In Conversation with Armando Iannucci About ‘The Armando Iannucci Shows’ and Nothing Else

Chatting with one of the greatest minds in British comedy about his most overlooked series.

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12 May 2016, 6:05am

Going to have to be honest here: there's quite a weak news hook for this one. Most interviews have a news hook – you know, the person in question is launching a new film or TV show – but in this instance: no. Armando Iannucci had absolutely no good reason to be talking to me. He's doing nothing actively newsworthy now, instead working on the pre-production for a new film – due next year, called The Death of Stalin – and doing all those last-minute bits, all the script rewrites, casting actors and so forth that goes into something like this. I mean, a cynic might suggest that taking time out of his busy schedule to talk to me was actively detracting from that. That my presence at his offices in Fitzrovia was actively making planning for his new project harder, making the final cut – like a butterfly wing flap leading to a tornado – legitimately, measurably worse. A cynic would say that.

I was there to talk about his 2001 series The Armando Iannucci Shows, following a small revival of the programme after it was repeated on NOW TV earlier this year (you can watch every episode on All4). The Armando Iannucci Shows are a personal favourite from the Iannucci canon – densely packed and edited, surreal and covering huge, sprawling themes (episode titles include "Morality", "Reality" and "Twats"), TAIS deserves to be considered up there among those turn-of-the-millennium comedy greats, quoted as much as your mates quote The Office and Partridge, enjoyed on hangovers just as much as Spaced.

But TAIS is an often-overlooked piece of comedy history. The reasons are twofold: the eight-episode series came out around the 11th of September, 2001, which for obvious reasons meant it was overshadowed somewhat, shunted around the schedules to accommodate the news reports and their aftermath. Also, due to music rights disputes, the release of the DVD was delayed by five years. Despite that, in the cracks of all those obstacles TAIS built up a cult little following along the way and deserves a second life online. I spoke to Armando about CGI, Hugh, performing in front of a room full of unimpressed children, life, and also death.

VICE: [I asked a question before turning on the Dictaphone, but we can go ahead and assume it was pretty much, "So The Armando Iannucci Shows, eh?"]
Armando Iannucci: I'm very proud of it. It came out the exact same time as the tragic events of September the 11th, so it got overshadowed a bit. But I think people at the time didn't know what to make of it, so it sort of came and went, which was a bit strange, because we spent two years working on it. So I'm kind of pleased that it's not gone away – that it's kind of coming back in a strange way.

I've been re-watching a couple of episodes in preparation for this, and what I noticed was how dense it is – there are so many sketches and interstitials crammed into each 22-minute episode. I'm guessing a lot of that is to do with the two-year lead up?
It started off as eight themes and a splurge of ideas, and short little films. I remember lots of index cards. I'd be interested to compare the eventual thing to what was originally. The edit took about another six months, just trying to make sense of all the ideas. I wanted it not to feel like a sketch show; I had to feel like there was kind of a story or an argument going along, and actually the edit process was about constructing that argument and recording extra bits to push it further along.

I just get restless if I watch something and it's a really good idea but it's not turning into anything else. I feel that with a lot of really good shows – I sort of think: 'Why are you in the fourth season of this?' But that's another thing, that's a whole commercial conversation.

With so many ideas flying about, were there times where you came up with something and told [writers Kevin Cecil and Andy Riley], and they just had blank faces?
No, no, no, they love all that – they love all the pitching in, anything that involves lots of little different ideas, they love. Like when I said, "I want to shoot lots of people at different stages saying insults like 'shit weasel,'" we got out there and did it.

Those bits seem like they almost have the energy of the idea behind them.
Yeah, I think that just getting people in a room and chucking ideas around – I kind of want to preserve that when we're shooting, so it doesn't feel like we've flattened it all and made it proper and a bit rehearsed. I kind of want to make it feel like it's fresh in people's minds.

Watching it back, there was one really boring thing taking over my mind, which was: 'What are the logistics of putting something like this together?'
Yeah, it went on for so long – I mean, we did it in chunks; we knew we wanted to do certain sketches, such as "The Village Sniper", all the big things, the big set pieces: "The Dance of the Dead", all that. But it was the little things, using – this shows how dated it was – using index cards for notes and stuff. It reached a point where the bulk of the filming we did was over the winter, and then we did some editing and some more writing, then I had to go back in in high-summer and shoot an extra link, wearing what I was wearing in winter. It was real layers of clothes and big woolly jumpers in the baking heat, and I just thought, 'How did I end up...'

The one that struck me today was how surreal it must have been to film some of these segments: I was watching episode three, where there's a children's party where the puppets start stripping, and I was just thinking: 'This is very weird.'
There's an East End thug sketch like that – there's a deleted scene where there's a coma victim, and she plays him a tape which is the East End thug just threatening him to come back into consciousness, and it's been used ages ago, just looped on some kind of dance track [Rusko's "Cockney Thug"]. You think, 'How did this happen?'

There's a great East End thug sketch where he comes and threatens your washing machine, then threatens your kettle, and there's a little bit where you can see you in the background starting to break.
Well, there's a lot of that going on: fortunately the camera is on him at that time. We're in this tiny house, and I can remember the crew just laughing because they're all just thinking, 'What the hell is this?' And he [actor Alan Ford] is such a lovely guy, but he's such a big presence when he gets going, and we're in this tiny room, and he was shouting at a washing machine.

It's such a surreal set up, but it completely makes sense on screen. Did you struggle in the early stages to explain the show to people? Everyone seemed to be on the same wavelength, even in the really tiny bits, like the sketch with Hale and Pace.
Yeah, they were well into it, and they really understood that less is more – that we'll shoot the bulk of you from far, far away and just let you get on with it. We did a little bit of rehearsal but they were really just into it. And especially the older actors, afterwards, so many of them just came up and said, "I've had the best time – you've had me shouting, drunken, falling off a bucking bronco." They just had the best time.

How did you pitch the show to Channel 4?
Well, they gave me some money to do a little taster, so I did a couple of scenes, one of which was the middle-age men's home. So we spent a day shooting that. I said: I just want to do stories, some of it will be very naturalistic, but there will be an element of strangeness to the naturalism to them, like the knife fight reunion. Others will be fantastical: I want to use special effects but incorporate it in the comedy. I think they were up for it; they said, "Okay, the best way to explain it is for you to make some of it, so here's money to do two days of filming." So that's what we did – we got two or three little things out of that, and then they said, "Yes, I can see precisely what this is."

But tying it all together – it's quite conceptual.
Yeah, it sort of is and it isn't. In that, you can say it's all about abstract sort of existential notions of how people perceive you, or how society behaves and so on, but I think hopefully it's actually touching on human behaviour that's very recognisable. A lot of the "Twats" one is based on my experience of growing up, never being interested in fashion and trends, and always being told that I'm very middle aged in what I wear or just uncool, and being paranoid that you're going to be found out at some point, and you've somehow managed to get through life without people going, "You're shit!" And I think it's all true. I do always flinch when I go past a game of football in the park. It's so interesting – the number of people who then just pick up on it and say, "That's happened to me," or, "It happened again yesterday."

There are also big themes of life, and death, and faith, and morality in there. I was talking to my friend who's just finishing Chris Morris' book, and he said there's a whole bit where the two of you bonded over religion, how you two had both flirted with Catholicism.
Well, he and I both went to Jesuit schools – they were schools where a lot of the teachers were Jesuits – and we shared some of the same teachers, even though he grew up England and I grew up in Scotland. There were only three or four Jesuit schools, and he's a year older than me, so actually we shared very similar experiences. I didn't know that when I got in touch with him. I'd moved to London and was a radio producer, and had heard him on what was GLR at the time, which is BBC Radio London, and he was doing spoof news and spoof DJs and so on. I just got in touch with him saying I want to do a spoof news show on the radio and we just sort of clicked. It was interesting: we shared an interest in radio and the sound of comedy, and the texture of it, not just the scripting but the whole production value of it. Then we had these other kind of shared experiences, which was really interesting. I remember he had this huge, clapped-out old Merc – a battered second-hand, fifth-hand thing – and I met him at Broadcasting House and he couldn't park it, so we just drove past Broadcasting House in a loop for two hours, just chatting. It was kind of symbolic, really, because we were chatting about radio comedy and Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy and stuff like that. It was interesting.

You don't see some of those themes – life and death – in every comedy.
I sort of think, 'I don't see that in other stuff, so it may be quite good to do that.' Why do stuff that you've already seen, in terms of its style or the tone of it? I tend to try to do stuff in a way that feels a little bit different from the usual. It might be a kind of slightly low boredom threshold, but also I feel it's almost a challenge: when somebody tells me in production, "Well, the way we normally do it is..." I always think, 'Well, I don't want to do that then. Let's do it the exact opposite way.' Otherwise it's always the same.

I'm quite keen to do a film in that style: fantastical and yet naturalistic at the same time. Not necessarily something I'd be in, but something I'd direct and shape and have a voice in. I kind of like the idea now of doing a 90-minute thing like that.

There was a lot of great stuff coming out at the time, but yeah, The Armando Iannucci Shows still stands out for me as something quite unique in terms of tone and structure.
Yeah. Maybe you get a bit more of it in the late night, Adult Swim-type American stuff. Or Inside Amy Schumer – that does the long kind of playlets: they're more than sketches; they're mini episodes within a piece. And I think that's interesting. I think people are much more open to comedy coming in different formats now – it doesn't have to be a sitcom or a studio audience or a sketch, it can be all sorts. Just look at Louis C.K.'s sitcom.

It also featured a very modern use of you as the creator, a sort of character that's also half-you, half-character. The choice to have yourself in it – that was sort of a first for you...
Yeah, well I did the Friday Night Armistice on BBC2, so I fronted an audience, and that was me being me: telling jokes about politicians and stuff. I never really see myself as an actor, so I'd never really put myself as other people in the sketches – I was always playing me, or a version of me, because I'm comfortable with that. I wouldn't want to pretend to be a bishop or a police officer; I just feel very, very self conscious. It's funny, when we're rehearsing and we're improvising and maybe one of the cast isn't there and I step in, I just start laughing, because I can't keep it up. I can't look at people and shout at them like I'm acting. I just think I'm being very rude.

Can I ask about Hugh? Because obviously he's the best thing in it. Where did you find him?
Casting. We said, "We need someone who's old but can just absolutely nail these jokes," and we found Hugh. He had a varied career. I think when we saw him he'd just finished being a children's entertainer/puppeteer. But in a previous existence he looked after all the Bond vehicles – he drove them. And so he knew this whole acting side and the cameras, but he'd sort of left that behind to do more live stuff. But he wasn't phased by it all. He was great. I mean, we had to do lots of takes, but his timing: he knew what the joke was and what we were trying to do, and to play it down. When I did those two days of tests, and then we made a pilot [the first episode], it was when we did Hugh when I thought, 'Oh yes, here we go.'

That definitely feels like the bit that everyone can get. The whole bit with him knocking at the door, which is never explained, why he's coming into your house—
—is he like my best friend?

Exactly, with his soft little voice. Hugh is about the closest it gets in the show to a regular character. I suppose the other two closest approximations would be the barber and the East End thug.
Yeah. There were a few others that we felt we enjoyed in one thing and thought, 'We must bring them back,' like the guy Tony Gardner plays who comes up with an idea and just goes down to the room and just sits there. And we thought, 'He's just got to keep coming back in different situations, and he suggests something and it's just shot down.'

Like the bit where Jesus...

"Yeah, well we all get tired." That was my first, real moment as a director where I was dealing with lots and lots of actors – I think someone once did the numbers and figured it was something like 150 speaking parts. Dealing with 150 different types of people with different styles was great, and that's really why the next thing I wanted to do was something like The Thick of It, which was just the idea of getting a great ensemble cast together and doing stuff with them.

Because you can see that a lot of the recurring actors are just really on it in every sketch – particular highlights are the "We're So Good At Telly" group and everyone in the opening episode's dinner party sketch, which is an amazing sketch even before it goes surreal and you start finding notes in your pie.
I remember filming that and it being both horrible and really funny at the time – but us all having to drink lots of soup, just endless soup. Actually, I got so full that I really couldn't get my words out, which added to me just falling apart and not being able to be as funny as Stephen Mangan or anyone else there.

It's one of the very few British comedies that has used anything more than a hint of CGI or computer graphics. Was that a choice you and the writers made right from the start?
It was, yeah. It wasn't going to be a big thing, but if we were going to do a fantastical show – the real and yet the strange yoked together – we've got to make that work. We developed it more in something like Time Trumpet, where it was all set in the future and we were mashing up. You get a little bit of it in The Friday Armistice, too – it was just on the cusp of these things becoming just about technically possible for a reasonable price. Five years previously, it would have cost a fortune. I love the whole idea of playing about with different textures and doing one sketch that is just black and white photos, and another one – like the "Viewers in Scotland" thing – as a bizarre kind of other world. It was the first time I'd actually worked with a storyboard artist on some of the sketches, just because you had to work out how we're going to see each of these shots, and how we're going to do it, what shots we're after and what shots we don't have to worry about, and what needs to be special effects. I found that really interesting, and I found that another way of writing in a way – when you sit down and storyboard – because you start coming up with further thoughts as you're doing it.

What was the writing process like?
A lot of the sketches started when I just had a piece of music, and I thought, 'What's the sketch?' for that piece of music. So we storyboarded in such a way that we actually cut to the music and knew what bit you were going to see at each bar and so on.

There are a few people who I've struck up conversations with about the show, and there are always certain sketches that seem really iconic to a few people. My personal favourite is "The Great Adult".

I think we shot that twice, because the first time we shot it with all the kids it was at the end of the day, and I was really tired, and we shot the bulk of it, but we realised in the edit that I just had to go back and get some more. So we went back to the place but with no kids. It was just, like, the weirdest thing – being dressed like that in front of a class, and just going, "It's an acceptable pasta sauce!" And because it was a long day, everyone was really tired and not interested whatsoever. And I'm just going, "Va voo va!" and I just remember a look of utter contempt from children and adults, apart from one or two people who were laughing. And then of course they never heard anything about it until two years later.

Another stand-out was the pole-vaulting...
You just think, 'How long have you trained to do that, and can't do it?' Shouldn't you just... do something else?

But do pole-vaulters genuinely haunt your...
It just struck me watching them. It struck me: they do those build ups, they do this, then they don't go over, they don't vault over the pole, and you sort of think: 'That's a bit embarrassing, because there's nothing else we're expecting you to do.' "How did it go today?" "... I didn't vault over the pole."

"All my sponsors are disappointed."
"You should take drugs!"

You can watch The Armando Iannucci Shows on All 4.

@joelgolby

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