Armando Ianucci - extended interview

A longer version of this week's NS interview

How was it, being nominated for an Oscar?
It was nice. Everyone gets together and it's a bit chaotic. And you end up squashing Meryl Streep's toe.

How did your film, In the Loop, fare in the US?
It seemed to go well. You know, packed cinemas, people laughing, people going back to see it again. I couldn't believe it.

Do Americans get British comedy?
There's a familiarity with it - I met people in the US who knew The League of Gentlemen and Peep Show. In LA, as I was going through customs with my Oscars certificate, the customs guy went: "Hey, you been at the Oscars?" I said, "Yeah," and he said, "What was the film?" I said, "In the Loop." And he said: "I saw that! Aw, funny film. I'm a screenwriter."

Which US comedies do you like?
The best ones are things like The Daily Show, which is very sharp.

Does comedy provide the best political analysis?
A lot of Americans get their journalism from The Daily Show. But then, Jon Stewart does a journalistic service, underneath the comedy. Going through hours of senators' speeches to find the inconsistencies and the contradictions is an act of journalism.

Has journalism lost the patience for that?
We've stopped thinking, "Shall we look at the last four months and see if there's been a pattern?" Everything has to be fresh -- there's a need to fill blog space, Twitter and podcasts. I suppose the internet has given us more outlets for stuff to be in the public domain. And once something is in the public domain, respectable journalists feel they can then report it as fact. But no one's verifying this public domain.

Do you feel a responsibility, as a comedian, to examine the bigger picture?
I slightly resent that that's what we have to do -- it should be someone else's job. With In the Loop, I felt an objective analysis hadn't happened before the invasion [of Iraq]. Then, after the fact, quite respectable newspapers were apologising for getting it wrong.

What makes comedians good political analysts?
Comedy is all about exaggeration and distortion and so on, but you're trained to look for inconsistencies and absurdities. Politicians are now trained to not say anything, in case it's used against them.

Which absurdities have you noticed recently?
I watched Andrew Rawnsley talking about his book, and John Prescott was having a go at him for claiming there was bullying going on. I was thinking,"You punched a guy!" It just felt silly.

Is it still possible to take politicians seriously?
I don't know. I often think we expect too much of our politicians. Think how mad the job of prime minister is. We expect them to run defence, hospitals, schools, the cabinet, the party, 24 hours a day. We don't like it if they sound incoherent or look tired. We don't want them to claim for anything on expenses, we don't like them getting <itals>any<end itals> money, we hate it when they go on holiday. Actually, we're being absurd. There is no way you can operate in that world, with that level of expectation, without failing.

Do we treat them unfairly?
Barack Obama's an interesting example. He took a month and a half to decide what to do about Afghanistan, and got really criticised. I just thought, "No, hang on, he's being criticised for thinking." Because obviously the gut reaction that George Bush used really worked.

How do you feel about David Cameron?
I think he's sub-Blair, really. Tony Blair manipulated the media, but he had two or three core beliefs. There was a sort of passion there I could understand. I don't know what Cameron's beliefs are, other than: "I'd like to win the next election, please." And: "I'd like to do it the way Blair did it."

What about the Tories more generally?
Beyond one or two who appear human, the army of old Tory orcs is still there, complaining about the public on trains. It worries me: what they plan to do with the BBC, their connection with the Murdoch agenda, that their chancellor would be someone who doesn't really have much experience.

Do you think of yourself as a satirist?
Satire, for me, is a black-and-white programme with Dudley Moore in it. As a kid, that's what I really liked. Monty Python, Not the Nine O'Clock News. I loved satirists like Swift and Dickens. My favourite comedies are ones like The Great Dictator, or Doctor Strangelove, which take on serious subjects. I'm happy for people to say, "You're a satirist." I just hate the idea of it as a profession, as if you're hauled in for your satirical take on stuff.

Are you tired of making comedy about politics?
The next thing I want to do is quite childish and slapsticky -- lots of falling over. It's not going to be people being hit by frying pans, but it's not set in the political world, and the people in it experience physical pain in a number of increasingly amusing ways.

How do you feel about the way the BBC is run?
They need to give more responsibility back to producers, to think about taking risks. Viewers don't want comedy to be overly cautious. I think they can tell when something's a bit bland or whether it's pulling its punches.

Do you vote?
Yes.

Is there anything you regret?
I regret not taking a year out. Touring, travelling around, getting a job, doing something completely different. I spent about ten years being totally conventional as a result.

Is there a plan?
No, there's never been a plan. Most things just evolved.

Are we all doomed?
No, I'm still an optimist, really.

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

Ralph Steadman for the New Statesman.
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Tim Farron: Theresa May is "the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party"

The Liberal Democrat leader on his faith, Blairism and his plan to replace Labour as the opposition. 

This is Tim Farron’s seventh general election. His first was in 1992, when his Tory opponent was a 36-year-old called Ther­esa May. He was just 21 and they were both unsuccessful candidates in the Labour fortress of North-West Durham. He recalls talking “to a bunch of ex-miners who weren’t best pleased to see either of us, some kid Liberal and some Tory”. Now he sees his former and current opponent as “the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party . . . I think it has rendered Ukip almost pointless – she is Ukip now.”

May was elected to parliament in 1997, but it took Farron until 2005 to join her. She leads the dominant Conservatives while he heads a party of only nine Liberal Democrat MPs. Still, their reversal of fortunes gives him hope. “After the 1992 election, every­one said there’s no way for a non-Tory government, and it turned out there was. So let’s not assume it’s a given there’s a Tory government [for ever].”

In April, I accompanied Farron to Manchester Gorton, in the lead-up to a by-election that was cancelled by May’s decision to call a snap election on 8 June. Still, the 46-year-old’s party has been in campaign mode for months; Lib Dems spoke of using last December’s Richmond Park by-election to test their messaging. It clearly had an effect: the incumbent Conservative, Zac Goldsmith, lost to their candidate, Sarah Olney.

Brexit, to which the Liberal Democrats are vehemently opposed, will be a dominant theme of the election. Their party membership has just exceeded 100,000, close to an all-time high, and they have enjoyed much success in council by-elections, with more to come in the local elections of 4 May.

However, any feel-good factor swiftly evaporated when Farron appeared on Channel 4 News on 18 April. He was asked by the co-presenter Cathy Newman whether or not he believes that homosexuality is a sin, a question that he answered obliquely in 2015 by saying that Christianity started with acknowledging that “we’re all sinners”.

This time, he told Newman, he was “not in the position to make theological announcements over the next six weeks . . . as a Liberal, I’m passionate about equality”.

The Channel 4 interview divided opinion. One Liberal politician told me that Farron’s stance was “completely intolerable”. Stephen Pollard, the influential editor of the Jewish Chronicle, described it as
“a very liberal position: he holds certain personal views but does not wish to legislate around them”. Jennie Rigg, the acting chair of LGBT+ Liberal Democrats, said it was “as plain as the nose on my face that Tim Farron is no homophobe”.

Farron declined the chance to clarify his views with us in a follow-up phone call, but told the BBC on 25 April: “I don’t believe that gay sex is a sin,” adding, “On reflection, it makes sense to actually answer this direct question since it’s become an issue.”

For his critics, Farron’s faith and politics are intertwined. He sees it differently, as he told Christian Today in 2015: “. . . the danger is sometimes that as a Christian in politics you think your job is to impose your morality on other people. It absolutely isn’t.”

Tim Farron joined the then Liberal Party at the age of 16 but didn’t become a Christian until he was 18. Between completing his A-levels in Lancashire and going to Newcastle University to read politics, he read the apologetics, a body of Christian writing that provides reasoned arguments for the gospel story. “I came to the conclusion that it was true,” he told me. “It wasn’t just a feel-good story.”

In speeches, Farron now takes on the mannerisms of a preacher, but he had a largely non-religious upbringing in Preston, Lancashire. “I don’t think I’d been to church once other than Christmas or the odd wedding,” he says. “I went once with my dad when I was 11, for all the good that did me.”

When we meet, it is Theresa May’s religion that is in the spotlight. She has condemned the National Trust for scrubbing the word “Easter” from its Easter egg hunt, a row it later emerged had been largely invented by the right-wing press in response to a press release from a religious-themed chocolate company.

“It’s worth observing there’s no mention of chocolate or bunny rabbits in the Bible,” Farron reminds me. “When people get cross about, in inverted commas, ‘us losing our Christian heritage’ they mean things which are safe and comfortable and nostalgic.” He pauses. “But the Christian message at Easter is shocking, actually, and very radical.”

British politics is tolerant of atheists (such as Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg) alongside those who, like David Cameron, are culturally Christian but whose faith is “a bit like the reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns: it sort of comes and goes”. But the reaction to Farron’s equivocation on homosexuality prompted many to wonder if a politician who talks openly about his faith is now seen as alarming. Nebulous wishes of peace and love at Christmas, yes; sincere discussions of the literal truth of the Resurrection? Hmm.

Tim Farron’s beliefs matter because he has a mission: to replace not only Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the opposition but Theresa May in Downing Street. Over lassis at the MyLahore curry house in Manchester, he tells me that Britain is facing two calamities. “One is Brexit, indeed hard Brexit . . . and the other is a Tory government for 25 years. We have to present a genuine, progressive alternative that can not only replace Labour as an opposition, it can replace the Tories as a government.” This is ambitious talk for a party with nine MPs. “I understand the ridicule that will be thrown at me for saying those things: but if you don’t want to run the country, why are you in politics?” He pauses. “That’s a question I would ask most people leading the Labour Party at present.”

What does he think of May, his one-time opponent in North-West Durham? “She strikes me as being very professional, very straightforward, somebody who is very conservative in every sense of the word, in her thought processes, her politics, in her style.” He recalls her 2002 conference speech in which she warned Tory activists: “Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies. You know what some people call us: the nasty party.”

“In many ways, she was the trailblazer for Cameron in being a softer-focused Tory,” he says. “It now looks like she’s been trapped by the very people she was berating as the nasty party all those years ago. I like to think that isn’t really her. But that means she isn’t really in control of the Conservative Party.”

Voters, however, seem to disagree. In recent polls, support for the Conservatives has hovered between 40 and 50 per cent. Isn’t a progressive alliance the only way to stop her: Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru all working together to beat the Tories?

“Let’s be really blunt,” he says. “Had Jeremy Corbyn stood down for us in Richmond Park [where Labour stood Christian Wolmar], we would not have won. I could have written Zac Goldsmith’s leaflets for you: Corbyn-backed Liberal Democrats.

“I’m a pluralist,” he adds. “But any progressive alliance has got to be at least equal to the sum of its parts. At the moment, it would be less than the sum of its parts. The only way the Tories are losing their majority is us gaining seats in Hazel Grove –” he ticks them off with his fingers, “– in Cheadle, in the West Country and west London. There’s no chance of us gaining those seats if we have a kind of arrangement with the current Labour Party in its current form.”

What about the SNP? “Most sensible people would look at that SNP manifesto and agree with 99 per cent of it,” Farron says. “But it’s that one thing: they want to wreck the country! How can you do a deal with people who want to wreck the country?”

There’s no other alternative, he says. Someone needs to step up and offer “something that can appeal to progressive younger voters, pro-Europeans and, you know, moderate-thinking Middle England”. He wants to champion a market economy, strong public services, action on climate change, internationalism and free trade.

That sounds like Blairism. “I’m a liberal, and I don’t think Blair was a liberal,” he replies. “But I admire Blair because he was somebody who was able to win elections . . . Iraq aside, my criticisms of Blair are what he didn’t do, rather than what he did do.”

Turning around the Tory tide – let alone with just nine MPs, and from third place – is one hell of a job. But Farron takes heart from the Liberal Party in Canada, where Justin Trudeau did just that. “I’m not Trudeau,” he concedes, “He was better-looking, and his dad was prime minister.”

There is a reason for his optimism. “I use the analogy of being in a maze,” he says, “You can’t see a way out of it, for a progressive party to form a majority against the Tories. But in every maze, there is a way out. We just haven’t found it yet.” 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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