadn’t already appeared in the first series of The Thick of It.
Despite The Thick of It’s less than favourable portrayal of politicians, Iannucci insists he does sympathise with our elected representatives. “You sort of feel for Nicola, and it was the same in the film. With Simon Foster, feel sorry for him, you know, it’s the big machine around them that’s squeezing all the principles out of them. And when politicians say we put people off, then I think it’s up to the politicians to show people why politics is such a good thing.”
Iannucci’s work isn’t all topical and we move our conversation away from politics and on to Alan Partridge, and his possible transition to the silver screen. “We’re still having conversations over what it might be. If we come up with something we really like then we’ll take it to the next stage. There’s all sorts of stories about Alan going to America, which is all bollocks. I think he’ll probably stay stuck in Norwich to be honest. So what we’ve not done is sign something that obliges us to make a film, we are just sitting down and having a conversation with ourselves. Kind of, come up with a funny idea, then take it a bit further, then ‘OK this feels really funny, now let’s see if someone is interested in giving us the money to make it.”
But before then, Iannucci has a number of other projects underway. His successful topical radio series, Charm Offensive, may return, but more than likely under another guise. “It will probably be Son of Charm Offensive. Because it’s topical it has to be made the week it goes out, and therefore it has to be made when Radio 4 have got the slots available. So what I’ve said is I’ll go away and try and think something new that can be done when I can do it, rather then when slots are available.” He is also in talks with the BBC over making another documentary, after the success of his programme for BBC Four’s poetry season on Milton’s Paradise Lost. “I’m talking to the BBC about doing one on Dickens and also possibly one on Mahler as it’s his 150th anniversary of his birth this year and the 100th anniversary of his death next year.”
I wonder with so many projects in the pipeline, when exactly we’ll next see Malcolm Tucker on our screens, but before I can ask, he downs the dregs of his tea and is whisked off to his next appointment.