Armando Iannucci: “I have ADHD, which explains why I can only work on time” | Armando Iannucci
OWriter and director Armando Iannucci, 58, was born in Glasgow to Scottish-Italian parents. He studied philosophy and English before giving up his doctorate at Oxford to pursue a career in acting. His Radio 4 news parody with Chris Morris, On timetransferred to TV as Today’s day. Now a leading figure in British comedy, his creations include the Bafta-winning political comedy The thickness of itits Emmy Award-winning American equivalent, Veepand the movies Stalin’s death and The personal story of David Copperfield. Iannucci’s sci-fi sitcom Avenue 5 is set to return for a second series.
Today’s day and The thickness of it often seem prophetic. Do you ever watch the news and think, “This is familiar”?
Yes, but if you go back and look Yes Minister, these are the same old stories: Europe, the cuts, the fights with the Treasury. These things come back. Basically, it’s the people who spend so much time thinking about how they’re going to get power that they haven’t thought about what to do when they get it. They end up falling back on their beliefs of 20 years ago when they entered politics, not realizing that the world has changed and that they are hopelessly overwhelmed.
It has become a cliché that “politics is beyond satire”. Do you believe that?
No, it’s how you approach it. If you try to dramatize the news, it will quickly date. These days, news travels faster than the last season of game of thrones. So either you get a quick satire on social media – Cassetteboy, Led By Donkeys, the Tory MP Rosie Holt parody or Michael Spicer The Next room, all of which are brilliant – or the more thoughtful analytical style of John Oliver. Not so much looking at what happened today, but where it fits. Frame the joke and give it context. It influenced my thinking process about Avenue 5 – it’s about moving forward in time and moving away from the planet, then looking at it again from a broader perspective.
Who else makes you laugh in comedy?
Jon Stewart. Real time with Bill Maher. Stewart Lee is always great fun. Good fun? He would like his act to be described as “good fun”.
Due to the pandemic, the wait for the second round of Avenue 5. Was it frustrating?
A little. It was stop-start but we finally did it at the end of 2021. The advantage was that we had plenty of time to refine the scripts so, like Liz Truss, we could start on day one. And look how it turned out.
It’s about people trapped together in a spaceship, which looked suspiciously like a lockdown. Have you modified the scripts to reflect this?
Yeah, it’s more claustrophobic. It’s about how these characters deal with being stuck together. Some people, who you think would be great, handle it badly. Others, who you think will be destroyed by it, end up seizing the opportunity. It is also a matter of cooperation.
Isn’t it the Guardianit is Marine Hyde in the editorial staff?
Yes! She was also for the first season. She’s hysterically funny. But you don’t need me to tell you.
Were you a big science fiction fan growing up?
I loved HG Wells, Isaac Asimov and Arthur C Clarke. I would spend all my pocket money on Marvel comics because I was a Spider-Man and Fantastic Four freak. And restarted it Battlestar Galactica is one of my all time favorites. I like what is called “hard science fiction”, which does not derogate from the rules of physics. There is no teleportation or aliens with American accents.
So is Avenue 5 scientifically plausible?
We based it all on physics. The reason they get stuck in space is because it all depends on the correct trajectory when swinging around a planet or moon. If you are off by 1%, you can be forgotten. In season one, they dropped a coffin but didn’t fire it fast enough so that it didn’t escape the ship’s gravitational pull and ended up orbiting outside. I was delighted when star trekThe scientific consultant of tweeted that she stayed up all night doing the calculations and we got it right. When we did The thickness of it and Veep, we would go to Whitehall or Washington to do our research. For Avenue 5 we’ve been around SpaceX, Virgin Galactic and Nasa, asking boring questions.
What’s the best thing you’ve learned?
I asked a scientist how they protect themselves from radiation in space and he said, “Human trash. It’s actually a very good insulator. So trips to Mars will have us all cackling like Billy Fury in order to fill the walls with human trash.
You made a David Copperfield film and a BBC documentary on Dickens. Do you read his work a lot?
I probably read or reread a novel every year. I’m currently halfway Barnabas Rudge. I put back Our common friendhis last complete novel, because I like the idea that there is still an unread Dickens novel.
What would Dickens think of the cost of living crisis?
It’s very Dickensian. He would treat him seriously and with anger. He would be ridiculous in the government. A parade of think tank pundits, all slightly maniacal, speaking in weird currency language that no one else can understand. They would impress those in power with their intelligence, and then No 10 would be stunned when their ideas don’t work and turn out to be profoundly stupid. But Dickens would also describe its effects in homes with real feeling and conviction.
You made Stalin’s death five years ago. What is your view of events in Ukraine?
Death of Stalin were we going back in time to say, “Imagine if this happened again, let’s hope it doesn’t.” And here we are. We have Soviet-style approval referendums with miraculous results in favor of Russia. We shot a lot in Kyiv, so it’s sad to see the city going through that again. One of the reasons I made this film was to remind myself that we shouldn’t assume democracy is here forever. It will only survive if you keep defending it and renewing it. We need to persuade the next generation why democracy matters and how to engage with it.
You have ceded the reins to Alan Partridge, but do you follow Alan’s universe?
Just about. It’s nice to just be a spectator and listener to Partridge. When you do, you’ve seen the guts of it from the start and watched it 150 times in the edit. It’s really nice not knowing what the next line will be.
What do you think of Steve Coogan play jimmy Savile in upcoming bbc drama The jugement?
I think he will do a terrific job. He showed me a brief excerpt of it and it’s extraordinary. They’ve gone to great lengths to get it right and make sure the story they tell isn’t entertainment. It’s a document of events, trying to process it and figure out how it could have happened.
You worked for the BBC and Channel 4. What do you think of the Tory attacks on them?
The thing about these weird people who have fun with monetary theory and like to cosplay as Chancellor or Prime Minister is that they are – spoiler! – very strange. They are obsessed with politics but have no real enthusiasm for what other people are doing, which is watching TV. Therefore, they don’t understand why things like the BBC matter to people. It’s as if they don’t understand our connection to the NHS. It is part of the fabric of our country. Clipping the wings of these big organizations, which have unique power all over the world, is just weird.
What are you working on at the moment?
A script for a film that I hope to shoot very soon. It takes place in the world of social media.
Isn’t there a novel in the making?
Gestation involves a period of six to eight months. This has been in the making for 15 years. I have ADHD, which is why I can only work on time. With a novel, there is no deadline.
Is your ADHD a recent diagnosis?
Fairly recent. It’s only because my kids were diagnosed that they looked at me and thought, “Wait…” I can’t do much about it, but that explains the last 30 years – how I’ve worked out a series of strategies, why I tend to juggle several projects at once. It also explains why I’m always a bit tired, because I live on adrenaline.
You once considered joining the priesthood. How far did you come?
Oh, remarkably close. It was kind of a whim. I went to a Jesuit school and when you’re a teenager you get passionate about certain things. Once it became clear that you had to take a vow of poverty, chastity and obedience, I thought: Well, that will never work!
You will be 60 next year. What do you think of aging?
That does not bother me. My non-comedy contemporaries talk about retirement but I can’t imagine that. You retire to do your hobbies, but I was lucky enough to turn my hobby into a career. I also think that I just started, that I just understood.
How do you relax?
I listen to classical music and I read a lot. Just normal things. And, of course, I ride quads with Richard Hammond [laughs].