Page last updated at 17:20 GMT, Monday, 26 October 2009

Profile: Armando Iannucci

Armando Iannucci's coruscating political satire show The Thick of It has just returned to television screens.

Armando Iannucci
Armando Iannucci has been a successful comedian for two decades

Iannucci was also the driving force behind On the Hour and I'm Alan Partridge.

His long-time producer, Adam Tandy, thinks Iannucci has played a huge part in the development of British comedy.

"Without him, the comedy landscape would look completely different.

"Armando managed to break the mould in so many ways in the early nineties," he adds, "and has continued to innovate. He is a masterful storyteller."

So what is it that motivates Iannucci to keep breaking comedy barriers?

Brilliant impersonator

The son of Glaswegian-Italian parents, he excelled academically at a Catholic school, and even considered the priesthood.

But from childhood, he was fascinated by people's behaviour, and making audiences laugh.

Ronnie Renton, who taught Iannucci at the Jesuit St Aloysius College, recalls the young Armando "had a fine satirical attitude to things". He remembers a "very witty" parody of Harold Wilson:

The cast of The Thick of It.
The cast of Iannucci's BBC television comedy series The Thick of It

"I just remember a boy of 12 being able to imitate Harold Wilson so brilliantly; the way the pipe was held, the hat, the tone of voice, he got the tone of voice just right."

Iannucci's father was an immigrant from Italy who ran a pizza factory. His mother, too, has Italian roots. Although Armando sounds utterly Scottish and has a British wife, he called his children Emilio, Marcello and Carmella.

There is still something of the outsider about him, as his old friend and comedy collaborator, actor David Schneider, told BBC Radio 4's Profile programme:

"Armando's background is integral to who he is. Being Scottish Italian, living in England, being Catholic.

He takes a position that you don't expect. He is looking at ideas from a perspective that's just slightly round the corner of them
Jon Plowright, former head of BBC comedy

"There is a sense of slight outsider, a marginal quality that he brings to his awareness of the world."

At school and university, Iannucci was never hip or cool. He listened to Mahler rather than the Clash, and he has said he always felt a bit middle-aged.

David Schneider remembers a student who dressed like a 40-year-old, and was regarded as a bit "fusty" and "tweedy".

Iannucci got a First in English and stayed on to do a PhD on religious language in Milton's Paradise Lost.

But although a conventional career in the Civil Service beckoned, he could never quite take his work or the world seriously.

The tipping point came when he realised the first lines of Paradise Lost had the same rhythm as the Flintstones' theme tune: "Of Man's first disobedience, And the fruit of that forbidden tree."

Born funny

So when Iannucci was talent-spotted at the Edinburgh Festival and offered a job by Radio Scotland, he abandoned his doctorate.

Quickly poached by Radio 4, he first made his mark in 1991 when he assembled a team - including Steve Coogan, Chris Morris and Rebecca Front - to make the spoof news programme On the Hour. Much of the humour relied on exposing lazy media cliches.

Former head of BBC Comedy Jon Plowman, who produced many of Iannucci's shows, says that "the extraordinary thing about Armando" is that he "came from the womb funny":

Comedian Steve Coogan in his role as Alan Partridge
Iannucci friend and collaborator Steve Coogan in his role as Alan Partridge

"He takes a position that you don't expect. He is looking at ideas from a perspective that's just slightly round the corner of them."

And this was revolutionary at a time when much radio comedy was still safe and cosy.

The spoof newscasts were delivered with such a straight face that some listeners thought they were the real thing.

Iannucci turned On The Hour into The Day Today on television. He then developed a spin-off programme featuring the series' hapless sports reporter, producing, directing and co-writing I'm Alan Partridge.

Moral rage

The man who brought Alan Partridge to life, Steve Coogan, says Iannucci is surprisingly modest:

He is, Coogan says "the most unflashy man. I mean I don't know what he does with his money, all I can think is it's all stacked up. I never see him come in with any fancy new clothes, and the car he drove was the most modest, indistinct kind of car".

He has this brilliant eye, this brilliant perception for the ludicrousness, the hypocrisy and the insincerity that exists in public life
Martin Sixsmith, consultant to The Thick of It

Outside work, Iannucci spends most of his time tucked away in Buckinghamshire with his wife - whom he met at Oxford - and their three children.

At work, he is said to be a purist and a perfectionist with a strong moral streak.

"What I really admire about Armando is a moral core," says David Schneider, "not all comedians have it. Some just enjoy savaging, but with Armando it is always fuelled by this quiet moral rage which you really see in the Thick of It".

Martin Sixsmith, a former director of communications at the Department of Social Security and a consultant to The Thick of It, thinks Iannucci is "a modern day Moliere".

"He has this brilliant eye, this brilliant perception for the ludicrousness, the hypocrisy and the insincerity that exists in public life, " he adds, "and I think he uses that gift to produce great comedy."

Those who work with Iannucci also admire his intellect. Sixsmith thinks Iannucci "is always one step ahead of everybody else. He is always thinking of these fantastic new possibilities and new ideas to improve the script to change".

Yet Iannucci has admitted that he often feels a bit of an impostor.

Martin Sixsmith thinks it is a lack of confidence that drives him on:

"There might be a little bit of insecurity about him, he's never satisfied, he's always striving to do something more and something new and something different and better. He's never content to just repeat the same old stuff."

Perhaps it is this perfectionism that has made Armando Iannucci one of the most successful and admired figures in British comedy.


You can hear Mary Ann Sieghart's Radio 4 Profile of Armando Iannucci on the i-player here



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