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Armando Iannucci “Let’s compare them to gods and heroes, because that’s how they want us to think of them”

The celebrated screenwriter speaks to Now Then about his new pandemic poem and why those in power are just trying to get through the day ahead of his Festival of Debate appearance.

Armando Iannucci

Armando Iannucci has a distinct voice throughout his writing. You know this voice. Baftas, Bifas, Emmys – he’s won them all. Maybe you’ve seen The Death of Stalin. Maybe you’re an established fan of The Thick of It or Veep, or more of an Alan Partridge person. Either way, you know his voice: dry satire, ensemble casts, an ‘idiot plot’ in every case.

Most recently he’s written an epic poem about the government’s pandemic response, comparing Boris to a mythic hero in battle. Despite it being a departure from his usual medium, his unique voice remains present. Ahead of his appearance at the Festival of Debate, we spoke on Zoom about Pandemonium: Some verses on the Current Predicament.

You’re telling this story while it’s still developing. How did you decide on an end point?

I’ve left it open-ended and will probably be doing an updated version later this year. It was all written before Partygate and the Sue Gray report was yet to happen, so I’m standing by to see where that takes us. But I wanted to leave it open-ended in that there’s no conclusion to this. It’s not over, as we all know. And even though they might try, like Putin declaring victory in Red Square, there’s been no victory.

I think the mistake that we all fell into at some point was to think that we could rationalise it, or be rational with it. Try to argue and persuade [the virus] that what it was doing was really unfair and that it should stop now.

Why start now, with publishing poetry?

The great thing about poetry is it allows you to say three or four things at once, because the words have so many meanings. It started as something private that I was writing for myself, just as my own therapy really. And then I found it just splurged out.

It happened over a long time: I would take it out and write maybe 15 lines and put it away, then a month would go by and I’d take it out and write another 50 lines. That carried on for maybe six months.

Your style of writing gave me the feeling you were going for that Epic of Gilgamesh ‘great story for the ages’ thing…

Yeah! Something I did fairly early in lockdown was read all the books I’d been meaning to read. I’d read The Odyssey but I hadn’t read The Iliad, and I went back and read Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf. As I was writing, I thought: rather than reducing everyone in size to idiots and clowns and animals, let’s compare them to gods and heroes, because that’s how they want us to think of them. How do they compare? In years to come when we look back and sing songs about now, how will we celebrate these magnificent minds?

That definitely comes through in the writing that this is a momentous point in history that will be told and retold.

I wanted to try and connect the public and private. We all have our own private stories to tell as well as sharing in the national story. I think you can satirise it with the benefit of hindsight, but we don’t yet have that hindsight – we’re still in it.

You’ve kept that through-line in all your work: the feeling that every institution is a headless chicken, and everyone in it is too spineless and short-sighted–

Fallible. In things like The Thick of It and Veep, I did research and went along to these big Whitehall buildings, and it always looks from the outside as if the people on the inside know what they’re doing. But when you go in you realise it’s people who don’t quite know what they’re doing. Like all of us, they’re trying to get through the day. I don’t have much time to think about things so the decisions are always a bit rushed.

As you get old you realise that’s what life is really: everyone is making it up as they go along, hoping they don’t get found out. And when you get big crises, that point is illuminated. You’ve lifted the lid off and everyone scrambles and goes ‘you’re not meant to be seeing this’.

In your work there’s often one character who’s genuinely well-intentioned, trying to enact change–

Very often it’s the elected officials! Like Nicola Murray in The Thick of It and Selena in Veep – she genuinely does want to be good. But with the pressure of the day and all these unelected advisors, your resistance to this onslaught gets chipped away and you agree to whatever has been suggested for an easier life. And then you realise that’s a terrible mistake... I’d better undo that.

Do you think during the Covid era the improvisational aspect is more visible to the public?

It was never the case, but you always assume your leader would lead and show some kind of resolve. Or have a sense of purpose. And that seems to have disappeared. We are lunging from one crisis to another because that’s how Boris behaves: just trying to get through. He’ll say whatever gets him through that day, without realising there’s a consequence. Look at the Northern Ireland protocol. I remember him saying to unionists, pre-Brexit, “it’ll be fine, don’t worry, there’ll be no paperwork” and it was a complete lie.

So you’re saying there has been some change in the past few years?

It used to be that they went into politics as the end game – they had a career and then go into politics. Now it seems they go into politics right at the start. They do politics at university and then get a job as one of these young advisors, and then an MP, then a minister. So by the age of forty, if they’ve worked out they’re never going to be Prime Minister, they just leave. No one stays because they want to carry on in the backbenches, or they think they might make a good Health Secretary someday. I think that’s gone, and politics is seen as one of a number of career options – something to have on your CV when you go make some money.

Whether you agree with her or not, you got the sense Margaret Thatcher knew what she wanted to do. You got the sense Tony Blair knew what he wanted to do. You certainly got the sense that Gordon Brown had a set of values. But once we got to Cameron and then Theresa May, it was “well I was Home Secretary, so I should do this now.”

I guess it’s true that Thatcher had a set agenda, and an overarching world-view in a way you don’t see now–

And she declared it at the start. The other thing that’s been happening in politics is that they don’t say what it is they’re going to do. The manifestos are kept as bland as possible, and then they make announcements like they’re going to privatise Channel 4. Well that wasn’t in the manifesto!

They had a consultation with the industry at which 96% of people consulted said this was a bad idea and they chose to ignore it. It’s almost that sense of: once we’re in power we can do what we like. We don’t have to explain ourselves. I wonder if that’s because the average age in politics has dropped a bit and people see it as a start of their public life rather than the end of it.

Given that the decisions being made by the upper echelons of government seem to intrude so tangibly into everyone’s personal space lately, could just be everyone’s paying more attention?

I think something happened while Blair was in power – there was a lot of control going on. Prior to Blair, ministers had a bit of independence and Prime Ministers would just put the best person for the job in post and say ‘get on with it’. Under Blair it was all very centralised. It was Number 10 and the Treasury telling people what to do. The power of the minister was weakened, which is why when people go into politics now they don’t want to be a minister. It’s Prime Minister or nothing.

That kind of control freakery took over, and also he brought in a lot of unelected advisors. Special advisors aged 22 or 23 who can come up with a health policy even though they don’t know how to insure a car. So you have power being centralised in Number 10, and then that power being implemented by lots of unelected people. And I think that’s where the frustration comes from – the public thinks: where did this come from? Where did this Rwanda thing come from, or Channel 4? Nobody mentioned that, what’s going on?

Do all these changes then change the satirical writing process?

I think it changes how you approach it – look at people like John Oliver who have a team of journalists and researchers. Because it’s about exploring ideas and arguments, how have arguments changed? How have they tried to pull the wool over our eyes by saying this but doing that? It’s all about looking for the evidence. So in that respect, it has changed.

I think also social media has allowed us to do often very funny but very immediate instant throwaway visual gags and jokes. Something happens that day, and then you’ve got someone on Twitter doing a funny thing about it by the evening. So it’s gone both ways, in that you can do the instant stuff about what we’re watching, and then the more long-term stuff about what’s going on behind the scenes.

So between those two approaches, which are you focused on?

I tend to look at the longer term. With The Thick of It, although it was inspired by how Blair operated, it wasn’t until the Gulf War happened that I thought, ‘well it’s obviously a bad idea but because he’s Prime Minister nobody was around to stop him – how did that happen?’.

That prompted The Thick of It – let’s look inside government and see how it works, and then try and find a comic dramatisation of that. The next thing I’m looking at is something about social media, so we’ll be doing a bit more research in that area.

Am I allowed to ask what medium that’s coming in?

Well you’re certainly allowed to ask! I’m very much in the process of figuring it out. It’s something I’ve been thinking about the last four or five years – I want to do something set in that world.

The individuals in your work have both a terrifying amount of power, like you spoke about with Blair, and also a terrifying lack of power, like with Nicola Murray–

It seems to fall apart when somebody wants all the power to themselves because then everyone else can’t do anything. A lot of my work is collaborative, and I really enjoy collaboration. I always say to my writers, “don’t feel precious about your lines because someone will change it”. If it’s good, we’ll all get the credit. That’s how I feel organisations should be run: we’ll all chip in and if it’s good, we’ll all get the credit.

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Armando Iannucci appears at the Festival of Debate on 26 May.

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