The word around television circles is that Armando Iannucci, satirist-in-chief of Britain’s political classes, is one of the most pleasant people to work in a petty and frequently vituperative world. But his writing is designed to hurt. “His laser-guided humour is deadly accurate,” announced his occasional collaborator Steve Coogan when presenting Iannucci with a Writers’ Guild award last year, before adding his own savage comedic twist. “Yes, occasionally he misses and hits a school or a hospital. But more often than not, it eviscerates a legitimate enemy target with minimal collateral damage.”
With a string of successes behind him, there were few surprises when Iannucci was awarded an OBE in the Queen’s recent birthday honours list. But one of the satirist’s principal “enemy targets” was unimpressed with his acceptance of the award. Alastair Campbell, the Labour party’s former spin doctor, took to Twitter to announce his irritation: “So @AIannucci OBE joins the Establishment he claims to deride. Malcolm Tucker and I do not approve of honours system.”
It is popularly held that Tucker, the near-demented communications director of Iannucci’s masterly sitcom The Thick of It, is based on Campbell. Yet as I discuss the character with Iannucci just a few days before the OBE rumpus, he disabuses me of the notion. “It wasn’t meant to be based on Alastair Campbell,” he says. “It was actually based on these nameless people called the ‘enforcers’, the people who tell everyone what the ‘line’ is, and who say what will ‘play well’ with the media. That’s what Tucker is. But he’s just a bit more brutal than most.”
We are seated in the far-from-brutal surrounds of the Ledbury, a swish and busy Michelin two-star restaurant in the heart of Notting Hill. Just a few yards from us is a huge, round table of a dozen or so middle-aged men who have, by the look of the number of unused wine glasses in front of them, chosen to spend the afternoon sampling the pleasures of the tasting menu.
Iannucci and I, by contrast, have just an hour to have our meal, due to his prior commitments, which seems a shame. Indeed, Iannucci did not even choose the restaurant himself. His people said he didn’t have the “head space” to deal with the choice, a phrase I find hard to imagine coming from his lips, even though he has been spending more time in Los Angeles.
So the choice – it needed to be somewhere in the area – was mine. We hurriedly order starters, asparagus and quail’s egg for him, salad for me, and both have turbot as a main course. He agrees to have “half a glass” of wine and, although he is poured a whole glass, true to his word he drinks only half of it.
We talk about Iannucci’s latest sitcom success, HBO’s Veep, another political satire but this time based in Washington, where the level of abuse is pitched (a little) less intensely but where dementedness appears de rigueur. The series, which has ended its run in the US and recently opened on Sky Atlantic in the UK, stars Seinfeld’s Julia Louis-Dreyfus as US vice-president Selina Meyer, a figure rendered pathetic by the cruelly contrasting facts of her closeness to the centre of power, and her actual powerlessness. (“Did the president call?” she constantly and fruitlessly asks her PA, not so much a running joke as a callous reminder of her cosmic irrelevance.)
There is, very deliberately, no Malcolm Tucker in Veep. “If you spoke to the vice-president like that, you would be thrown out of the room and told never to come back,” says Iannucci. Selina Meyer’s more subtly drawn antagonist is Jonah, the White House liaison who, despite his gaucheness, derives kudos purely from working in the same building as the president. It is the West Wing effect, says Iannucci. “One of the guys we were talking to said that as a result of working there, he started dating ‘eights’. [As in out-of-tens.]
“That is how they talk, very openly. And another opening conversational gambit they have – ‘So, who do you know?’, while scrawling through their BlackBerrys. And they all have mentors, but the really ambitious ones have two or three, who don’t know of each other’s existence.” He recounts these habits like an incredulous anthropologist returning from a maiden field trip. In fact, Iannucci embedded himself in the Washington world for months to imbibe the atmosphere and get the tone of the programme right.
“I kept telling them, ‘I am not doing a documentary, I am not out to bring anyone down, but I do want to make it as authentic as possible. So tell me all the dull stuff!’ They got gigglishly excited by the presence of a TV crew because it was someone from outside their world. But over the weeks I found a consistent pattern to what a day in the life was like.” It is evidently full of disgruntled senators saying things like, “Why don’t you try working your iPad with your dick?” to political opponents.
The series has been well received, and was recommissioned by HBO after the first episode. Hadn’t he been circumspect about upsetting US audiences, who tended to be far more protective and earnest about their political system than the British? “I have detected a change in the last two or three years. There is this seething anger and people don’t know where to direct it. Everything has become so polarised. They don’t seem to mind that their system is being held up to ridicule, because it seems to articulate what they are feeling.”
Veep makes a brilliant complement to The West Wing, I say, the underbelly of all that political heroism. “I loved The West Wing. But I wonder how it would play now. It feels so noble, and they are all so great at their jobs. They want the best, and more or less achieve it,” he says.
At the centre of Veep, by contrast, is Louis-Dreyfus’s shrewdly drawn Selina, a crumpled mixture of frustrated ambition, petty jealousies and occasional incompetence. It is the stuff of “existential crisis”, says Iannucci. “[Joe] Biden’s former chief of staff told us that in America you are defined by winning, and for you to go around with a big badge saying, ‘I’m number two’ ... well, you are already struggling.”
I ask whether some of the more colourful episodes in real American political life were in danger of blunting Iannucci’s satirical pen through their own absurdity. “Some of the incidents, perhaps. But I wanted to hone in on the structure. All that shuffling between the White House, the Hill, the lobbyists.” Nevertheless, he was happy to find that those real-life incidents were being echoed in the series, and vice versa. “Things were happening in the primaries and the press said, ‘This is just like a scene from Veep,’ so we got something right.”
Iannucci has just completed filming the fourth series of The Thick of It, and says his spell across the Atlantic has influenced his writing of it, which employs the HBO style of an overarching narrative across the series as a whole. “I am very excited by it. Because now we have the characters from the former government no longer in power, and a new government which has to deal with a coalition party that it has nothing in common with. That makes three focus points.” He sounds excited, like a child discovering his first triangle. It sounds like it will ask more of the viewer? “Yes. But it will still be funny.”
Iannucci rose to prominence with 1994’s The Day Today, in which he and his colleague Chris Morris satirised the tropes of modern-day news programmes to surreal and often blistering effect. Having rewatched some episodes, I say that they seem prescient. The gobbledygook spoken by business correspondent Collaterlie Sisters, for example, seemed to prefigure today’s age of bewildering economic complexity. I ask Iannucci why he decided to switch his aim from the media to politics.
It was not some kind of grand ambition, he says, but a piecemeal shifting of focus, inspired by watching every episode of Yes, Minister as part of a documentary he was taking part in. “I just thought all those issues were still so relevant, except that instead of the civil servant being the obstruction before the minister, it is now all these advisers.” In his pitch to the BBC, he further updated the show by plundering the format of HBO’s The Larry Sanders Show. “It was a sitcom but it was buried underneath the language, and the swearing, and the overlapping dialogue. It was a brilliant disguise.”
But Yes, Minister was such a gentle series, I say. At each episode’s end, we still fundamentally liked its characters, who had been gingerly manipulating, rather than shafting, each other. “Yes, but in those days, we had politicians who went home at night. Who took weekends off. Who went into politics after doing something else in life.”
Nowadays it is different, he says. “Politics is peopled by individuals who have never done anything else other than read PPE [philosophy, politics and economics], become a researcher, and then an MP.” He points to a paradox: “They feel they have to be micro-managing everything, while they have had less experience of management than ever before. I just cannot see how anyone who has gone through that career plan can hope to run hospitals, schools, broadcasting. It feels weird.”
Because there is no money for grands projets, he says, there is a kind of bathos in the compulsion to legislate in ever-finer detail. “It becomes very specific: instead of building 150 new schools, you say children have to be able to read to this standard, by this age. But that level of specificity requires experience. Which is what they don’t have.”
It is a coherent and plausible view but I ask if he ever feels troubled that he has contributed to raising the level of public cynicism over politicians. That can’t be good for the polity at large?
“No. And I am sort of thinking that maybe it’s time that we brought the series to an end. Because I love politics and I am fascinated by it, and I am thinking about how we can get people to connect with politics again. I don’t know what the solution is. But people are gravitating towards anything that crystallises a political argument. They are passionate about it but feel there is nowhere to go.”
There is a streak of romanticism in evidence here from the arch-satirist. It is also present when he recounts his youthful obsession with politics, which extended to visiting the local library to read House of Commons debates in Hansard. Iannucci was born in Glasgow to an Italian father and Scottish mother who wanted him to be a doctor or lawyer. He says he knew from an early age that he was destined for comedy, but began a PhD on Milton’s Paradise Lost while he pondered the unexpectedness of that career direction.
Over coffee, we talk briefly of our fathers’ wartime experiences – mine fought at Monte Cassino, one of the Italian campaign’s bloodiest battles, his joined the partisans at just 17. “That generation had to make their moves so quickly and so early in their lives,” he says. “Such big decisions. You wonder what you’d be like.”
And then his conversation takes a more serious tone. “I saw this guy during the Olympic torch relay, he had lost both his legs and he was badly disfigured, and everyone was saying he was the life and soul of the party. But you think, that happened because of a stupid decision, because of what Britain was doing in Iraq or Afghanistan. It needn’t have happened. It shouldn’t have happened.”
It is said that when Dionysius, the tyrant king of Syracuse, asked Plato to explain Athenian democracy to him, the Greek philosopher sent him the plays of Aristophanes without any further comment. Satirists, it could be argued, make better sense of the world than any other writers. Veep tells the story better than The West Wing. Just as in Aristophanes’ time, we are shrewd enough and secure enough to honour their talents. Hence the OBE.
It’s not how Alastair Campbell sees it. Iannucci replied to his mocking tweet – “It’s probably more Establishment to order your army to march into other countries for no reason. Swings and roundabouts” – and Campbell predictably upped the ante: “You see your wit a bit tired and blunt already. Three little letters can have more impact than you realise. Tut tut.”
Iannucci closed the door on the exchange with his own three-letter put-down: “WMD”. He is a remarkably pleasant man but not to be made fun of. He is always going to win that particular battle.
Peter Aspden is the FT’s arts writer
‘Veep’ is on Sky Atlantic on Mondays
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Two-course lunch x2 £60.00
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The vice-president squad: From spit, lies and duels to ‘the great state of Chicago’
John Nance Garner was known as “Cactus Jack” for his sharp tongue. It is not surprising that he owns the most memorable quote about the job he held for eight years, from 1933-41, under Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Being vice-president was “not worth a bucket of warm spit”, writes Jurek Martin.
That is the polite version of what he said. There are other four-letter alternatives to “spit” and he may have used “quart” or “pitcher” as the receptacle. But just in case nobody got his drift, he later said being vice-president “was the worst thing that ever happened to me”.
The vice-president has no formal duties, leaving aside presiding over the Senate and casting tie-breaking votes, except to succeed the president. There is almost a one in three chance that he will. Barack Obama is the 44th president, and 14 of his predecessors have made it via the number two spot: eight because the incumbent died or resigned, and six in their own right in a general election.
Not all 47 vice-presidents have been powerless: Dick Cheney was certainly the puppet master of the George W Bush White House. But their legacies, if remembered at all, come from their other activities. Aaron Burr, the third veep, is notorious for killing his great rival, Alexander Hamilton, in a duel, while Elbridge Gerry, veep number five, is remembered for inventing the process of redrawing congressional districts to benefit the party in power. This is still known as “gerrymandering”, pronounced, unlike the man himself, with a soft “g”.
Other veeps knew more ignominy than admiration. Spiro Agnew, Richard Nixon’s designated attack dog, resigned a year before his boss because he had accepted bribes when governor of Maryland. Most of his better-known lines (“the nattering nabobs of negativism” about the media) were written for him but one of his own deserves recognition: “I apologise for lying to you. I promise I won’t deceive you again except in matters of this sort.”
Dan Quayle, serving under Bush the Elder, was not the apologetic sort, saying, “I stand by all the misstatements I have made.” His trouble was that there were so many of them, such as, “We expect them [the government of Salvador] to work towards the elimination of human rights,” and, “It’s great to be here in the great state of Chicago.”
Johnny Carson deserves the last word. As the comedian once said, “Democracy means that anyone can grow up to be president and anyone who does not grow up can be vice-president.”
Cactus Jack would have agreed.