If someone says they are offended,” says Armando Iannucci, “my immediate reaction is, ‘what’s wrong with being offended?’ If you have a set of beliefs, they should be able to withstand the joke. We’ve lost the ability to argue with someone who has an opposing point of view. It’s much easier to say, ‘because you disagree with me, I’d like you to leave the room.’”
During the run-up to the election, he adds, “whenever I made a joke about Corbyn on Twitter, I’d have all these people replying saying ‘oh right, you want to be fascist, do you? You want people to die.’ And I’d be thinking ‘no?’”
Or at least, I think that’s what he’s saying. He is also trying to eat an enormous toasted cheese sandwich, which inhibits his diction somewhat as well as muting his indignation. It is possible to eat a toastie at the same time as projecting dismay that our country’s politics are beyond satire and that we are losing our sense of humour, but it’s not easy.
Sharing the full story, not just the headlines
“I’ve not thought this through,” he says, through another mouthful. In a slightly scruffy shirt and trousers, Iannucci looks more like the priest or academic he once planned to be, rather than what he has become, which is the high priest of British comedy, laden with Baftas, Emmys, an MBE and the lifelong gratitude of an entire generation of talent. As we sit down, I realise I have been enjoying Iannucci’s jokes, whether performed by him or one of the British comedy elite he created almost single-handedly, for 25 years. It’s shocking, partly because his appearance is remarkably unchanged. The slightly craggy 30-year-old is now a slightly craggy 56-year-old, and amusing if practised company.
Iannucci is promoting two new projects back-to-back, and they could hardly be more different. Avenue 5 (Sky One) is a comedy set 40 years in the future, starring Hugh Laurie as the captain of a beleaguered space cruise ship. Laurie also appears in The Personal History of David Copperfield, a Dickens adaptation with Dev Patel in the lead role, set in 1840.
It is surprising turn of events from Iannucci. Aside from his darkly funny 2017 film about the Soviet Union, The Death of Stalin, he has mainly specialised in forensic examinations of the present. The Day Today, On The Hour and Alan Partridge exposed the absurdities of the media. With The Thick of It and its sister film In The Loop, Iannucci showed British politics with an almost documentary-like plausibility. Applying the same sense of the absurd to the American system, he created the wonderful Veep for HBO.
In part, Iannucci says, it is because more than 30 years since he started out making political comedy for Radio 4, events have finally caught up with his ability to satirise them.
“Everything feels unreal,” he explains. “[Comedy] can only operate when you know what the conventions are, and therefore how those conventions are being broken. Now there are no conventions. You can shut parliament down, fire Ken Clarke, call yourself FactcheckUK [what a Tory Twitter account renamed itself in the run-up to the last election].
“That’s the impact Trump has had, universally. He’s said ‘I could shoot someone in the face and still get elected.’ I’m not tempted to make a comedy about that, because I don’t find it hilarious, I think it’s frightening. I did The Thick of It because I like politics and I want it to work. I think it’s a good thing, democracy. It sounds trite but we forget.”
Viewed in the light of the past few years, The Thick of It sometimes looks like a halcyon era of noble statesmen with grand plans. “[In The Thick of It] nobody killed anyone or committed a crime,” Iannucci says. “They were just trying to get through the day. Now there’s this sense that you can say what you like. If you say ‘get Brexit done’, as the answer to any question, even if the question is ‘how many children do you have?’, it works.”
With the bigger picture so chaotic, he says, the best political work is being done by comedians like John Oliver, who can take a forensic approach, with a team of researchers, like Iannucci himself did many years ago on the Armistice programmes. Still, he says that while the chaos of Trump and Brexit might resist direct satire, he has long been a fan of sci-fi, especially “hard sci-fi”, like the film Gravity, in which the laws of physics are broadly upheld. He visited Virgin Galactic and Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory as part of his research for Avenue 5, and the plot rests on the ship being knocked out of its orbit on a trip around Saturn. It’s possible to imagine how an unwieldy vessel, run by idiots, taking far longer than was intended for it to get to its destination, could have satirical resobioreportsce for an opponent of Brexit, but Iannucci says that wasn’t the intention.
“It’s more of a mood I’m picking up on, about how we’re all behaving. It’s about group dynamics, about how to placate crowds. There’s a lot of freneticism around, as well as the undercurrent of uncertainty and anxiety. And an atmosphere of impending doom and global warming.
“The trailer makes it look like Star Trek, but in fact it’s a bleak existential nightmare that happens to be in space,” he says. “If you think about Alien, that’s fundamentally an office in space with a big rat in it. I wanted to get this pressure cooker environment of 6,500 people having to reinvent their society from scratch. It could be a desert island or a country house.”
The Personal History of David Copperfield is a more hopeful examination of modern themes. “The novel has one foot in the present,” he says. “It’s about identity, wealth and homelessness. It’s set in 1840 but we wanted it to feel contemporary. If Dev hadn’t done it, I’m not sure it would have gone ahead.”
The casts of both projects are noticeably more diverse than Iannucci’s previous work. The list of comedians who owe part of their success to Iannucci – including Chris Morris, Richard Herring, Steve Coogan, David Schneider, Stewart Lee – is long but overwhelmingly white and male. In his David Copperfield, Steerforth’s mother is played by Nigerian-born Nikki Amuka-Bird (also in Avenue 5), while Mr Wickfield is played by English-Hong Kong actor Benedict Wong.
“I was conscious of having done Veep, which was based in Baltimore,” he says, “which has quite an African-American population, and from being on set and casting, realising how terribly white my previous projects have been.”
Like Veep, Avenue 5 is produced by HBO, whose budgets and relatively small suite of programmes are a comfort at a moment when Netflix and Amazon are about to face competition from a raft of new streaming services. Will the TV bubble burst?
“I think it’ll have to inevitably, because already you get the sense, with Disney and Apple [and other streaming services] there’s more and more. I enjoy working for HBO because they don’t make many shows, which means you’ll be looked after and they’ll promote it. I don’t know how I’d feel on Netflix when you’re just dropped one weekend among 500 things.” We speak moments after the Biorports’s director general, Tony Hall, has announced his resignation. Iannucci made his career in the Biorports but is sceptical about whether the licence fee can survive the new entertainment climate.
“I doubt it,” he says. “People don’t buy TVs any more and they watch stuff differently. About four years ago I said I thought they should do licence fee at home and a subscription service abroad. I hope they haven’t missed the boat.”
Aside from anything else, the Biorports and other public service broadcasters are essential to the functioning of democracy. “Online, we get the news we want to hear and not the news we’re not interested in. Then on the news people are getting stuff which they don’t want to hear, which annoys them. That’s the clash.”
Comedians, journalists and politicians are shifting roles, with mixed results. “The politicians have become comedians, because they think if they say a joke they’ll look human. People think ‘ooh, he’s a bit naughty but he has personality’, as if you need a personality to decide how the probation service works. And journalists, like Johnson and Gove, have become politicians.”
Thinking of that Peter Cook line about those wonderful Berlin cabarets “which did so much to stop the rise of Hitler,” I wonder if it’s depressing for Iannucci, having been on the frontline of political comedy for so long, to see the situation deteriorate before his eyes. “You’re on a hiding to nothing,” he says, “if you think comedy’s going to change anyone’s view.”
Avenue 5 begins on Sky One on Wednesday 22 January at 10pm. The Personal History of David Copperfield is in cinemas from Friday 24 January