Succession is in everybody’s top 10 list for best drama of 2019: big show, huge ambition, immense scope. So when its creator, Jesse Armstrong, was asked how he, one of the Peep Show team, had risen to the heights of an HBO international hit, it might have surprised some people that his answer was, essentially, Armando Iannucci.
The wiry Scottish comedy writer and showrunner has launched more careers than the Queen has ships, and his influence continues to grow: 2020 sees his HBO sci-fi sitcom Avenue 5 and his faithful but unexpected version of David Copperfield hit the screens — both in January in the UK, though Copperfield does not open in the US until May. Not content with giving career breaks to Chris Morris, Steve Coogan, Stewart Lee, David Baddiel, Patrick Marber and Simon Pegg, he’s also bringing Hugh Laurie back to comedy, with strong roles in both.
Avenue 5 is the first time Iannucci has boldly gone into sci-fi. It’s a light satire on corporate culture, set on a spaceship that suffers a brief fluctuation in gravity while cruising round Saturn. Unfortunately, this kills the only man who knows how the ship works, and Laurie’s hapless captain has to deal with 6,500 people who set out on an eight-week vacation that’s going to take them three years to get back home from. If there are hints of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, they’re pretty much deliberate. “The reason I wanted to get into radio comedy was hearing The Hitchhiker’s Guide,” Iannucci says. “In a way, this is just me coming home.”
It has taken a long time — perhaps not surprising, as his journey started with his dad fleeing the fascists in Naples to come and run a pizza factory in Scotland, and young Armando aiming for the priesthood, then abandoning a PhD thesis on 17th-century religious language to get into comedy. He started out working with Rebecca Front, Richard Herring, Lee, Marber and Coogan on radio sketch shows, followed by On the Hour, which spawned The Day Today, which begat Brass Eye and Alan Partridge, and led, indirectly, to the projects Armstrong wrote for — the political comedies The Thick of It, In the Loop, Veep and The Death of Stalin.
His journey started with his dad fleeing the Fascists in Naples to come and run a pizza factory in Scotland.
The Personal History of David Copperfield is the first time Iannucci has explored Dickens — although he experimented with period in 2017’s brutally funny The Death of Stalin, covering the clownish struggle for power that followed the dictator’s ignominious end. That these projects, as well as Veep and In the Loop, all came from the same hive mind makes Iannucci the Macavity of comedy — and it’s never clear exactly what he’s up to.
“There’s no kind of master plan — you just have to do things you think would be funny,” he says with an “It’s obvious” shrug when we meet in the Soho attic where he’s editing Avenue 5. “Then you have to think about how you do it — with On the Hour, the more serious it sounded, the funnier it would be, especially if they’re actually talking bollocks. The Thick of It was the joy of eavesdropping on something we shouldn’t really be seeing.”
What’s curious isn’t just the range of his output — after 30 years of cracking jokes, people tend to fall into tedious routines — but also the way his circle of collaborators has become a literal version of infectious laughter, spreading like a virus into movies, TV shows, books, stand-up and even drama, while repeatedly circling back to the strange repertory company he forms and reforms on a project-by-project basis. And all the while, new talent joins and old talent returns.
Avenue 5, for instance, stars the Thick of It stalwart Rebecca Front and the Veep regular Zach Woods, but adds Nikki Amuka-Bird and Josh Gad. David Copperfield reunites Iannucci with Peter Capaldi and Paul Whitehouse, as well as the writer Simon Blackwell, who also worked on In the Loop, Veep and The Thick of It. Debuting for Iannucci this time are Ben Whishaw, Tilda Swinton and Dev Patel.
“There’s no kind of master plan —you just have to do things you think would be funny.”
The way his collaborators describe it, Iannucci’s process is like a rolling maul. On the Hour, Front explains, “started out as a gang. We developed four projects together — there was loads of improvisation and everyone had a lot of input. Most of the time, those early teams fall out so badly they can barely speak to each other, but there’s something about Armando’s curiosity, quality control and the fact that he hates being surrounded by arseholes that’s kept the energy going.”
“It’s basically the academy of Armando,” adds Chris Addison, who leapt from stand-up to The Thick of It, where he acted and directed. “One of the most remarkable things about sitting around the Thick of It table is how few people there had done sitcom before. I still call him ‘prof’. He’s spotting potential — ‘I like this thing about you. Why not try this other thing?’”
Which makes some sort of sense — the method is free and fun, new people show up, some sink, some swim and somehow it muddles along. But the range of work? And the success in the US, a place where few British comics have carved a long-term career? In part, says Kevin Loader, who executive-produced Avenue 5, it’s because he puts the writers at the centre of everything.
“He has so many writers — I think there are 20 on Avenue 5, and they’re there all the time. They’re on set while shooting, which is almost unheard of. We had quite a big cast, and they tended to sit around the edge of the set between takes, just kicking shit with the writers, and there are always new lines emerging.”
The Personal History of David Copperfield is the first time Iannucci has explored Dickens — although he experimented with period in 2017’s brutally funny The Death of Stalin.
Why this state of perpetual revolution? “I just like changing things,” Iannucci says with a wry grin. “With David Copperfield, the book is very experimental, modern and funny. People who have shot it in the past tend to be reverential about the plot — but the plot is the least important thing. It’s the characters, the humanity and the imagination. Dickens wanted to capture the whole of his country in all its variety, and I wanted to do the same, especially as we’re given an impression of Britain that’s tight, shut and narrow. It’s an imaginative, kind, generous and creative country.”
One of his favourite scenes in the book, for instance, has never been filmed before — a trip to the theatre where David gets sozzled for the first time, disgraces himself and causes a rumpus. Another first is a British-Asian David. Iannucci snorts. “Victorian London was the centre of the universe then,” he says, waving the point away. “People came from all over the world. Large parts of the city’s streets wouldn’t have looked that different.”
His move into historical drama and sci-fi seems in part a response to the difficulty of finding a way of mocking contemporary politics. “When politicians think they can deny factual evidence by using their friends’ fake news, or when a political party calls itself a fact-checking organisation, you’ve gone so far through the looking glass that values, even words, don’t mean anything any more,” he says sadly. “Everything is artificial, and because everything is false, nothing feels wrong, so it’s hard to mock.”
Yet he remains sanguine about the longer term: “I think it won’t last, but something catastrophic will happen before we get ourselves out of that position. Interestingly, it’s actually the younger generation, who we put down as being so absorbed in their screens, who are doing the actual fighting. We’d do best to follow them.”
We’re reaching the end of the interview, so I try my final get-out question — what haven’t I asked that I should have done? He looks at me with a slight air of pity. “You never get the best questions from journalists,” he smiles. “I did this sixth-form talk, and the first question I got asked was, ‘When you move on to your next project, how do you overcome your fear of failure?’ No journalist would say that. What a great question.”
OK, so when you move on to your next project, how do you overcome your fear of failure? “You’ve just got to start it and make sure you’re giving it your all,” he says thoughtfully. “Even though you’ve been doing it for 25 years, try to get yourself into the mind-set of someone who’s starting their first project. That’s the only way to do it — make it as important as the first thing you ever did. Otherwise it’s just bish-bosh-bash, there we go, five o’clock, time to leave.
“It all boils down to what’s made me laugh or made me angry. It’s always something that can be solved with a tweet.”