Election special: Armando Iannucci on why this is a pivotal moment for British politics
PUBLISHED: 09:00 07 May 2015
The mastermind behind The Thick Of It and Alan Partridge is on a mission to get young people voting, finds Alex Bellotti.
He’s spent the last ten years satirising them in both the UK and America, but as this year’s general election draws to a close, Armando Iannucci is hoping we give politicians a bit of a break.
From an outsider’s perspective, it’s a curious position to take. In an age where public disillusionment with Westminster is as widespread as it’s ever been, Iannucci’s work on the BBC’s The Thick Of It and HBO’s Veep has shone a light on the very worst of politics.
The lies, the gaffes, the widespread incompetence and shameless careerism: it’s all there in his sharply-penned comedy – so why should we cut politicians any slack?
“It’s that thing of do we really have to pounce on every little stumble?” Iannucci explains. “For instance, David Cameron – he said West Ham instead of Aston Villa. Absolutely hilarious. But have we all not at some point got up and started speaking, and the wrong word comes out? Yet somehow that’s magnified into ‘This man is a dangerous man.’”
Iannucci’s reasoning is partly why we’re sitting down to chat at Maria Fidelis Upper School in Euston. He’s just spent an hour taking questions from politics students about why it’s so important for young people to engage and vote in the general election.
Politicians absolutely must be held to account, he argues, but at the same time, relentless coverage of their gaffes “betrays the nervousness that politicians have in knowing that they have to not be like politicians”. As a result, the walls go up around a campaign like David Cameron’s and suddenly “it’s impossible for a journalist to go up and speak to him directly”.
Iannucci wasn’t always an overtly political animal. While the 51-year-old attributes his increasing activism in part to his Italian father, whose anti-fascist beliefs as a journalist forced him to flee to Scotland in 1950, it was only when he noticed how the Iraq war “went against all logic” that he began to fully engage.
After breaking through into broadcasting with his 1991 Radio 4 comedy show On The Hour – which launched the careers of comedians such as Chris Morris, Stewart Lee and Steve Coogan, who was debuting Alan Partridge – Iannucci went on to create, write and direct The Thick Of It in 2005.
In many ways a modern update of his dearly loved shows Yes Minister and Yes Prime Minister, it centred around a foolhardy cabinet minister led astray by a tide of bad PR and civil servants – helped even less by the iconic, foul mouthed spin doctor Malcolm Tucker (played by Doctor Who star Peter Capaldi).
Aside from its terrific entertainment value, the show, its subsequent film adaptation In The Loop, and US equivalent, Veep, give a terrifying insight into the way government works, where policies are decided in five minutes in the back of a chauffeured black limo.
“Politics from our perspective looks like ministers spend a long, long time analysing details and costings, whereas in fact an awful lot of it is stuff that they’ve come up with that morning or the day before because they simply haven’t had more time, but they’re under pressure from the 24 hour media, they’re under pressure from us, they’re under pressure from satirists.”
Iannucci continues: “To those who say The Thick Of It puts people off politics, I say I find the politician is actually the character you warm towards. It’s the people around them: the advisors, the pressure from the media and constantly having to say the right thing all the time. The actual elected official seems to me the most human.”
On the other hand, the satirist is aware that politicians aren’t doing nearly enough to engage with young people – a mindset which has arguably led to sky-high university tuition fees, a housing crisis for first time buyers and a host of welfare cuts.
For the first time at the 2010 general election, he says, the number of people who didn’t vote was more than the number who voted for the biggest party. An equally worrying statistic is that while 80 percent of people over 65 took to the polling booths, only 45 percent of 18-24-year-olds similarly turned out.
Faced with a room full of inquisitive, well-informed politics students however, Iannucci doesn’t buy the idea that young people just aren’t interested in politics any more.
“Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think that’s the case. I just think that they’re not interested in party politics anymore; party politics seems very outdated.
“Why would you cast your cross against a party who have a set of beliefs and policies that you have to agree to wholesale? That’s not how you listen to music, that’s not how you shop, that’s not how you do anything – you pick and choose. You like this and you put it in the basket; you like that and you drop it in a playlist. The idea of going to just one all-or-nothing party I think feels very outdated.”
There are many ways he believes politics needs to change: ditching first-past-the-post for a proportional representation system is chief among his concerns, as is lowering the voting age to 16.
“I saw the transforming power of lowering the voting age to 16 up in Scotland at the referendum,” he says, “16-year-olds suddenly had this big decision to make about their country and it energised them.”
Much to his regret, the writer publically threw his endorsement behind the Liberal Democrats at the last election. His enthusiasm for Nick Clegg’s party appears to have diminished since they joined the coalition.
“I genuinely did think it would be good if there wasn’t one party in power – I didn’t expect them to do an amazing about turn on all their main policies. Now under Nick Clegg I think they have become this slightly pro austerity, pro-conservative agenda, right-of-centre party that’s not me really.”
Considering the significant ways in which politics has changed since the days of New Labour – where no party can now seemingly achieve a majority in the Commons – how does Iannucci think The Thick Of It would have changed had it continued beyond series three?
“Oh that’s an interesting one. It’s that thing I think of trying not to be political, that’s where they’d spend a lot of their time. Trying to normalise the politician, make them not look like a politician, not sound like a politician, not dress like a politician. I’m sure every time they go on Desert Island Discs they spend a lot of time thinking about it.
“It’s strange because actually the ones that we warm to most are the ones who do f*** up, make a mistake or just say something and then apologise for it.”
At the very least, Iannucci will be doing his bit to give politicians some breathing space in the near future. After four seasons of extraordinary success with Veep in America – “it helps if you’re on straight after Game of Thrones” – he’s handing the show over so his family can remain in England.
In the near future, films about Stalin and David Copperfield, as well as a comedy about artificial intelligence, are set to occupy his professional time.
Now watching Westminster from the sidelines, he sees tomorrow’s result as a potentially defining moment in the progression of British politics.
“I feel that what we have the opportunity to do in this current election is get into a position where the whole two party system falls apart for good.
“It could be a mess, the result on May 8, but I think it’ll force everyone to have a complete re-think about how parliament works, how parties work, how voting works. I think that’s going to be healthy for democracy.”