The unifying factor in Armando Iannucci’s work is, in his own blunt phrase, “a fascination with evil bastards”. He found his calling for political satire in surprising circumstances: reading “Paradise Lost”, John Milton’s epic religious poem, as a student. As I take out my copy and place it on the low table between us, Iannucci leans over and says with a conspiratorial chuckle, “Satan has all the good lines.” When God is introduced, he says, “it suddenly goes almost consciously dull.” For Iannucci, Milton’s Satan is the original evil bastard of literature.
Though he abandoned his PhD on Milton long ago, Iannucci, now 56, continues to delight in the stories of scoundrels. Over the past 25 years he has become renowned as a writer and director on both sides of the Atlantic, creating a catalogue of comedic gems. These include “The Thick of It”, an outstanding satire of spin-era politics, “The Death of Stalin”, a send-up of a defining moment in Soviet history (it was banned in Russia), and “Veep”, a caustic examination of the black heart of American politics. In his latest film, an adaptation of Charles Dickens’ novel “David Copperfield”, Iannucci’s touch is obvious in characters such as Uriah Heep, the arch-manipulator.
Milton’s “Paradise Lost” tells the story of Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden. For centuries readers have been troubled by its sympathetic – many would say enthusiastic – portrayal of Satan. Though Milton was a devout Christian, according to William Blake “he was a true poet of the Devil’s party”. “Paradise Lost” clocks in at over 10,000 lines of ornate 17th-century verse. Like many people, Iannucci assumed as a boy that the religious themes and complex language made the poem impenetrable: “Milton was up there with Shelley, Chaucer and all these other poets I hadn’t read.” He remembers the moment when he realised how dramatic the text really was, “with language so concrete and a story so cinematic”. Now, as the award-winning, smartly dressed writer in a blue blazer starts to rifle through my copy of “Paradise Lost”, I wonder whether any trace of the scruffy literature student remains.
Born in Glasgow in 1963 to Italian and Scottish parents, Iannucci went to a Jesuit school and at one point wanted to become a Catholic priest. He settled instead on a degree in English literature at Glasgow University, followed by a PhD on religious poetry at Oxford, focusing on “Paradise Lost”.
A long-dormant flame flickers as Iannucci starts to study my copy of the book. He pauses to frown at a page severely defaced by my marginalia: “What does this say, ‘nectar’?” Iannucci would have made a good academic: I feel thrown back into a university tutorial and apologise for my aimless notations. “No, no,” he says, “I find them useful, they are drawing me to old passages.”
That Iannucci never completed his PhD is one of his few failures. His vice as a doctoral student was not sex, drugs or rock ’n’ roll, but comedy. But while Iannucci spent his time writing and performing with the comic luminaries of Oxford University and the Edinburgh Fringe, the clock ticked away. His PhD “spiralled out of control. It was a mess.” Three years in, with little academic writing to show for it, Iannucci accepted that comedy had become his main occupation. “I knew it was time to give up when I noticed the opening lines of ‘Paradise Lost’ have the same rhythm as the theme tune to ‘The Flintstones’.” He gives a cheerful rendition: “Of man’s first disobedience, and the fruit of that forbidden tree.”
Perhaps he felt a PhD sided too much with the angels? “Well, we’re all a bit satanic,” he says with a twinkle and, still perusing my copy, points out that many of my own notations focus on Satan’s speeches. “Satan is so visceral. He has oratory and rhetoric and manipulation!” It is unsurprising, then, that in his political satire, Iannucci is more interested in people who wheedle and trick their way to influence than in omnipotent gods – we never see the all-powerful prime ministers or presidents.
He starts to read from his favourite passage – Satan’s first speech – and I am briefly treated to the inspiring lectures that might have been if Iannucci had stayed in academia. In the scene, Satan has just led the fallen angels in an unsuccessful rebellion, and is now promising that, under his guidance, they will still achieve greatness. Iannucci starts the mini-recital with a cough, but with the first line his conversational voice is replaced by a louder, declamatory tone:
Receive thy new possessor – one who brings
A mind not to be changed by place or time,
The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven
Though “Paradise Lost” is a dramatisation of a Bible story, for Iannucci these lines show that it is also a highly political work (politics and religion were inextricably linked in 17th-century England). Milton was a radical in the English civil war, defended the execution of King Charles I and served under the republican government of Oliver Cromwell until they fell out (Iannucci characterises his role as “Cromwell’s spin doctor”).
The language of “Paradise Lost” reflects Milton’s intimate knowledge of the power-brokers of his day, says Iannucci: “Satan takes a word and makes it the opposite, so he can say ‘I can make a hell of heaven and a heaven of hell’, and ‘evil be thou my good’, but actually that doesn’t make any sense.” Iannucci raises his glass of sparkling water and begins a mock pontification: “Glass be my table and table be my glass! It sounds good, but what the fuck are you talking about?” I giggle and he seems pleased that he has managed to find some humour in scholarly poetry.
Though he has found success behind the camera, I can see how he also won over audiences as a performer at the Edinburgh Fringe. His smile fades as he considers the implications of Satan’s linguistic trickery. “He takes the words used against him and turns them on his opponents. It’s like when Trump says that the one who has accused me of treason is the treasonous one.” Does he mean to say the president is Satan? “That’s right.” He laughs, then sighs.
Iannucci’s time at Oxford was not wasted. With a repertoire of comic material and plenty of performing experience, he successfully applied for a role on BBC radio in 1988. Though his mother questioned whether swapping a doctorate for a career in comedy was a wise exchange, it helped “that it was the bbc. That gave it an air of respectability.” But respectability was never Iannucci’s watchword. Compared with the cosy, family-friendly shows that dominated comedy programming at the time, Iannucci’s humour was uncensored and unrelenting. His first hit was “The Day Today”, which mocked current-affairs programming. Then came “The Thick of It”, Iannucci’s breakthrough success. The show’s depiction of the behind-closed-doors world of politics was so cutting – and, to Westminster insiders, so accurate – that it entered the lexicon of real-world politics. In 2012 “omnishambles”, a neologism coined in the show, was used in Parliament to describe the British government’s annual budget and the Oxford English Dictionary chose it as the word of the year. Its derivative “Romneyshambles” was used in the American presidential election of that year too.
In Britain, Iannucci introduced an edginess lacking in earlier shows teasing the political elite, such as “Yes Minister”. Iannucci’s biting work found success in America too, first with his confrontational film, “In The Loop”, a spoof about the Iraq war, and later in his popular series “Veep”, which was broadcast on HBO.
After his comedy career took off, with a string of radio, TV and cinema successes, Iannucci found he had little time for the books he loved. Mournful of those lost decades, he recently began to make time for literature again: “I’ve had to force myself back into reading. You realise if you don’t it can slip by. You’ve actually got to find time.”
During one lazy weekend spent reading he found inspiration for his recent film, “The Personal History of David Copperfield”, when he sat down to enjoy the Dickens classic. He set about drawing out the parts of the book most ripe for comedy, with a determination and purpose that he never achieved in his earlier literary project, the PhD.
His newest venture is a comedy about space tourism, “Avenue 5”, set 40 years in the future. But perhaps he will one day return to Milton’s masterpiece – isn’t it time for a screen adaptation? That’s unlikely, says Iannucci: the only funny part of “Paradise Lost” is “a description of angels farting”. Still, if he could pull off such a creative enterprise, Oxford would surely be obliged to give him that doctorate.•