Movies

Armando Iannucci: ‘I personally am not a sweary, angry man’


Armando Iannucci is not someone you’d describe as having a commanding presence. He doesn’t want to consume all the oxygen in the room or, with a show of bored impatience, imply that it’s your good fortune to share his company. He may be well known, but there’s nothing of the celebrity about him. Short, balding and understated in manner, he could pass for a provincial loss adjuster come to assess your insurance claim. But he is arguably the most influential figure in British comedy of the past three decades, not to mention an accomplished film director.

When I meet him at a London hotel, he is busy promoting his third feature film, The Personal History of David Copperfield, an adaptation of Charles Dickens’s eighth and most autobiographical novel. His first film, In the Loop, grew out of his seminal satirical TV comedy The Thick of It. The second, the highly acclaimed The Death of Stalin, was a darkly comic but historically accurate account of the Soviet dictator’s end and its farcical aftermath.

Both films could be described as hard-edged political comedy, the genre for which Iannucci is best known. In that context David Copperfield is a surprising departure. Let’s face it, a Victorian costume drama is a long way from Malcolm Tucker, The Thick of It’s political enforcer, whose baroque use of expletives weaponised the management of government ministers.

Did a Dickens adaptation feel like a step into the unknown?

“Personally I didn’t think it was any different,” he says evenly, “though I can see why people might think that.”

He cites the different TV shows he’s written or directed, such as I’m Alan Partridge, as examples of his non-political and non-profane work. “I personally am not a sweary, angry man,” he adds, perhaps unnecessarily.

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Watch a trailer for The Personal History of David Copperfield.

In fact, Iannucci, who abandoned a PhD on Milton’s Paradise Lost to go into comedy, is a longtime admirer of Dickens. He began reading him when he was 13 and was instantly struck by the “combination of humanity and satire and funniness”. A few years ago he wrote and presented a TV documentary called Armando’s Tale of Charles Dickens, an affectionate and critically astute appreciation of the novelist.

“I think he’s the finest comedian we’ve ever produced,” he said in that film. “Much comedy today is still conditioned by the way Dickens wrote it in the 19th century.”

Iannucci certainly looks for the comedy in David Copperfield, though it’s of a much gentler and broader nature than his fans are used to. The film is handsomely shot and something of a narrative whirlwind, as the young David survives numerous setbacks and twists of fate to come of age as an ambitious young writer. Copperfield is played with great warmth by Dev Patel, the lead in a multi-ethnic cast. If nothing else, the effect of the colour-blind casting is to break the starchy conventions of costume-drama’s deference to “historical accuracy” and create what might be called a more 21st-century vision of Victorian Britain.

“It just felt like, why are we not doing this?” says Iannucci of the decision to ignore the actors’ skin colours. “It’s when I thought of Dev as David. He said: ‘Do I have an Indian father?’ No. Although it’s set in 1840. For the people in the film it’s the present day. And it’s an exciting present. It wasn’t a conscious reaction to Brexit, but the conversation has gone very insular in terms of what Britain is and what it doesn’t want to be. I wanted to celebrate what Britain actually is, and it’s much more of a carefree, enjoyable, humorous kind of zesty, energetic place.”

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Peter Capaldi and Chris Addison in Iannucci’s 2009 film debut, In The Loop.



Peter Capaldi and Chris Addison in Iannucci’s 2009 film debut, In the Loop. Photograph: Shutterstock

At the centre of the Iannucci documentary on Dickens was David Copperfield. He thinks it’s the book that marks the midpoint of Dickens’s career and the transition from being an episodic novelist to one who writes a more ambitious and encompassing kind of fiction.

“It’s still a bit of a baggy monster,” says Iannucci, “but the things he’s experimenting with in David Copperfield become Great Expectations and Bleak House and Little Dorrit.”

In many respects, says Iannucci, David Copperfield is a surprisingly modern work. He reread the book a decade ago, having not looked at it since his teens, and he was amazed by how experimental it was. “It starts off in sentences of one word as [the baby] David tries to make sense of colour and shape. It’s very cinematic.”

In the documentary, he describes Dickens using Copperfield as a “camera” through which to view the world. So for many years he could see the visual potential of the novel, though it wasn’t until he was making The Death of Stalin that he could see a way of doing it.

“With Stalin it was the first time I had done a period piece. I worked with great costume and makeup and location and a DOP [director of photography] and Chris Willis who did the music. I just thought, this team, we’re ready to do David Copperfield now.”

While Victorian England is obviously a material world away from its 21st-century counterpart, there are themes in the novel that continue to resonate in today’s society.

Jason Isaacs as Field Marshal Zhukov in 2017’s The Death of Stalin.



Jason Isaacs as Field Marshal Zhukov in 2017’s The Death of Stalin. Photograph: Nicola Dove/EOne

“The whole book is about status anxiety,” Iannucci says, “which Dickens had as well. It’s that Zelig quality of wanting to be in the gang, trying to be absorbed within it. That feels very real and contemporary to me, the continual anxiety about background, where I come from, my beginnings. Dev and I were talking about this, and maybe it’s coming from families that one or two generations back were outside the UK. It’s that idea of, are we fully integrated? Are we settled? Do we see ourselves as inside or outside, neither one nor the other?”

If you were looking for an obvious outsider, Iannucci wouldn’t be your first port of call. The product of a Glasgow private school, Oxford, and the BBC, he was also the focal point of a generation of comic talent, including Steve Coogan, Chris Morris, Stewart Lee, Rebecca Front and Richard Herring. They appeared on his early 1990s radio news parody On the Hour, and its later TV version, The Day Today. He seemed to be at the centre of everything – the very opposite of a man from the margins.

But these things are relative. The more inside an outsider gets, the more outside he can feel. Copperfield is both an outside-insider and an inside-outsider. Like many of Dickens’s characters and Dickens himself, he is born into a comfortable life which becomes suddenly more precarious, subject to precipitous social descent and grinding recovery. On the way down – or rather back up – he passes the ever-so-falsely-humble figure of Uriah Heep – played in the film by Ben Whishaw – who envies Copperfield’s apparent social ease.

Heep is an unappealing character, cloying and scheming, but he is also a victim of snobbery, of a kind that still persists today. There are few positions in the enduring British class system more mocked than that occupied by the upwardly mobile working class or lower middle class. The accents, manners and pretensions of those who wish to “better themselves” have always been fertile ground for British comedy.

“Yes,” Iannucci agrees, who says he feels sorry for Heep. “It’s Dad’s Army. Captain Mainwaring still feels a little cowed by Wilson.”

With Hugh Laurie and Dev Patel for the premiere of The Personal History of David Copperfield at the London Film Festival.



With Hugh Laurie and Dev Patel for the premiere of The Personal History of David Copperfield at the London film festival. Photograph: Richard Young/REX/Shutterstock

To Mainwaring you can add Alan Partridge and David Brent – and even, at a stretch, Basil Fawlty. All of them are in a sense heirs to Heep, alive to every social slight but blind to their own desperation to look down on others. The other tragicomic archetype in the novel is Wilkins Micawber, the perennially in-debt older friend of Copperfield, swinging between outlandish optimism and epic self-pity. The character was partially based on Dickens’s own father, who spent time in a debtor’s prison.

In the film he’s played by Iannucci’s fellow Glaswegian Peter Capaldi, who, as Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It, managed to make Alastair Campbell look like a model of equanimity and verbal restraint. As with most of the characters in the film, Capaldi struggles to compress Dickens’s vivid descriptions and breadth of characterisation into a few scenes. Everyone – including Tilda Swinton as Betsey Trotwood and Hugh Laurie as Mr Dick – puts in a good turn, but while Dickens’s inventiveness is well captured, something of the novel’s emotional richness is inevitably lost.

Still, it’s a bold and imaginative take on one of the English literary canon’s most loved writers, someone whose work has often suffered in adaptation from an excess of visual cliches. Iannucci’s main criterion for making a film, he once said, is that he can’t imagine anyone else making it. That’s a reasonable assessment of his David Copperfield.

Equally, it’s hard to imagine anyone else having made The Death of Stalin, one of the most original and powerfully realised British productions of recent times. It was no surprise that Iannucci could make us laugh, but the manner in which he grasped the psychology of terror, combining the hysterical with the sinister, was a revelation.

“The idea was to try and recreate the low-level anxiety that people had to go through every day,” he says. “So not the heightened anxiety of ‘They’re going to shoot me tomorrow’ but more like ‘I don’t know if they will shoot me tomorrow or the next day or the day after’. And some are able to kind of just cope with that.”

He speaks about the strange current-day echoes of that dark period, with two of Jeremy Corbyn’s closest advisers having not so long ago mounted defences of Stalin’s leadership and achievements. “It’s disturbing,” says Iannucci, “because it feels unreal. I thought we’d gone through that and come out the other side.”

UK. Ben Whishaw as Uriah Heep in The Personal History of David Copperfield.



Ben Whishaw as Uriah Heep in The Personal History of David Copperfield. Photograph: Landmark Media/Alamy

Then just as bizarre, albeit in a different way, is the sight of Boris Johnson buffooning his way through political debates. “I still don’t believe that he is prime minister,” he says.

Has this increasingly surreal picture of British politics made it more difficult to satirise?

“Well I think satire requires some kind of universally recognised code of behaviour that you’re then disrupting. But if there is no longer a code of behaviour, I don’t quite see how you can do the disrupting, because they’re doing the disrupting by saying there’s no code of behaviour.”

The old saw says that we get the politicians we deserve, and there is an argument that better, more honest and more morally sound candidates have been deterred by the general contempt in which politicians have been popularly held for some time now. Alastair Campbell once accused Iannucci of believing that “all politics was basically crass, all politicians venal, all advisers base”, and Campbell and others have suggested that this prevailing cynicism has led us to this point. If so, would Iannucci see himself as part of that process?

“No,” he says firmly. “I would argue that he [Campbell] was part of it. In things like The Thick of It we never showed anyone breaking the law, we just showed people bending the rules to try to get themselves out of a hole, while the media and public forced them to go through more and more contortions. In fact, people have said to me the more sympathetic characters in those shows are the elected politicians. So I always said to any politician who said you’re disillusioning people in politics, OK, well prove me wrong then. Prove to me that public political behaviour can be inspirational.”

Julia Louis-Dreyfus in Iannucci’s satire of US politics, Veep.



Julia Louis-Dreyfus in Iannucci’s satire of US politics, Veep. Photograph: Patrick Harbron/AP

The Thick of It, its Iannucci-created American counterpart Veep, and his debut film In the Loop all revolved around the dysfunctional relationship between politicians and the media. Now, it could be said, politicians have taken their revenge by bypassing the media. Donald Trump has disseminated his message – including his many lies – directly through social media.

“I think what Trump has been really good at,” he says, “is he reads the minds of people outside the media circle or their political circle. Politicians think we pick up the newspaper and read all the political articles. We don’t. We pick it up and read the sport, we leaf through it and if we see something that grabs our attention…” He mimes stopping on a page. “Sorry, that’s what we do.”

Everything Iannucci says is delivered in a tone of either mild irony or incredulity, as if he’s been around long enough not to be surprised by anything but is nonetheless still occasionally nonplussed. As a young man he briefly considered becoming a priest, and there’s still something a little solemn about the way Iannucci presents himself. Not joyless, but serious. Actors who have worked with him testify to his grave dedication. But the comic actor and writer David Mitchell says that there is a more outgoing aspect to Iannucci that we see less of nowadays.

“Before his film directing career was quite as stellar as it now is,” says Mitchell, “he used to occasionally come on the odd panel show. I think he’s brilliant, very funny, and you know the whole side of him as a performer has been forgotten. His is exactly the sort of hilarious yet civilising brain that does the world good. Whatever he says on Twitter, I always think: ‘This is wisdom.’”

The truth is Iannucci has reached that level where comedy is a serious business. It’s not just that he’s moved from what he calls the “gag-heavy sketch comedy” of his early years to a more narrative-based humour. It’s also that his position of responsibility has grown ever more weighty. As a film director and also TV showrunner on HBO’s Veep and Avenue 5, a forthcoming HBO science-fiction comedy starring Hugh Laurie, he’s in a position in which a lot of people look to him for direction. What kind of boss is he?

“I’m a sort of benevolent dictator,” he says. “If somebody has an idea, great. If that idea turns out to be funnier than the script that we spent a week writing this scene for, then we’ll chuck that script out and go with that because that seems to work better. I’m all for that.”

Which role does he prefer – film director or TV showrunner?

“They’re completely different parts of the brain that you use. For the film, you have to hold everything in your head at once and see the shape of it at all times. With TV shows, you can’t go too big in any one episode because you’ve got to reset the chess board for the following week.”

In both cases, he says, people are continually looking to him for answers. Ninety per cent of the time, he says, it doesn’t really matter what the answer is. “The hard bit is working out what are the questions where the answer is so important you can actually say: ‘I don’t know, let me think about that.’”

Watch a trailer for Iannucci’s new HBO comedy series, Avenue 5.

He likes working with HBO, he says, because it’s like the BBC used to be. He’s not sure how the BBC operates now, but “there was a phase where you’d make something but you wouldn’t hear back for three months and then there’d be lots of notes. Lots of, yeah, we like that but here’s the title and here’s the star who’s going to be in it.”

Now that he’s established a foothold in the US, other British talent has been able to follow. The most obvious example is Succession showrunner Jesse Armstrong, one of the writers on The Thick of It. Iannucci is a big fan of Succession. Does he feel a sense of pride when people who have worked for him go on to great success?

“Yeah,” he says, “they get there with their own talent and ability but I’m just pleased to have been around as they were starting off. I like having brought in young writers and directors and been able to see them go off and do their own thing.”

He has just turned 56, close to the age at which Dickens died, quite possibly from overwork. The novelist produced a massive amount of fiction, nonfiction, journalism, and was also a public performer and political activist. “You could say he was a workaholic,” says Iannucci.

Aside from David Copperfield and Avenue 5, he has two scripts in the pipeline. Does he think of himself as a workaholic?

“I used to be, in my 20s and 30s, but actually once you get married and have a family, you want to be a good parent. So I try to restrict work to working intensely but Monday to Friday. You can’t always do that.”

He is married to Rachel Jones, whom he met at university when she did the lighting on his one-man show. They have three children and live in Hertfordshire. For all his success in America, you get the strong sense of someone firmly rooted in this country, even if it’s going through what he calls an “identity crisis” with Brexit. But he says: “Thank God I was born in the UK, because I wanted to go into comedy. This is the right place for it. There’s an amazing literary tradition here. We make the best films and television in the world. We’re innovators. We’re funny. It’s a country with the mostly highly developed sense of humour, anywhere. But why can’t we celebrate all that and just be happy that we can do that?”

In his own ironic way, Iannucci is that celebration, and one that is well worth celebrating.

The Personal History of David Copperfield opens in the UK on 24 January. Avenue 5 starts on 22 January, 10pm, Sky One

Four of Iannucci’s finest, chosen by Guy Lodge

The Thick of It (2005-2012)
Running irregularly from 2005 to 2012, Iannucci’s inventively foul-mouthed sitcom set a new bar for British political comedy, exploring the world of spin and red tape in the fictional Department of Social Affairs and Citizenship with both aching accuracy and a riotous sense of farce. Its 2009 big-screen spinoff, In the Loop, was just as darkly hilarious and landed Iannucci an Oscar nomination.

Veep (2012-2019)
When Iannucci crossed the pond to bring his brand of inner-government satire to Washington, many assumed he’d be somewhat defanged by American producers, but his pin-sharp White House takedown proved doubters wrong. Led by the impeccable Julia Louis-Dreyfus as a chaos-inclined vice-president (and eventual commander-in-chief), the Emmy-laden HBO sitcom took America into the Trump era, amping up the savagery all the way.

The Death of Stalin (2017)
Iannucci’s second film as director emphatically proved his political nous has no geographical or historical restrictions. Dramatising the anarchic Kremlin fallout following the Soviet leader’s demise in 1953, it daringly cast a transatlantic ensemble using a tangle of British and American accents, making for a mordant exercise in gallows humour with oddly universal resonance – and an unexpectedly poignant streak.

The Personal History of David Copperfield (2019)
Charles Dickens’s authorial voice is so pungently distinctive that you might expect it to clash with Iannucci’s zingy contemporary style, but they make surprisingly jolly bedfellows. His rollicking, beautifully designed take on the oft-adapted novel keeps the tragicomic romp lavishly in period, but freshens things up with colour-blind casting and a pointed nod to contemporary class wars.



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