Writer, satirist and film director Armando Iannucci on politics, comedy and epic poetry

Political satirist and writer Armando Iannucci heads to Sheffield next week to appear in the city’s Festival of Debate. Yvette Huddleston caught up with him.

Satirist, writer and filmmaker Armando Iannucci who is appearing at Sheffield's Festival of Debate next week.
Satirist, writer and filmmaker Armando Iannucci who is appearing at Sheffield's Festival of Debate next week.

A leading force in British comedy since the early 1990s, as a writer and producer Armando Iannucci is probably best known for his witty, incisive satirical TV series such as The Day Today, The Thick of It and Veep. He is also an acclaimed film director and author but one of his most recent projects was quite different from anything he had done before, in its form at least.

His epic mock-heroic poem Pandemonium: Some Verses on the Current Predicament was published last November and is, as you might expect, a funny, coruscating comment on the pandemic and the Government’s handling of it. Featuring “our Hero”, the bumptious Orbis Rex (also known by his earthly name of Boris), Young Matt and his Circle of Friends, Queen Dido and a blind seer called Dom’nic, it tells the story of how they all did battle with “a wet and withered bat from Wuhan”, and Iannucci will be discussing it at Sheffield’s Festival of Debate next week.

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He says he was as surprised as anyone that mock-heroic poetry would be his response to the events of the past couple of years. “It wasn’t planned at all – it was just something I started doing, I suppose as a way of processing what was happening in that first lockdown. I didn’t think that it would even be published particularly. And I wrote it intermittently between doing other things, so a month would go by and I would come back to it and write another 50 lines or so. Then I started to think ‘is this going anywhere?’ and wondered ‘is this just for my own amusement or is there something more to it?’”

At that point he showed it to his agent. “I asked her ‘am I mad; will anyone want to read this?’” She told him to carry on writing it. Then Little Brown said it would like to publish it and gave Iannucci a time frame within which to finish it. “Then it just, sort of, exploded,” he says. “In those early days of lockdown, we were trying to process so many things that were often quite contradictory. The start of lockdown was quite nice for some people – for me it was an excuse to do nothing for a while – but people lost loved ones and there was horrible news and the uncertainty of wondering when it was all going to end, so that was all quite stressful. I had thought of maybe doing a film or a TV show about it but actually, it became apparent that expressing all that in a poem was the only way I could do it. Poetry allows you to be ambiguous and explore conflicting ideas so I felt quite comfortable with it.”

Iannucci says the poem was fuelled by frustration as much as anger. “I was frustrated with our leaders – irrespective of your political allegiance or who you vote for, you want them to get it right. You could understand why we were a bit late going into the first lockdown, but the second one? And this was already before ‘partygate’ and other revelations, and you wonder who these people are. The more I have looked at politics, the more I believe that politicians are a different kind of person altogether.”

Politics and politicians of various hues are at the heart of most of his work. In 2017 he co-wrote and directed The Death of Stalin, a dark comedy based on a French graphic novel which depicted the power struggle among the members of Joseph Stalin’s inner circle following the Soviet leader’s death in 1953. Five years ago, the Cold War of the 1950s seemed like a bygone era but recent events with Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and the subsequent frosty relations between Russia and the West seem to suggest otherwise. “Yes, it is interesting,” says Iannucci. “At the time I was thinking of people like Erdoğan in Turkey, Berlusconi in Italy or Trump who became president shortly before the film came out. I had a sense that something sinister was happening in democracy – these are people who claim to be protecting democracy and then as soon as they are elected, they set about destroying it.” He adds quietly: “We actually shot a lot of the film in Kyiv, many of the key scenes were filmed in Ukraine with Ukrainian actors.”

The film received glowing reviews and was nominated for several awards, winning four including a Bafta, and enjoyed much success around the world but it was banned in Russia. “In a very Soviet-era move, the night before it was due to be released in Russia someone in the Ministry of Culture there decided to ban it,” says Iannucci. “They issued a letter signed by around a hundred major Russian cultural figures saying th at the film had no artistic merit whatsoever.”

He feels the world has become an even scarier place since then. “Trump still appears to have the support of many of his party and he has convinced a large proportion of the population of his country that his election defeat was rigged. In Brazil, Bolsanaro has already said that if he loses the election, it will be because there were irregularities. Now that we can see Putin for what he is, you would expect American politics to be the opposite of that, but in fact the Republican Party seem to quite like him. Something is seriously wrong.”

On a lighter note, Iannucci is also, of course, the co-creator, with Steve Coogan, of one of our most-loved comic characters, the irrepressible Alan Partridge. Is he surprised by Alan’s longevity? “When he first started, we thought he had legs but we didn’t quite realise what would happen and that he would go on for so long,” he says. “I think the thing is that we never overused him, he would come out every four or five years. We also kept changing the format – radio, TV chat show, podcast, film – and he just keeps on giving.

“Whenever Steve and I would meet up, when we were both doing other things, we would always speculate about what Alan was up to, so his life story was always playing out in our heads. Apart from the fact that Steve is obviously brilliant and very funny, I think maybe Alan has endured because there is something familiar about him – lots of people say they know someone like him and everyone half understands why he is the way he is.”

It has often been said recently that it is becoming increasingly difficult for comedians and satirists to create material because we are living in a world that is almost beyond satire. There have been so many instances in the past few years where reality has become more absurd than anything that a comic writer could invent. But Iannucci believes that is precisely why satire is more important than ever. “It is a way of helping to explain and process things that are otherwise confusing,” he says. “And it enables you to articulate a response, whether that is anger or bewilderment. Our main politicians appear to be performers themselves and the purpose of satire is to shine a light on all the stuff that they are trying to hide from us.”

Armando Iannucci will be appearing at the Festival of Debate in Sheffield on May 26. www.festivalofdebate.com