Armando Iannucci recently visited Homerton College for a speaker event with Robin Bunce, a politics fellow at the CollegeHomerton College with permission for Varsity

“What’s his area, Dr Who?” Armando Iannucci asks me, pointing at the almost life-size Tardis cut-out looming behind him as he takes off his headphones and coat. We meet in the memorabilia-scattered office of Robin Bunce, a politics fellow at Homerton, or, as he later describes himself to Iannucci, Cambridge’s authority on Daleks.

The teenage bedroom atmosphere of the room, as Godzilla figures perch on biographies of British civil rights heroes, suits my relationship to Iannucci’s career well. Of his many colossal characters I discovered Alan Partridge first, when my dad showed me Alpha Papa one afternoon after secondary school, and have since grown up with Malcom Tucker, David Copperfield, and Stalin.

I begin by asking Iannucci about what is perhaps his most experimental project: an epic poem, begun in lockdown, charting the spectacle of government in the Covid years, featuring absurdist characters including Less Trust, Riches Sooner, and Matt Hemlock. Iannucci has made multiple additions to the poem since it began touring theatres to keep it up to date with current affairs, adapting traditional dramatic forms to ultra-modern satire: “I liked the idea of it being a performance that this troupe put on: just a group of people who are putting on wigs and whatever, nothing too flash.”

Treating Boris Johnson as a character played half-heartedly by a group of amateurs is a smart way to avoid gratifying politicians with the aggrandised self-images they project. This is a tough balancing act, though, Iannucci tells me, as one can easily end up “reducing” them to “clowns or idiots,” and therefore absolving them of accountability. So, Iannucci decided: “Why don’t we treat them like gods and heroes and see how they measure up?” In a political landscape where Johnson and Donald Trump have become “entertainers,” the responsibility falls on satirists such as Iannucci to adapt, to point out the holes in “the logic of what they’re saying,” when satire has been claimed by the politicians.

“Why don’t we treat them like gods and heroes and see how they measure up?”

This changing balance can be seen beyond Iannucci’s own work, he tells me, pointing to Jon Stewart and Nish Kumar as “comedians who have become more like journalists”. When the politicians are “the people telling the jokes,” satirists have learned not to “compete,” and instead have to target “where something doesn’t make any sense or where the logic has fallen apart.”

In a column last year, Iannucci wrote that The Thick of It was created as a result of his intense anger at the Blair administration during the Iraq war – I ask him what kind of anger fuels his work now. Iannucci points to the pandemic as the moment which truly revealed the “horrifying” state of British politics. He remembers losing his mother during the lockdown, and feeling appalled at the politicians who continued as normal, leading to a realisation that politics is now “driven by faith rather than factual knowledge”. The “good chap theory of politics, which is that it works out as long as you’ve got a ‘good chap’ in charge,” came to a head during this period, Iannucci says, leading to leadership elections based on whether politicians share “the same set of beliefs” as voters, rather than possessing any competence: “You’re not going to run the country by going ‘I hate woke’, or ‘I really like Brexit’.”

“Politics is now driven by faith rather than factual knowledge”

The Thick of It, where each episode boils down to a minister trying to correct a mistake before anyone finds out about it, Iannucci says, wouldn’t work in this climate. Now, he believes, “politicians don’t mind if they’ve done something wrong. You know, they kind of rejoice in it”. A civil servant charged with covering up the events of an episode of The Thick Of It in 2024 wouldn’t even bother, he says: “They’ll just go, yeah, whatever. He’s got fruity language and, you know, he can’t work a keyboard. What can you do about it?”

Were Malcolm Tucker, the programme’s Alastair Campbell-esque political attack dog, brought into today’s world, he would be doing a podcast with his fictional opposite number, Stuart Pearson, Iannucci tells me. Such podcasts as The Rest Is Politics or Political Currency risk becoming “too cosy” by framing people as opponents who “don’t have an opposing point of view, they just have degrees of differences in opinion”. Today’s discourse has shied away from meaningfully trying to understand conflicting points of view, Iannucci believes: “I don’t think the Democrats are doing much to understand why people would be voting for Donald Trump other than calling them idiots. That’s not going to get them on your side. It would be good to see something that actually does bring people with different points of view together. But the golden rule is: don’t shout.”


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As we discuss what television we’ve been watching recently, I ask Iannucci for his perspective on the recent popularity of dramatic adaptations of recent politics, which cast Benedict Cumberbatch as Dominic Cummings or Gillian Anderson (and Ruth Wilson) as Emily Maitliss – why are these preferred over satire? “I think it’s because it gets viewers and it’s cheaper,” he admits, “I mean, comedy is expensive, right?” Drama is the “safer” option, with production companies shying away from the “risk of comedy,” which Iannucci says is automatically judged more harshly by the viewer: “You don’t watch a drama and go ‘wow, this is dramatic’, whereas you watch a comedy and either go ‘this is funny’, or ‘this isn’t funny’.” But, “some of them are really good,” Iannucci admits, expressing his admiration for the practical good achieved by Mr Bates vs the Post Office, which reminds him of Ken Loach’s work on the housing crisis in the 1960s. However, watching these programmes, Iannucci can’t help but wait for the punchlines: “They all look a bit like The Thick of It, but there’s no jokes.”