Writer and director Armando Iannucci, 58, was born in Glasgow to Scottish-Italian parents. He studied philosophy and English before abandoning his doctorate at Oxford to pursue a comedy career. His Radio 4 news spoof with Chris Morris, On the Hour, transferred to TV as The Day Today. Now a leading figure in British comedy, his creations include the Bafta-winning political comedy The Thick of It, its Emmy-winning US equivalent, Veep, and the films The Death of Stalin and The Personal History of David Copperfield. Iannucci’s sci-fi sitcom Avenue 5 is about to return for a second series.
The Day Today and The Thick of It often seem prophetic. Do you ever look at current affairs and think, “That’s familiar”?
Yes, but if you go back and look at Yes, Minister, it’s the same old stories: Europe, cuts, fights with the Treasury. These things come back around. Fundamentally, it’s people spending so much time thinking about how they’re going to gain power that they haven’t thought about what to do when they have it. They end up falling back on their set of beliefs from 20 years ago when they first went into politics, not realising the world’s changed and they’re desperately out of date.
It’s become a cliche that “politics is beyond satire”. Do you believe that?
No, it’s how you approach it. If you try to dramatise current events, it will quickly date. Nowadays, the news moves faster than the last season of Game of Thrones. So either you get fast turnaround satire on social media – Cassetteboy, Led By Donkeys, Rosie Holt’s spoof Tory MP or Michael Spicer’s The Room Next Door, which are all great – or the more considered, analytical style of John Oliver. Not so much looking at what happened today but where it fits in. Framing the joke and giving it context. That influenced my thought process on Avenue 5 – it’s about going forward in time and away from the planet, then looking at it again from a wider perspective.
Who else makes you laugh in comedy?
Jon Stewart. Real Time With Bill Maher. Stewart Lee is always good fun. Good fun? He’d love his act being described as “good fun”.
Because of the pandemic it’s been a long wait for series two of Avenue 5. Was that frustrating?
A bit. It was stop-start but we finally got it done in late 2021. The upside was that we had lots of time to hone the scripts so, like Liz Truss, we could hit the ground running from day one. And look how that turned out.
It’s about people trapped together on a spaceship, which was strangely like lockdown. Did you change the scripts to reflect that?
Yeah, it feels more claustrophobic. It’s about how these characters are coping with being stuck together. Some people, who you think would be great, actually handle it badly. Others, who you think will be destroyed by it, end up rising to the occasion. It’s also about cooperation.
Isn’t the Guardian’s Marina Hyde on the writing team?
Yes! She was for season one, as well. She’s hysterically funny. But you don’t need me to tell you that.
Were you a big sci-fi fan growing up?
I loved HG Wells, Isaac Asimov and Arthur C Clarke. I’d spend all my pocket money on Marvel comics because I was a Spider-Man and Fantastic Four nut. And the rebooted Battlestar Galactica is one of my all-time favourites. I like what’s called “hard sci-fi”, which doesn’t break the rules of physics. There’s no teleporting or aliens with American accents.
So is Avenue 5 scientifically plausible?
We based it all on physics. The whole reason they’re stuck in space is because everything depends on getting the right trajectory as you swing around a planet or a moon. If you’re knocked off course by 1%, you can be thrown into oblivion. In season one they jettisoned a coffin but didn’t fire it fast enough, so it doesn’t escape the ship’s gravitational pull and ends up orbiting outside. I was delighted when Star Trek’s science consultant tweeted that she’d stayed up all night doing the maths and we got it right. When we did The Thick of It and Veep, we’d go to Whitehall or Washington to do our research. For Avenue 5 we went around SpaceX, Virgin Galactic and Nasa, asking annoying questions.
What was the best thing you learned?
I asked one scientist how they protect from radiation in space and he said: “Human waste. It’s actually a very good insulator.” So trips to Mars will involve us all having to cack like Billy Fury in order to fill the walls with human waste.
You’ve made a David Copperfield film and a BBC documentary about Dickens. Do you reread his work much?
I probably read or reread one novel each year. I’m currently halfway through Barnaby Rudge. I’m putting off Our Mutual Friend, his last full novel, because I like the idea of there still being an unread Dickens novel.
What would Dickens make of the cost-of-living crisis?
It is very Dickensian. He’d treat it seriously and with anger. He’d have ridiculousness going on in government. A parade of thinktank experts, all slightly manic, speaking in strange monetary language that no one else can understand. They’d impress people in power with their cleverness, then No 10 would be gobsmacked when their ideas don’t work and turn out to be deeply stupid. But Dickens would also portray the effects of it in people’s homes with real feeling and conviction.
You made The Death of Stalin five years ago. What’s your view of events in Ukraine?
Death of Stalin was us going back into the past to say: “Imagine if this happened again, let’s hope it doesn’t.” And here we are. We’ve got Soviet-style approval referendums with miraculous results in favour of Russia. We filmed a lot in Kyiv, so it’s sad seeing the city go through that again. One reason I made the film was as a reminder that we shouldn’t assume democracy is here for ever. It’ll only survive if you keep defending it and renewing it. We need to persuade the next generation why democracy is important and how to engage in it.
You’ve handed over the reins of Alan Partridge, but do you keep up with the Alan universe?
Just about. It’s lovely just being a viewer and listener of Partridge. When you make it, you’ve seen the guts of it from the start and watched it 150 times in the edit. It’s genuinely nice not knowing what the next line’s going to be.
What do you think of Steve Coogan playing Jimmy Savile in forthcoming BBC drama The Reckoning?
I think he’ll do a tremendous job. He showed me a brief snatch of it and it’s extraordinary. They’ve gone to a lot of trouble to get it right and make sure the story they’re telling is not an entertainment. It’s a document of events, trying to process it and understand how it was allowed to happen.
You’ve worked for the BBC and Channel 4. What do you think of Tory attacks on them?
The thing about these weird people who get off on monetary theory and enjoy cosplaying being chancellor or PM is that they are – spoiler! – very odd. They’re obsessed with politics but have no real enthusiasm for what everyone else does, which is watch telly. Therefore they don’t understand why things like the BBC are important to people. It’s like how they don’t understand our connection to the NHS. It’s part of the fabric of our country. Clipping the wings of these great organisations, which have unique potency all over the world, is just bizarre.
What are you working on at the moment?
A script for a film that I hope to shoot quite soon. It’s set in the world of social media.
Isn’t there a gestating novel?
Gestation implies a period of six to eight months. This has been gestating for 15 years. I have ADHD, which explains why I can only work to deadlines. With a novel there is no deadline.
Is your ADHD a recent diagnosis?
Fairly recent. Only because my kids were diagnosed, then they looked at me and thought: “Hang on…” There’s not much I can do about it, but it explains the past 30 years – how I’ve worked out a series of strategies, why I tend to juggle several projects at once. It also explains why I’m always a bit tired, because I’m living off adrenaline.
You once considered joining the priesthood. How close did you come?
Oh, remarkably unclose. It was kind of a whim. I went to a Jesuit school and when you’re a teenager, you get very passionate about certain things. Once it became clear you had to take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, I thought: Well, that’s never going to work!
You turn 60 next year. How do you feel about ageing?
It doesn’t bother me. My contemporaries who aren’t in comedy are talking about retirement but I can’t imagine that. You retire to do your hobbies but I’ve been blessed enough to do my hobby as a career. I also think I’ve only just got started, only just sussed it out.
How do you relax?
I zone out listening to classical music and read a lot. Just normal things. And, obviously, I go quad biking with Richard Hammond [laughs].
Avenue 5 is on Sky Comedy and Now from 30 November