How do you write political satire in the stranger-than-fiction age of Donald Trump? With great difficulty, it turns out. It hasn’t helped that the person most likely to land a meaningful blow – Armando Iannucci, perhaps the most penetrating political lampooner of our age – stepped out of the ring one year before that fateful election.
The Scottish comedy legend’s decision to leave Veep in 2015 undoubtedly robbed us of some great laughs and skewering insights. Probably a few unhinged tweet-storms, too. But it has also allowed Iannucci to push the spectre of Trump to one side, pop the Washington DC bubble and broaden his horizons. And that he most certainly has.
This month we welcome two very different projects from the Thick of It creator: a dystopian, Hugh Laurie-starring sci-fi sitcom set on a space ship, and big screen, Dev Patel-starring adaptation of David Copperfield. We sat down with the 56-year-old to discuss what it's like juggling them both, his love of Charles Dickens, and the chances of a reunion with Succession creator Jesse Armstrong.
Do you consider The Personal History of David Copperfield a departure from your usual output?
I don’t think it is. I grew up reading and loving Charles Dickens novels and seeing him as someone not afraid to look at political and state-of-the-nation issues in his novels. But I also saw him as a fantastic comic writer. So, for me it felt like a coming home really; dealing with stuff that I’m very familiar with and always have been.
How much of the Armando Iannucci stamp did you want – or not want – to put on it?
I wasn’t really setting out to take the book and then turn it into a – for want of a better phrase – something that was all me. I wanted to be respectful of what it was about the writing that really excited me and that I find really original and funny. It was about trying to do something in a film that still captured that kind of special magic that I saw in the writing.
Is there anything that you’d say you identify the most with in Dickens?
Well, rather like David [Copperfield], I always felt a bit like a fish out of water; like I didn’t quite fit in when I was growing up. Maybe it’s to do with first being an Italian in Scotland, and then being a Scot and going to university in England, and then as a Brit doing Veep in America. There’s always that sense of being slightly outside and slightly inside. And also the fact that I was, rather like David, someone who kind of fed off the characteristics of other people. I was always impersonating teachers at school and wanting to mimic anything distinctive that I saw in front of me.
Why did you want to do this film, in particular?
I never saw myself as someone who would be adapting other people’s work. I always saw myself as somebody who’d generate their own work. But then with the Death of Stalin, which was based on a French graphic novel, it worked really well. And I’d already decided in advance about that that I was keen to do David Copperfield as a film – I could see how I wanted to make it. But the experience of Death of Stalin, I felt I learnt so much that I grew in confidence with it. As soon as we wrapped, I said to everyone, ‘David Copperfield’s next. Want to come and join me?’ And thankfully, they all said yes.
Why did you think it was right time to pursue the project?
I feel like it’s a story that engages with now, not just in this whole searching for your own identity, but the themes of poverty and riches lying side by side and how it can all change overnight, the portrayal of hopelessness – these are very current issues. I wanted to make something that was primarily funny and about creativity, imagination and memory, but also that pointed out how issues that existed in 1840 sadly are still with us.
Sky One/HBO’s Avenue 5 also debuted this week. What’s it like to be able to switch back and forth between TV and movies?
I do feel that they’re two different parts of the brain that you use. With television, you know when it’s happening, how much it costs, how long it’s going to be, you know when it’s going out. With film, you don’t know any of those things. You don’t know when it’s being made, if it’s going to be made, who’s in it, who will show it, where it will be shown. It’s all uncertain. And also, with film, you just get one chance to tell the story. There is no pilot film and four seasons of the film. You just tell it once, so you approach it with a different level of thinking well in advance of every particular detail. And finally, the end result with television, you never meet your audience; with film, you have to actually go out and sell it, go into cinemas, do question-and-answers, meet your audience afterwards. I find that very refreshing.
Now, about Avenue 5.
Yes, I’m in this strange process of doing two different press campaigns at once.
It must be confusing. So, without having seen the full series, is outer space such a far cry from the craziness of Washington DC?
Not really. I mean, it’s not an overtly political show, but all decent sci-fi is a commentary on now and that’s what this is. I’m really looking at crowd behaviour over the last two or three years. The public has grown very angry, dissatisfied, frustrated. This is all bubbling away and no one’s quite sure. There’s a lot of anxiety and nervousness around it. Plus the sense of this even bigger looming catastrophe approaching us in terms of the weather. I wanted to look at that.
So, what is happening on that spaceship, then?
I’m creating a kind of pressure cooker where six-and-a-half thousand people all have to come to terms with each other and work out how they not just survive, but how they get through each day. How does their new society work? Are the people who are in charge of the start of the show still in charge? Are the people who were in first class, still in first class? If somebody commits a crime, are they punished? And who decides heir punishment? Who is in charge of the law? What kind of law is it – space law? Earth law? As the show develops, it will go on to explore all these fundamental questions.
Jesse Armstrong, your long-term writing collaborator from The Thick Of It, In the Loop and Veep, has really come up in that 'Armando Iannucci' style of structured improvisation. What is your take on his success now with HBO’s Succession?
It’s an amazing show. I love it. I email him regularly, more or less after each episode, because they just get better and better. What a fantastic cast – Brian Cox, Matthew McFadden’s character is amazing; he’s my favourite character. Yeah, I think it’ great. Veep ended because it just felt like politically it was in a slightly different world; that world of politics has moved on. But I think Succession is a more apposite kind of commentary on now, anyway. That whole sense of power and grasping power and doing anything to hold onto power, bending the rules and breaking them if it’s necessary. I think it’s a fantastic show.
Will you two come back together again someday?
Hopefully. We’re always in touch. Just yesterday he sent me a very nice note about David Copperfield. I’d love to do something with him again.
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