Armando Iannucci, Britain’s satirist-in-chief (Thick of it) talks to Nick Mitchell about the similarities between Stalinist Russia and Trump’s America, his new Dickens-inspired project, and the return of Alan Partridge
23 Feb 2018 |Nick Mitchell | Independent
“I find myself just skimming the newspapers now because I really can’t take any more of this.” Even Armando Iannucci, one of Britain’s greatest political satirists, is growing tired of the Brexit news cycle.
“It’s a government that doesn’t even have an overall majority, acting as if it’s not just in charge of Britain, but the rest of Europe as well, and just saying, ‘I don’t understand why no-one’s agreeing to our demands’.”
“I wanted the audience to experience what it felt like to be constantly terrified, constantly nervous, a low-level anxiety.”
Judging by his frustration with current events, it’s perhaps understandable that Iannucci has turned to historical and fictional subjects with his most recent and upcoming projects.
We’re talking the day after his latest film, The Death of Stalin, lost out in two categories at the Baftas. “It was nice that we were recognised in terms of nominations, that was pleasing,” he insists.
“You make these things thinking, ‘this is a bit different, it’s a bit of a risk, will people like it? I think I like it’. So that kind of response helps you know that yeah, I think it did work. But if you spent your whole year worried about whether you were going to get the Bafta, or the whatever, I think you’d go crazy!”
On the surface, The Death of Stalin looks like a radical departure for Iannucci, who’s built his reputation on era-defining political satires, from On the Hour and The Day Today to The Thick of It and Veep. Yet last year’s film does bear the Iannucci stamp of lacerating wit, naturalistic dialogue and a high degree of farce.
The Glasgow-born writer-director seized upon the story when he was sent the French graphic novel of the same name. “The moment I read it I thought instantly, yes I want to make a film of this.”
From the outset Iannucci was acutely aware that, for a comedy about such a brutal period of history, getting the tone right was crucial.
“That meant taking really funny stuff out, and it also meant taking really graphic stuff out, in terms of violence, because I didn’t want one to capsize the other,” he says. “The whole point of it was that I wanted the audience to experience what it felt like to be constantly terrified, constantly nervous, a low-level anxiety. That’s specifically the emotion I was trying to get.”
On being banned in Russia
‘An absolute pasquinade’
“What was the phrase one of the Russian officials used?” Iannucci recalls. “It was something I’d never heard before. ‘Pasquinade’ or something, ‘he’s a pasquinade’, which is apparently some kind of toff who goes around mocking people. I’d never heard of it. It’s like that thing in North Korea, calling Trump a dotard – all these slightly burlesque, kind of old-fashioned terms. Then they got a committee of artists to sign a letter to say that the film was of no artistic merit whatsoever. It was like, ‘my god we’re in the film!’.”
While it was received well by critics and audiences, The Death of Stalin holds the dubious honour of being the first film to be banned in post-Soviet Russia. Wonderful publicity, perhaps?
Iannucci doesn’t take any satisfaction from this new-found notoriety. “People say to me, ‘put that on your poster: banned in Russia’. No, I don’t feel good about it. I feel sad because it runs counter to what we experience in a democracy.”
He continues: “Because the ban only happened two days before release date, we had already gone through all the press screenings, and the press apparently all applauded when Stalin died. The Russians I’ve spoken to have said, ‘it’s true – it’s funny, but it’s true’. One cinema in Moscow did show it, until the police stopped them. But they got standing ovations at the end, because people have been told one thing about Stalin, but they know that what they’ve been told is not the whole story.”
While the ban in Russia might suggest that some things haven’t changed since the repressive era of Stalin, Iannucci believes it’s hardly different to the kind of discourse sweeping western politics.
“The film was made before Trump, but he calls anyone who disagrees with him an ‘enemy of the people’, which was a Stalin phrase. And you get it in the UK, with judges being put on the front pages as ‘enemies of the people’ or ‘traitors to freedom’. It’s a worrying trend that we now classify our opponents as criminals, rather than our opponents – that we’re afraid to just argue with them, and we’d prefer to lock them up.”
“You can see how certain directors might want to just direct all the time, because you are granted absolute, total power.”
Having said this, Iannucci admits that sitting in the director’s chair does bring its own kind of ridiculous power. “On set it strikes you how easily you could turn into an absolute bastard,” he laughs.
“There was one point where I was going around all the background artists and I had to decide who was dead and who wasn’t, and I was just pointing at people saying ‘you’re dead’, ‘no you’ve survived, ‘you’re dead’. And you can see how certain directors might want to just direct all the time, because you are granted absolute, total power.”
Adapting Dickens – with Dev Patel
Iannucci will enjoy this dictatorial power again soon when he starts filming an adaptation of David Copperfield. He insists it’s not a “modern take” on the Charles Dickens novel, as has been reported.
“It’s not updated into the 21st century, it’s set in 1840 London. But I want it to feel as fresh and contemporary as possible, because that’s actually what you feel when you read the book.”
He has already cast his lead, in the form of Dev Patel. “I thought he’d make a great David Copperfield, because David Copperfield is wide-eyed and a bit naïve and then he realises his mistakes and becomes stronger. And Dev’s got that, he’s very winning, and young, and can be naïve, and then in Lion he was strong and determined.”
But will his take on a 19th century classic maintain a satirical edge? “A little bit, but there’s not going to be swearing! And it’s not high politics, it’s more social interaction really. It’ll be funny, and it should feel like a family film, but not in a Disney way.”
Would Iannucci return to topical satire?
“We kind of did that with the Friday Night Armistice, that was like that, we worked really hard on that every week. I just think the likes of John Oliver and so on are just really good, they should carry on doing it, rather than me coming in and going, ‘yeah I know you’re much younger, and sharper, but I’d like to have a go’. I just think now I really just like watching.”
The absurdity of our times
As for the state of satire on television, Iannucci accepts that American broadcasters have led the way recently, but he argues that’s only because “they’ve got the resources of having a massive team of researchers”.
Iannucci himself quit his position as showrunner on the huge HBO hit Veep in 2015, and he has no regrets about the pre-Trump timing: “Any attempt to do a fictional version of the White House now would come nowhere near the absurdity of what’s actually happening.”
Despite himself, Iannucci can’t help expanding on this absurdity: “It’s a Bank Holiday weekend there, and Trump’s stuck in his golf resort in Florida. And he’s been told he can’t just go out and play golf because that would look bad, given the shooting, so he’s just stuck watching cable news, and asking all his residents what they think about gun control. That’s what it’s become.”
On Alan Partridge’s ‘last chance’ at the BBC
While Iannucci ventures back “there” for the US release of The Death of Stalin next month, one of his most enduring characters, Alan Partridge, will soon return to the BBC, even though the Scot isn’t directly involved this time. “I think he survives because we do him every three years,” Iannucci says. “We’re not in Season 17 of Alan.
“What’s nice is that when we leave him alone for a couple of years, when we do something it’s a new format, or it’s a new Alan. The new writers, the Gibbons brothers, have taken him on and injected a whole new life into him.”
And while Iannucci has had enough of the Brexit debate, he’ll always be curious to see whether Partridge, the blazer-clad embodiment of Little England, has the last laugh: “In his own story he’s back on mainstream television, which he’s very, very excited about. He must not f**k up. I think this is his last chance really.”