Ar­mando on why noth­ing is sa­cred

From Mal­colm Tucker in The Thick Of It to par­o­dy­ing Washington in Veep, Ar­mando Ian­nucci has been lam­poon­ing the po­lit­i­cal classes his whole ca­reer. His lat­est project, The Death Of Stalin, about power strug­gles af­ter the fall of the Soviet dic­ta­tor, is n

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AR­MANDO Ian­nucci reck­ons that, yes, you could, if you re­ally wanted to, make a com­edy about an atroc­ity such as the Holo­caust. “It de­pends on the skill of the per­son mak­ing the com­edy and it de­pends on what the agenda is,” says the satirist, when we meet in the bar of Glas­gow’s Mal­mai­son ho­tel. “I’d be very ner­vous of any­thing that says: ‘Here’s a film that’s out to make fun of the Holo­caust.’”

The thing is, he adds, treat­ing some­thing in a comic man­ner doesn’t mean you don’t take it se­ri­ously. “I don’t think do­ing some­thing as com­edy is nec­es­sar­ily be­lit­tling it.”

He hasn’t, by the way. Made a com­edy about the Holo­caust, that is. But Ian­nucci – whose comic cre­ations in­clude The Thick Of It and I’m Alan Par­tridge – has made a new film about the death of Stalin (called, co­in­ci­den­tally enough, The Death Of Stalin), which deals with the abuse of power, rape, tor­ture, death lists and state ex­e­cu­tions. Not the stuff of com­edy, you might think. That said, it is – as you’d ex­pect of a cast that in­cludes Michael Palin, Jef­frey Tam­bor, Steve Buscemi and Paul White­house – of­ten very funny.

Although fo­cused on the power play that fol­lowed Joseph Stalin’s death in 1953, it is also – and this is where the laugh­ter dies in the throat a lit­tle – a film that feels all too con­tem­po­rary. It hov­ers on the bor­der­line in pol­i­tics where in­com­pe­tence meet malev­o­lence. And where power is placed in the hands of peo­ple who should never have it. To see that at work in the world to­day you have to … Well, just look around.

“This film was made and shot be­fore Trump,” Ian­nucci tells me in the midst of a flying visit to his home city. And yet, he ac­cepts, it’s easy to read it as a very Trumpian arte­fact. “When I watched that footage of Trump get­ting his cab­i­net around and each mem­ber of the cab­i­net had to say how won­der­ful Trump was, I just thought: ‘God, there it is again’.

“His ado­ra­tion of the strong man, his love of Putin or Er­do­gan in Turkey; also his slight obsession with North Korea ... He’s sort of ad­dicted to dic­ta­tors. He’s drawn to them be­cause that’s how his brain works. ‘Why can’t one per­son just say: “Do this.” And it would be done.’

“That’s what an­noys him. That there is this thing called the Amer­i­can con­sti­tu­tion and the Amer­i­can le­gal sys­tem that is pre­vent­ing him do­ing what he wants done be­cause he doesn’t con­sti­tu­tion­ally have the power to do these things.”

The week Ian­nucci and I meet is the week al­le­ga­tions about Har­vey We­in­stein break into the open, so the no­tion of power cor­rupt­ing is very much in the air. But when it comes to the pres­i­dency, at least the Amer­i­cans have an Amer­i­can con­sti­tu­tion. Putin is proof that the Rus­sians are still rather at­tached to the strong-man the­ory of gov­ern­ment.

Stalin is the ul­ti­mate per­ver­sion of that idea of course, a man ul­ti­mately re­spon­si­ble for the deaths of mil­lions of his fel­low coun­try­men and women.

The Death Of Stalin starts just be­fore the event al­luded to in that spoiler of a ti­tle, with Stalin (played by Adrian McLough­lin), hold­ing forth around the ta­ble with all his lack­eys, ply­ing them with al­co­hol and mak­ing them watch westerns. What soon be­comes clear is that he rules by fear. That fear is per­son­i­fied in his right-hand man Lavren­tiy Be­ria, chief of the se­cret po­lice (Si­mon Rus­sell Beale brings ruth­less­ness and a fleet­ing sense of hu­man­ity to the role).

Based on a French graphic novel, the film doesn’t stray too far from the truth; mostly be­cause it doesn’t have to. The real story is it­self full of ab­sur­dity and hor­ror. Stalin was so feared that even when he died his cab­i­net squab­bled about what to do and wouldn’t call a doc­tor. (Be­fore his death Stalin had been ar­rest­ing doc­tors on the grounds that Jewish doc­tors were out to kill him.)

This is a story about po­lit­i­cal con­trol and the means men (it is usu­ally men) will go to to se­cure and main­tain it. “We went round Stalin’s Dacha [sum­mer house] and we’ve tried to recre­ate as ac­cu­rately as pos­si­ble all the sur­round­ings,” says Ian­nucci. “His ac­tual sur­round­ings were quite drab. It wasn’t about the money. It was about power.

“He seemed to be ad­dicted. He loved get­ting all the guys in, keep­ing them up late, get­ting them drunk, mak­ing them watch a movie just as they wanted to go home, know­ing that they would have to go home drunk and yet get into their min­istries by 8am, whereas he could sleep in. And, also, he thought – ‘If I get them drunk, who knows what they might say’. He sig­nalled his staff to wa­ter down his vodka so he wasn’t get­ting drunk.

“There’s that story … I don’t know if it’s true … the first per­son who stopped ap­plaud­ing a Stalin speech would be the one taken out and shot so the ap­plause would go on and on. If you think about it, that means the ap­plause should have gone on for­ever.”

The Rus­sian Com­mu­nist Party has al­ready called for The Death Of Stalin to be banned in Rus­sia. Ian­nucci doesn’t ap­pear to be tak­ing it too se­ri­ously.

“All that is, is some guy in the Com­mu­nist Party, I think, say­ing: ‘I don’t like the sound of this.’ But it’s got a Rus­sian dis­trib­u­tor. I’ve done the Rus­sian press at the Toronto Film Fes­ti­val. They all liked the film. They all said: ‘Thank God you didn’t put Rus­sian ac­cents on. We hate that’.”

The fact is, even when Stalin was alive there were peo­ple ready to make fun of him. “There were a lot of joke books about Stalin cir­cu­lat­ing at the time,” says Ian­nucci. “If you had one in your pos­ses­sion you would be shot. But peo­ple still felt they had to make jokes about Stalin and Be­ria. It’s al­most like that was their way of say­ing: ‘They may con­trol our lives. They may lock us up. But if we can still laugh, then they haven’t de­stroyed that bit of us’.”

That is a re­mark­able ex­am­ple of the en­durance of the hu­man spirit – though look­ing around at the state of the world, you might won­der how any­one can find any­thing to laugh about.

IN his pre­vi­ous po­lit­i­cal com­edy ve­hi­cles The Thick Of It and Veep, Ian­nucci has been one of the most po­tent (and laugh-out-loud-funny) crit­ics of the state of things. But now, he thinks, we need a new way of ad­dress­ing the state of things. “I think peo­ple like John Oliver of [Amer­ica’s] The Daily Show are do­ing that by ac­tu­ally be­com­ing jour­nal­ists, be­com­ing re­searchers. I think that’s what’s needed. Be­cause, ac­tu­ally, what’s com­ing from pol­i­tics at the mo­ment is this dis­re­gard for ev­i­dence and facts, dis­miss­ing ev­ery­thing as fake news.”

But it’s not just politi­cians, is it? Vot­ers are clearly buy­ing into the re­jec­tion of ev­i­dence too. “I think part of our prob­lem is our on­line ex­is­tence means we only com­mu­ni­cate with peo­ple who agree with us. Our news-feed is tai­lored to what we are in­ter­ested in. We block peo­ple who dis­agree with us. We un­fol­low them, we non-plat­form peo­ple who might have op­pos­ing views.

“We are now turn­ing into this po­lit­i­cal gen­er­a­tion where we will only ac­cept our own ar­gu­ments and any­one who of­fers an­other ar­gu­ment is just wrong and a threat. And if they are a threat they have to be ex­cluded be­cause oth­er­wise, ‘I’m not safe.’ That’s the think­ing.”

The truth is, pol­i­tics – when it isn’t hor­ri­fy­ing – has be­come es­sen­tially ab­surd. I mean, Ar­mando, if I say the words Ja­cob Rees-Mogg …

“I know,” he laughs, when I men­tion the Tory MP some have tipped as a fu­ture PM. “I think that’s also to do with the fact that we don’t see pol­i­tics as real any more. Be­cause he’s not real … I mean, he is real, but the idea of him be­ing the Prime Min­is­ter is be­yond any kind of level of com­mon sense. It’s al­most like we’ve got into this habit now … our de­fault po­si­tion is: ‘Let’s just find any­thing that’s dif­fer­ent from any­thing else.’ It’s al­most like we’re bored. We’re bored with nor­mal pol­i­tics so, for a bit of ex­cite­ment, let’s find the per­son who is most un­like pol­i­tics.”

Here’s the thing, I say. I think you and Rees-Mogg, a man who thinks food­banks are “rather up­lift­ing”, have some­thing in com­mon. “Oh, right. I’m look­ing for­ward to this.” Well, you are both nat­u­ral out­siders who have used that as a ve­hi­cle to get to the in­side.

Ian­nucci takes the idea se­ri­ously for a mo­ment. “I’ve al­ways felt like be­ing an Ital­ian in Scot­land, then a Scot in Eng­land and then a Brit in Amer­ica that there’s al­ways been this el­e­ment of not com­pletely ‘out­side’, but stand­ing a bit fur­ther back to ex­am­ine the whole, I think. So I’m cer­tainly aware of do­ing that.”

There you go, I al­most say, be­fore he con­tin­ues: “But there’s also an in­sid­er­ness as well. I’m not an out­ward rebel. I be­came a BBC pro­ducer and moved up within the sys­tem, so there’s an el­e­ment of be­ing in­side and out­side si­mul­ta­ne­ously which has al­lowed me to get near to where things hap­pen and watch them a bit more close-up.”

True, and Ja­cob Rees-Mogg may be a bal­loon but he’s also an Old Eto­nian bal­loon so he’s al­ways been an in­sider in his own way too. Which does mean my com­par­i­son still stands.

And, re­ally, wouldn’t Rees-Mogg recog­nise and ap­plaud the por­trait of the young Ar­mando painted in Ian­nucci’s

new book about his love of clas­si­cal mu­sic, Hear Me Out? “I used to share a bed­room with a brother who was into Lou Reed and Deep Pur­ple,” he writes. “I al­ways re­mem­ber think­ing, I don’t get this. Then, aged 13, at a mu­si­cal ap­pre­ci­a­tion class at school, when the teacher played an old vinyl record­ing of Holst’s The Plan­ets, I in­stantly froze. I got it.”

IAN­NUCCI has al­ways painted a pic­ture of his child­hood self as some­thing of a nerdy numbers geek ob­sessed with the swingome­ter on elec­tion broad­casts. But you have to re­mem­ber that his Naples-born fa­ther – who died when Ian­nucci was just 17 – had grown up in Mus­solini’s Italy. He knew what dic­ta­tor­ship was.

“When he was 16, 17, he used to write for an anti-fas­cist news­pa­per,” Ian­nucci re­calls, “and that’s a case of some­body re­ally nail­ing their colours to the mast.”

Did his fa­ther ever talk about that time in his life? “He was al­ways very quiet about it. I re­mem­ber when The World Of War was on TV and it came to the scene with the con­cen­tra­tion camps. I re­mem­ber him get­ting up and say­ing: ‘I’ve got to leave the room, but you must watch this.’ I think he saw stuff in the war he never wanted to see again.”

Ian­nucci says he never had the tem­per­a­ment to go into pol­i­tics him­self. In­stead, he joined the BBC and be­came one of the prime movers of 21st-cen­tury com­edy, first with the cor­po­ra­tion, giv­ing us ev­ery­thing from The Day To­day to Alan Par­tridge to The Thick Of It and then tak­ing the model of the lat­ter across the At­lantic to do the same with the Amer­i­can body politic in Veep. Ian­nucci cut his ties with Veep af­ter four se­ries and is now work­ing on a new sci­ence-fic­tion TV se­ries, Av­enue 5, which he hopes to shoot next year. He is also well ad­vanced in plans to make a film adap­ta­tion of Dick­ens’s David Cop­per­field.

But his gilded past still in­forms the cul­ture, whether in the shape of the #ac­ci­den­tal­par­tridge hash­tag on Twitter (for any com­ment or idea made by a pub­lic fig­ure that wouldn’t sound out of place if Alan Par­tridge had come up with it) or just the way that the Thick Of It di­a­logue has seeped into our po­lit­i­cal lan­guage. Ev­ery­thing is an om­nisham­bles now. What’s worse, he says, is that some in pol­i­tics still seem to be un­der the im­pres­sion that his Thick Of It cre­ation, spin doc­tor Mal­colm Tucker (played with foul-mouthed glee by Peter Ca­paldi), was some sort of hero.

“I still don’t see why Mal­colm is kind of an idol for a lot of peo­ple be­cause he was the prob­lem. And ac­tu­ally if you an­a­lyse ev­ery episode things get worse when Mal­colm gets in­volved.”

Now in his sixth decade, Ian­nucci says he feels com­fort­able in his own skin. He is mar­ried to Rachel, two of his chil­dren are in their teens and his el­dest, Emilio, is an ac­tor who turns up in The Death Of Stalin. On his days off he likes to go to the pub or out for din­ner.

What is the thing that your wife tells you off about? “She does tell me off when I’ve fin­ished di­rect­ing. She re­minds me that I’m still act­ing like a di­rec­tor when I come home. ‘Let’s have a cup of tea. Shall we go for a walk? Get the dogs.’ She has to tell me to stop do­ing that.”

See, even in a mild-man­nered man like Ian­nucci the dic­ta­tor is never far away.

And yet, in a way, The Death Of Stalin is just the lat­est ex­am­ple of Ian­nucci’s base­line comic idea – that none of us know what we are do­ing. Does he him­self feel like he is in con­trol of things? “I do now, but it’s taken me a long time.”

Un­til when? “I think maybe about the sec­ond or third se­ries of Veep.”

Ar­mando, Veep only started in 2012. So that’s not so very long ago. “It’s not. But I think it’s a good thing. The last thing you want to be is com­pla­cent. I now do feel con­fi­dent about how to make some­thing rather than think­ing, ‘Oh my God.’ Be­cause I used to think ev­ery­thing was just the worst thing any­one has made ever and mustn’t go out.

“I think that’s a com­mon ex­pe­ri­ence. Ev­ery­one thinks they’re a child in a world of adults and then you re­alise, ac­tu­ally, it’s lots of big chil­dren.”

The Death Of Stalin is on gen­eral re­lease. Hear Me Out by Ar­mando Ian­nucci is pub­lished by Lit­tle, Brown, £14.99.

Ar­mando Ian­nucci’s lat­est film The Death Of Stalin stars Ru­pert Friend, Michael Palin, Jef­frey Tam­bor, Steve Buscemi and Ja­son Isaacs

Peter Ca­paldi as Mal­colm Tucker in The Thick Of It

Ar­mando Ian­nucci ac­cepts an Emmy for his US po­lit­i­cal com­edy show Veep

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