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
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