Idler editor Tom Hodgkinson introduces his interview with Armando Iannucci
When lockdown began, we at the Idler decided to try out a regular Thursday online event for our readers. Entry is free and we invite our favourite people for an hour’s conversation. What follows is an extract from our chat with Armando Iannucci of The Thick of It, Stalin, The Personal History of David Copperfield and much else besides. A longer version appears in the print edition of the Idler, where we also run our chats with Sally Phillips, Peter Fincham and John Lloyd.
Tom Hodgkinson: Armando, who is with you in your lockdown and where are you?
Armando Iannucci: I’m at home in Hertfordshire. I’m in my office in the garden.
TH: Like a George Bernard Shaw style shed where you work and get away from everyone?
AI: Was it George Bernard Shaw’s one that rotated to let the sun in? No, it’s not one of those. I’ve always had an office in the garden because with writing you need to concentrate and I always like being near the house but not in it. I’m at home with my wife and the youngest of our three kids. They’ve all grown up but one is about to turn 18 so she’s here. And our three dogs. We had two, then there was an… accident, and we had five and kept one of the young ones.
TH: Is a typical day for you spent writing alone?
AI: I say “writing” but most stuff I do is displacement activity for writing. Which is why I like working on shows where there’s a writing team. That’s the thing I miss most [in lockdown]. The fun is to be had when you spend all day in a room with two or three writers… the laughter, the camaraderie.
TH: Do you have an office in London?
AI: I’ve got an office and there’s a writing room there which we can use. And, I’m slightly traditionalist – I like the idea of being a commuter so I do commute in. Ignore lockdown – no I’m not saying to ‘ignore lockdown’, but for the purposes of this answer, imagine we are back to normal – I actually quite like the routine of taking the train in every morning and going into the office and working with the writers, or whoever, and then taking the train home. I think it’s because when I said very early on, having done an English degree at university and being a bit of an academic, to my mum that I was going into comedy, I could see all her hopes drop. And I think it’s a slight remnant of guilt. if I tell myself I’m doing a regular job like most people do, instead of this enormous skive that I seem to have been doing for the last 30 years. I once overheard her on the phone saying to a friend ‘well he’s doing comedy now but I’m sure sooner or later he’ll be doing Panorama.
TH: With The Day Today you parodied current affairs broadcasting, then in a Swiftian manner, you tried to describe what goes on behind the scenes in British government with The Thick Of It. Then you went to America to do Veep, which was similar but even more frantic. The fearlessness is extraordinary. And then to make a film about Stalin, a comedy, which somehow says more about the subject than all the serious stuff. And then Dickens! Have you ever had a plan?
AI: I think most people in comedy and quite a lot in television would say no, you just sort of stumble into it. You find you have a feel for it, or an enthusiasm, and one thing leads to another. I was always a big radio comedy fan. As a teenager The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy came out on the radio and that for me was a revelation in terms of what radio could do with comedy, and the comedy of ideas as opposed to just jokes and sketches. You know, narrative, and yet play with abstract ideas.
TH: Armando, I’ve compared you to Swift. Is that a fair comparison?
AI: Well, I’m not sure but I’m more than happy to take it. And going back to your original question, I think you absorb things – like I absorbed The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy and Radio Active, which was also on at the time, and I went into radio comedy. But as a kid, and this makes me slightly more geeky than most, I was also a huge Dickens fan. What struck me was his amazing sense of humour – he was a really, really funny writer. But also his ambition. He was the most famous writer in the world by his mid-20s; he’d written Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby and The Old Curiosity Shop. And he used that platform to talk about really challenging issues like child labour and factory conditions and terrible schools, the proximity of wealth and poverty in the city and so on – issues that sadly are still around – and yet at the same time he was quite happy to appeal to the masses. So that’s always been an inspiration.
This is an extract from a series of interviews with Armando Iannucci, Peter Fincham, Sally Phillips and John Lloyd which appears in Idler 73, July/Aug 2020 edition.
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