Comedy writer is back in the thick of it

Www.jesuit. humor.blogspot. com is a largely unfunny anthology, mainly involving homily-enhancers and laboured puns about obscure religious orders. However, the Jesuits do have their own crucial moment in British comedy. Back in 1991, two unknown comedy w


humor.blogspot. com is a

largely unfunny anthology, mainly involving homily-enhancers and laboured puns about obscure religious orders.

However, the Jesuits do have their own crucial moment in British comedy.

Back in 1991, two unknown comedy writers met for coffee for the first time in London. When talk about radio comedy faltered, they went back to their childhood and discovered the ice-breaker - the Jesuits. It is uncertain whether the priests taught Armando Iannucci or Chris Morris many jokes while they were at school. But what is sure is that their meeting was the the first step in the foundation of modern British comedy.

Iannucci is the comedy genius behind shows like On The Hour, The Day Today, Alan Partridge and The Thick Of It. He has won two BAFTAs for the latter - a vicious take on the machinations of a government spin machine - and three British Comedy Awards. But he has largely remained an anonymous figure in the scene, better known perhaps for his Observer column than for being at the heart of immortal cultural landmarks - "Knowing me, knowing you. Aha!" - and surreal headlines - "de-frocked cleric eats car park".

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When I speak to Iannucci, he is halfway through editing the second series of The Thick Of It, having finished filming five days before. His work rate is phenomenal, as the book on my desk, Iannucci's The Audacity Of Hype, out last month, testifies.

In conversation, his Glaswegian burr now half-

effaced by years living in Buckinghamshire, one gets the impression of a splinter-sharp, agile mind. He expands and refines points just as he utters them, often interrupting himself with a divergent line of thought.

One also gets the impression of an uncomplicated, humble man, who interrupts an interviewer's requests for a grand theme to his work with, "I just wanted it to be funny."

Pressed about the enigmatic Brasseye legend Chris Morris, Iannucci says: "He always wears a mask. I've never seen him - I know him only by voice. Everyone has to wash before and after meeting him."

"That, of course, is not true," he ends slowly. "He's a perfectly normal guy, very polite and slightly old-fashioned in terms of his manners.

"With On The Hour - the radio precursor to The Day Today - we were strongly influenced by Radio Active, a 1980s radio show featuring Angus Deayton, and other similar shows.

"Sometimes we'd sit down and write stuff and sometimes I'd say, 'Could you and Chris have a conversation about cream, that goes nowhere. And we'd open up the mics and run for 10 minutes.

"With Alan Partridge, I said to Steve Coogan,'Can you do a sports reporter who is an amalgam of all of them, not an impression of any single one? Instantly he tried the voice. As soon as he spoke, someone said, 'That man's called Partridge.' Then someone else said, 'Yes and he's an Alan.' And there it was. After that, we started putting some background to it. What his aspirations were, what his paranoias were, what his big ambition was.

"The funny thing about Alan was that terrible stuff was always happening to him - but he never quite saw it like that himself.

"If ever he realised what people thought of him, I think he'd kill himself. He's got this thick skin, which is his salvation.

"I think, in comedy, there's a long line of broken individuals like Tony Hancock, who you still want to succeed in a way. They feel fragile to the audience and need a little bit of protecting."

Iannucci's new series of The Thick Of It airs in late October and there's a reason for the tight deadline. The story as usual is based on reality - an ailing government trying to right the ship before the potentially-disastrous general election.

Peter Capaldi again plays muck-mouthed spin doctor Malcom Tucker, loosely based on Alastair Campbell. Iannucci has no doubt what Tucker would do if The Sun pulled last week's stunt and stopped supporting his party.

"He would probably ring Rupert Murdoch up and abuse him over the phone - in a way that no-one was ever done!

"It was funny what happened with The Sun. Two years ago, Cameron had Murdoch and co round to dinner. I think Murdoch saw Cameron as a bit of a lightweight, so this was Dave's turn to impress. It must have been a bit like a date," he suddenly burrs wonderingly on one of his accelerated thought strands.

Iannucci's focus has turned increasingly political.

His recent book and first film - 2009's In The Loop, a critically championed version of The Thick Of It - often describe the flimsy apparatus of what generally passes as the unquestionable in politics. The sharply-scripted film shows how government policies are hastily assembled by interns in press conference-bound motorcades.

Iannuccci maintains that this is justified by the facts. "I have been told by one senior civil servant that his cabinet minister sat them down and said, 'What policy ideas have you got for me?' Then one person came up with one idea and another person came up with another idea, which was the complete opposite of the first one. The minister then said, 'OK, which one would go down best with the Daily Mail?'"

Iannucci has it in for Cameron.

"He likes to paint himself as

an everyday bloke, but his background is just politics. He is much more of a purely political animal than previous leaders.

"Once you get beyond that inner circle which he surrounds himself with, then you find the dark hordes of moat owners and draconian disciplinarians.

"I find that both chilling and amusing at the same time."

It's this duality which transports Iannucci from soap-box bore to modern comedy's deftest puppet-master - for it's he who wears the mask, not Morris, as he sits at his desk and writes another actor into the limelight.