For more than two decades, Armando Iannucci has watched over British society like a satirical Zeus, now and again hurling down lightning bolts of parody – from The Day Today to The Thick Of It and In The Loop via Time Trumpet and the various worlds of Alan Partridge – at any deserving target. Now he’s striding across the Atlantic to take on the US political system and, in particular, the vice president’s office, with his new sitcom Veep (the title, of course, being a condensed version of ‘VP’). It stars Julia Louis-Dreyfus, of Seinfeld fame, as a second-in-charge constantly impeded by political impotency and a largely incompetent team of advisors. Sound familiar? Don’t be fooled.
Did the idea for Veep come before or after In The Loop?
I was talking to HBO before In The Loop about doing something, and they said, “Go and have a think about American politics.” Then after In The Loop they came back and said, “We really want you to do something.” But it took a while to work out which aspect of politics. In the end, I thought, “How about the vice president? They can have real influence and yet are still subject to the whims of the president.” So you have this very able, experienced figure, who’s still No2 and who can still just be told to shut the f*ck up if the White House tells them to. It’s that mixture of confidence and a diminished role.
Were you conscious of trying to be too much like a US sitcom?
It felt sufficiently ours, but I didn’t want it to feel like we’d just taken something like The Thick Of It and done a simple translation. I wanted to start afresh. This is how American politics works, therefore these are the characters.
You made a pilot for a US version of The Thick Of It in 2007…
That was with ABC and was a complete translation of The Thick Of It with Malcolm Tucker. There were just too many people involved – too many people who you thought knew what they were doing and it turned out they didn’t. That became the inspiration for In The Loop, because it was about Brits going to America and being disappointed by what they thought was going to be a competent team of professionals [laughs].
We hear you got very good access for Veep…
Yeah, Obama’s people showed us round the West Wing, in fact Joe Biden’s chief of staff showed us round. We got round the State Department, the Pentagon. I think it’s also that they’re genuinely quite excited about television and showbiz. Now the show’s gone out in the US, it’ll be interesting to see whether that level of access is maintained [laughs]. But we kept saying to them, it’s not satire on you. We don’t say what the party is. She isn’t Biden or anyone specific. So, we’re not out to expose or ridicule you, we’re more looking at the process.
You’ve only used British writers and directors, but you wouldn’t know it wasn’t American…
We made sure that it was real. We had specialists from Washington who saw the scripts and would say, “In Washington, this is what would happen.” And then with the cast, I told them to make it their own and if there’s a phrase that we’ve put in there that’s unintentionally a very British phrase, just change it.
So the cast were your test audience?
Yeah. They developed shorthand for anything that was very British, which was [does buck-toothed face and plummy voice] “That’s very British, myamyamyamya.” We always did this when we thought something was very American [mimes Groucho Marx cigar waggle] “Rahrahrahrahrah,” so they’d come back and go, [does plummy buck-tooth thing again] “Myamyamya.”
It sounds very eloquent.
The people in the Veep’s office don’t like each other and would walk over each other’s dead bodies in order to get a promotion. Is that an American thing?
Yeah, there’s an element of that, the career politician. Somebody told me that one of the common conversational gambits you’ll hear, quite unashamedly, is “So, who do you know?” It’s done casually. [laughs]. It’s like, “What kind of music are you into?” It’s all about those little power relationships.
There’s no Malcolm Tucker character; is that to avoid The Thick Of It comparisons?
Creatively, yes it is, but also, in reality, if anyone behaved like that to the vice president, they would be pulled to the floor by five security guys and then thrown out and then fired. No one would speak like that to the vice president.
You’ve just finished filming the new series of The Thick Of It – will the coalition be getting it in the neck?
Nicola and Malcolm are in opposition now. Peter Mannion and his coterie are in government, but Mannion now has to share an office with the third party. And there’s a storyline that runs throughout the whole series now, rather just for the individual half-hour episodes.
The coalition must have been very fertile ground…
It’s great, just trying to put people working in the office together who don’t really have the same views. And also a smaller party desperately trying to show that they’ve managed to get something through, and being foiled, was a really great dynamic. Within the coalition, this third party we have are known colloquially as ‘The Inbetweeners’.
You’re bringing Alan Partridge back. Is that because of public demand?
No. We haven’t done that much Alan Partridge. He’s been around for nearly 20 years, but in fact it’s been a series here, then four years later another series. But the last series of I’m Alan Partridge was about nine years ago and the fact that people still quote him and want to see him made us think that we should do something new with him. So we liked the idea of sneaking [Mid-Morning Matters] out on the internet and YouTube, but we also wanted to make sure we got it right and that we were proud of it.
Why do you think his appeal has lasted so long?
I don’t know. It might partly be because we’ve been careful not to overdo it. And that’s allowed him to grow in people’s imaginations. Whenever Steve [Coogan] and I had a meeting when we weren’t doing Alan, we’d imagine what he was doing, so we had a little story in our heads as to what he was up to at any one time. And Steve is just brilliant at it. I always laugh when I see it, even though I’ve been working on it. There’s something in him that people recognise in themselves or people they know.
Is it that lovable idiot thing?
Yeah, though I suppose he has his own dignity – I always maintain that he’s a good broadcaster, in that he can talk for hours. Once the mic is on he can just keep going, which is why people pay him to present radio shows.
With Alan, you say he’s not inspired by anyone in particular, but what inspires the events in his life and the thoughts in his head?
It’s an amalgam. Steve was saying that how it’s sometimes things that he thinks and then he edits, because you know you can’t think that [laughs]. So instead we give it to Alan to say. A lot of the stuff he says is misguided, but an awful lot of the stuff is the stuff that you’d like to say to someone, but you just wouldn’t let yourself.
How’s the Partridge film coming along?
All the finances are in place. We just want to sign off on the script before we… We don’t want to rush it. We want to make sure that we’re absolutely happy with the script, and then we’ll shoot it.
Because it’s a big production, are you tempted to bring in the odd cameo?
I don’t mind using names, as long as they’re right for the part, so we’ll cast people who feel right.
But some of the familiar characters will be there?
Oh yeah. I mean Lynn will be there and Michael will be there.
Are you allowed to reveal anything else about it?
No, other than that it’ll be very Norwich-based. It’s not Alan Goes To Space or Alan Meets Predator.
Are there any other shows that people ask you to bring back?
Yeah. People say Time Trumpet. And I did a show for Channel 4 called The Armando Iannucci Show. People say, “Are you going to do another?” On the one hand you think, “Yeah,” but on the other hand you think, “You’ve got those” [laughs] and I just feel that I want to do newer things now.
You’ve done an operetta, films, TV – are there any other ambitions?
I don’t have a back-of-the-envelope career plan. I just feel that – and I’m going to sound like such an old fogey – I’m at a stage where I just want to think of things that take me in a new direction, and that have an element of challenge or risk to them, and not feel that I’m circling the same area over and over again. So the next thing after The Thick Of It, I don’t know what it’ll be, but it will be a completely different theme and style.
Have you ever been tempted to go into politics?
I’m a keen enthusiast, but I don’t think I’d last for more than a second, because I’m too much of a “Well, on the one hand this, but on the other hand that, and it’s very complicated and you can’t really just put it all into a soundbite”. I’d end up waffling and dithering too much and not get anywhere.
Veep starts on 25 June at 10pm on Sky Atlantic HD
(Image: Rex Features)