The Onus On Us

talks politics, Partridge and Putin with Thick of It creator Armando Iannucci ahead of his new film, The Death of Stalin

Armando Iannucci is undoubtedly one of the most perceptive comic writers of our time. His ingenious entertainment, beloved since its explosion into British consciousness on radio and television in the early 90s, has always cast a shrewd eye on the absurdity of public life. His treasured characters live inescapably on the edge of influence, the neighbours of real success: the chat show host who can’t get a second series; the cabinet minister in the overlooked department; the Vice President of the United States. His new film, The Death of Stalin, will pick up this thematic thread once more, this time in the Kremlin’s fumbling attempts to fill the yawning power vacuum created by Stalin’s death. From the chronicles of Alan Partridge to the political crises of The Thick of It and Veep, Iannucci has been making an art out of the sublime pathos and schadenfreude of life’s silver medallists for decades.

But in a time when it’s become a cliché to note that the evening news is itself more absurd than satire, Iannucci’s public output has shifted into an altogether more earnest register. In recent appearances, the director has addressed contemporary political issues with a sense of impassioned sincerity. When, just after this year’s General Election result, Downing Street accidentally issued a premature announcement about a deal between the DUP and the Tories, Ed Miliband urged Iannucci to give up satire because the government is “doing a better job.” Iannucci replied saying “I gave up a while ago.” I ask him why.

Image: Chatham House

“I kind of really felt that once I’d done The Thick of It and Veep that I’d done enough of those shows and didn’t really want to carry on doing that sort of thing,” he begins to explain. “I only did those shows because I’m fascinated by politics and I care about it, but I found really at this stage I’d rather just write about why young people should have a vote, take part in the elections, and get more involved.” His work had to help bring his audience forward into this new political situation: “It did worry me, the amount of detachment people felt from the political process and the fact that they don’t feel they’re part of that conversation.”

Caring about politics at a time when it has become comedy, for Iannucci, means that there’s serious work to do. There’s an aspect to modern citizenship that really is no joke. He tells me, “It’s amazing that at school we’re not taught about how parliament works. We have sex education and ‘don’t do drugs’, but there’s no ‘here’s what the major parties stand for’ or ‘here’s how a by-election works’ and ‘here’s how government operates.’ It’s great that the number of people who voted [at the last general election] went up and the number of young voters went up. But there’s always a danger that they get mightily pissed off if nothing happens.”

It’s tempting to think of our contemporary moment as unusual, in some important way, somehow ripe for meaningful change. But are things really that different? Or is this just business as usual? Iannucci’s take is cautious: “I think with the outcome of the election a lot of people naturally assumed that that would therefore mean parties talking to each other, but that hasn’t really happened. The Conservatives have been doing a very Theresa May line, but also Jeremy Corbyn is sacking anyone who disagrees with him. I think there is a danger that in a year’s time, if things haven’t changed from the way they are at the moment, people will become disaffected again.”

Worrying about the detachment and disaffection that people feel from the political process seems like an unusual concern for a satirist famous for putting the absurd machinations of party politics to the sword. Does he feel that mainstream politics has become too cynical?

“All political manifestos are cynical attempts to capture as wide a vote as possible. Labour wanting to end university tuition fees is a cynical move to get the youth vote, and it worked. The fact that all the parties guarantee pensions is a cynical move to appeal to the older voter.” It’s hard to see a way around this. A certain duplicity undergirds every political communication in that they are necessarily acts of persuasion ahead of anything else.

Iannucci, though, thinks that we shouldn’t be deterred by the cynicism ensconced in politics: “It just puts the onus on us to examine a bit more what the differences are and therefore which manifesto appeals most really. It’s like saying ‘Advertising is horrible’, but if your uncle had a shop and wants to get customers, he’d put an ad in the paper. And similarly parties need to go out and sell themselves, and if they want to gain power they need the widest base of support they can get. What’ve got to try and work out is whether they’re trying to do that still holding to their gut principles, or if they’re just abandoning principles.”

Peter Capaldi as spin doctor Malcolm Tucker in Thick of It movie In The Loop

It’s difficult to imagine that cynical canvasing and political spin could ever be excised from a political process constantly under surveillance by sleepless media coverage. Do we just have to accept spin as a fact of modern politics? “Well,” Iannucci laughs, “We don’t have to live with it to this extent. The Thick of It was really about politicians being absolutely paranoid about how anything they did would come across, how it would be judged. Part of their problem was that they were living in fear that we were examining their every move. A lot of ministers get a daily digest in the morning of all the articles that are prepared in the press about them that day, and they read it, but it then means that they’re absolutely convinced that everyone else in the country is reading those same things about them as well, when in fact we’re not.”

There’s certainly a gap in the amount of consciousness the public gives to cabinet ministers and the amount they give themselves: “We don’t get up and go ‘let’s read everything about the Transport Secretary.’ We don’t do that. But because they get given this, they then live in this sort of fear of how they come across and how they’re being judged. If anything, I think that’s relaxed a bit. I don’t think there’s that extreme paranoia about the media that there used to be.”

Iannucci believes that this particular paranoia became prominent during New Labour’s tenure. “That’s when it hit its absolute height, that and the early Cameron years. Part of the reaction now of course is that we don’t want that. See how Theresa May was punished for trying to control the media focus during the election. Trying to make it about Brexit and ‘strong and stable’, and then controlling it so much that she wouldn’t even participate in certain events. Whereas Jeremy Corbyn’s success, I suppose, in the election was the image he cultivated of not being bothered by that kind of thing, of kind of making it up as he goes along!”

He continues: “Which in itself is a kind of image that’s been contrived, but it felt more him than Theresa May saying, ‘I had the balls to call a general election.’ ‘Balls’ is not really the kind of word I think Theresa May would use in private. It just felt a little bit like Ed Miliband a few years ago saying, ‘Do you think I’m tough enough? Hell yes I’m tough enough.’ Just stop it.”

What Iannucci seems to be searching for is authenticity. Authenticity which does not bother with the inanity of image perception. But for the meantime, it seems, image-driven politics rules – as does its downright absurdity. The media delights in reporting on the PR missteps of front-benchers, and we commensurately delight in the pantomime of it all as party apparatchiks scramble to cover internecine calamities. False statistics, embarrassing tweets, and unwittingly recorded remarks remain common currency in modern political reporting. It’s all terrifically amusing. Of course, the apotheosis of this amusement is Donald Trump, a man who Iannucci has previously described as a “self-basting satirist”. When the President of the United States is himself absurdity incarnate, what’s left for satirists to do? Comedians can say that Trump is the worst thing since loaved bread, but what’s the use? Is it possible to make fun of a clown?

Iannucci maintains that there is a way for comedians to still play an important role in political discourse: “For me, the most effective people now are like John Oliver, The Daily Show, Bill Maher. It’s interesting that they’re all kind of journalists in a way. If the politicians have become their own satirists, comedians have slid the other way and become the political analysts. They have a team of researchers who look at argument. They analyse. They take down what a politician says and then try to find out whether it contradicts something that politician said two or three years ago. They do serious investigative comedy. It’s interesting because the sides have slightly switched in that respect.”

While Iannucci trusts that this is important and utilitarian work, there is an opposing view that sees laughing at serious political developments as inherently perilous. Malcolm Gladwell explored this ‘satire paradox’ in his podcast, asking if it’s useful to laugh at our social ills, or if in doing so we become collectively pacified. The philosopher-cum-entertainer Slazoj Žižek went even further when he decried the comedy of John Oliver in an interview on the BBC as “the ultimate failure of the left” because of its “half-joking comic commentary”. There’s something to this. When a peasant in the Soviet Union laughed at a joke about Stalin, and all the while his nation was being systematically immiserated, was this a meaningful personal victory? Or was it ultimately inconsequential? Does a similar dilemma not also apply when we laugh at comedians’ jokes about Trump? I ask for Iannucci’s take on this given his recent experience making The Death of Stalin.

Iannucci’s new film The Death of Stalin is released on 20 October

“People would be killed if somebody reported that peasant to the secret police. They’d just be taken off and shot. And yet, people felt compelled to make jokes, and to circulate joke books about Stalin, because it reaffirmed that they weren’t crushed. The fact that we could laugh meant that we were still kind of free in a way.”

As the apocryphal Groucho Marx line goes, the only real laughter comes from despair. In the media maelstrom around Trump, despair dovetails into laughter on a daily basis. But Iannucci warns us not to underestimate the gravity of the situation: “Yes, we can just laugh at Donald Trump, and say he’s a fool. I mean he’s not an idiot, he’s smart, because you have to be to get to that position. He is dangerous and he’s unhinged and possibly mentally ill, but he’s not an idiot. We mustn’t see him as something that is just trivial. Actually, what he represents is deeply serious, and must be responded to in a serious way. Even if it’s comedy, it has to have some serious work behind it.”

Over the course of his recent interviews with Oliver Stone, Vladimir Putin likened Stalin to a Russian version of Cromwell – an unsightly ‘birthmark’ on the body of a new nation which nevertheless must be remembered. Somewhat surprisingly to me, Iannucci hasn’t seen the Stone/Putin interviews. In fact, he’s not convinced he could bear it: “I don’t know whether it’s Putin or whether it’s Oliver Stone… I don’t know which one I’d find more difficult to watch.”

Nevertheless, the Stone interviews did unearth an interesting dynamic in how the Russian President at least wants to appear to be thinking about his nation’s troubled history. Iannucci thinks Putin’s reflections on Stalin are significant in a different way: “Putin is interesting because he both encourages people to reappraise Stalin, but also he’s put a huge statue of Tsar Nichols II up in Moscow. Either way, all he’s interested in is the idea of the ‘strong man’, the autocrat. It doesn’t really matter which side of the political landscape he’s on, really. He just wants to reinforce that notion that the ‘strong man’ is a good thing.”

What’s curious about this authoritarian strategy is that it’s not just isolated to Russia. In fact, it’s probably the greatest single similarity between Trump and Putin. Russian and American politics have tended towards each other. “This is what Trump buys into as well,” Iannucci explains, “the idea of the ‘strong man’, the CEO who gets things done and doesn’t muck about. He doesn’t need to go through tedious process. And that whole thing of ‘fake news’ is very Stalinist. They talk about bourgeois elements and false narratives and ‘true history’. [George Orwell’s] 1984 is all about rewriting the past, inserting fresh facts and changing history so that it reflects current times, and basically inventing manufactured fake news. That’s what Trump is all about. He doesn’t win an argument by doing something to demonstrate that he’s won the argument, he just refers to all the terms that your side of the argument as false, and that’s his way of winning.”

For Iannucci, this is what gives Trump so much power: “He will in three or four years’ time (whenever the election is) say that he has done good things for the environment, and he’s done things for healthcare and so on, not by showing you what he’s done, but by eliminating the possibility of anyone being able to use a counterargument.”

Side-stepping direct engagement with the criticisms of detractors may be Trump’s trademark, but Iannucci believes that this tactic is distinctly Russian: “Russian diplomacy is always about confusing your opponent. You’ll say you’re going to do something and you do something different. And say ‘oh no, I was going to do that’, and then you do something differently again. It’s all about just constantly confusing your opponent so that nobody knows anymore what is real isn’t, and what is a statement of fact and what is just a kind of invention. And you can see that disruptive element in Trump. If a tidal wave is heading towards America’s eastern seaboard, he would tweet, ‘The sea is very flat today. How beautiful the sea is. Don’t let anyone tell you that there is a wave. There isn’t. Sad!’”

“But also, when there’s a row about one subject, he’ll suddenly tweet something deliberately confrontational about something else so that all the headlines are about that and no longer about the first thing. That’s how he operates. It’s about setting these little booby traps off everywhere he goes so that no one can quite catch up with where he really is.”

Steve Coogan as radio personality Alan Partridge

With Alan Partridge set to return to the BBC next year after a long hiatus, I want to know if in our current carnival of propaganda and confusion, Alan Partridge could be the political analyst for our times? A ridiculous mind for a ridiculous era. Instead of attempting to sincerely engage with politics, is it now time to simply disassemble the great Corby Trouser Press of politics for personal amusement with no hope of successfully putting it back together again? I ask what Alan Partridge’s take would have been on Brexit, for instance.

“I’m so glad Alan wasn’t alive during the whole Brexit debate because that would’ve been appalling. I don’t think he’s the analyst of our times, but he’s probably the analyst we deserve. He would like to boil all information down to entertainment. He believes in ‘light information’, which is facts that are not so difficult to absorb that they feel like work.”

This seems to be the heart of what Iannucci is urging us to avoid. In an era of murky facts and mercurial opinions, of autocrats and disinformation, it’s up to us to put the work in to be clear about what is authentic, to disentangle information from entertainment. And conversely, we need to be able to find the comedy in the things that may seem, in darker days, like no laughing matter. For Iannucci, this careful attentive work is too important to be left to anyone else. The onus is on us.

The Death of Stalin will be released in UK cinemas on October 20th.

One comment

  1. Hope some students got to the Slackers Club show at City Screen … but if not…