Armando Iannucci is Britain’s most influential satirist. The writer-director who helped introduce the word “omnishambles” into our political lexicon, Iannucci is best known for his BBC sitcom The Thick of It, which portrayed the chaos of government, and its American equivalent Veep, a show about the US vice presidency that ended in 2019, when reality started to prove stranger than fiction.
Over three decades, Iannucci’s acid pen has spared no facet of the establishment. He first made his name with broadcast news parodies On the Hour (1991) and The Day Today (1994), as well as the cult mockumentary Time Trumpet (2006). He was also the co-creator 0f the country’s most quotable radio presenter, Alan Partridge.
So why has he now turned to costume drama?
I met Iannucci in an airless meeting room in London at the end of a long day promoting his third film as director, The Personal History of David Copperfield. Exuding the impish energy for which he is known, he told me he had always seen Dickens as a comic writer first and foremost.
“We have this image of Dickens as being a long-winded Victorian novelist who talks about fog and mud and urchins and factories,” he said, waving his arms around to set the scene, his shirt sleeves rolled up to the elbows. “But he’s funny and inventive.”
The story of David Copperfield – a serialised novel of 1849-50 that chronicles the title character’s journey from birth to middle age and his struggle to become a writer – still feels “fresh and modern” to Iannucci.
He outlined the Dickensian drama clichés he wanted to avoid in his film. “The kind of flourish at the beginning! The clopping of the horses! The camera sweeping up and someone going, ‘Get yer paper ‘ere!’”
Once in costume, some extras on set instinctively began “strolling slowly, like you see in paintings,” Iannucci grinned. “Nobody walks like that! Just walk! To the characters in the film, it’s the present day, they’re not ‘old-fashioned’.”
The 56-year-old first began reading Dickens at the Hillhead public library in Glasgow. He was born in 1963 to a family of Italian migrants who had settled in the city, where his father ran a pizza-making factory. It was at the library where Iannucci received his “literary and musical education”.
Borrowing records and books, he discovered classical music, especially the works of Bach and Mahler. Iannucci was a studious child. His idea of rebellion was listening to Wagner rather than to his parents’ preferred composers Verdi and Puccini.
Educated at a private Jesuit school in the 1970s, Iannucci considered becoming a Roman Catholic priest. Instead, he attended the University of Oxford at 17, where he achieved a First in English literature.
In 1988, after three years of doctoral research on the 17th-century English poet John Milton, Iannucci left academia for comedy, after the BBC talent-spotted him following a string of university comedy shows.
“At school I was very bookish, but I could make people laugh and impersonate the teachers,” he recalled. “If you’re not sporty or part of that group, if you’re making people laugh then you’re not a complete nothing – you acquire some kind of status.”
Still, Iannucci has always felt like an outsider, believing he would eventually be “found out” for lacking any real talent.
“I always had this impostor syndrome. It’s a strange thing, because I have confidence but I also lack confidence. I know how to make something, but part of me is also thinking ‘yeah, but it will be terrible’.
“You can’t shake it off, but you try and make it a background noise that you can get used to, like living near a busy airport: you block the noise of the planes out after a while.”
This feeling of “status anxiety” is what drew Iannucci to David Copperfield, whose protagonist grapples with Victorian England’s suffocating social hierarchies.
In his adaptation, Iannucci’s multicultural cast encapsulates this struggle to belong: “In Dickens’s time, it was all about class – for us, growing up in immigrant families, it’s about, ‘Do we fit in? Do people see us as ‘us’ or ‘them’?’”
Copperfield is played by Dev Patel, a Londoner born to Gujurati Hindu parents who migrated from Kenya. “We had this conversation – is the character from an Indian family? Was his father Indian?” Iannucci explained. “I thought no! I want to find the person whose spirit is the character, irrespective of their background”.
Mid-19th century London was less white than we assume, anyway, Iannucci observed. “It’s the Industrial Revolution, it’s modern, the future is ahead, it’s the heart of a big industrial, trading nation – on the world stage!”
In July 2018, Iannucci came out in support of the People’s Vote campaign for a second EU referendum. He wants his film’s “celebration of community” to remind the country of its pre-Brexit reputation.
“It’s tempting to think Britain is an isolationist country at the moment, and I don’t think it is. It’s a generous, open and kind country that is allowed to make fun of itself.”
But when it comes to politics, Iannucci is despairing. “The rules don’t apply any more. Politicians feel they can just do anything, and that’s very troubling.” He lamented the “uninspiring selection” of party leaders in the 2019 general election. The man who built his career on mocking the powerful is no longer laughing. “It’s deadly serious. I’m very serious!”
This article appears in the 29 Jan 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Over and out