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Armando Iannucci, Julia Louis-Dreyfus and others from the Veep cast and crew accept the Outstanding Comedy Series Emmy award in 2015. Photo/Getty Images

British comedy genius Armando Iannucci's new take on Charles Dickens

The leading satirical voice of his generation, responsible for a slew of cutting dramas, has turned his hand to a film based on David Copperfield.

Back in the 1960s and 70s, when he was the prince of satire, Peter Cook always looked the part. Louchely suave, with an ironic smile playing on his handsome features, he was the very picture of the anti-establishment establishment. By contrast, if you passed Armando Iannucci in the street, you’d probably mistake him for the subdivisional manager of an insurance firm.

Iannucci doesn’t look like a trendsetter, much less the leading satirical voice of his generation. Short, balding and dressed in unobtrusively smart-casual clothes, the writer-director-showrunner is, for a man who’s all over the place, a rather invisible character.

Recently, actor Brian Cox, star of the HBO hit Succession, said Iannucci was the “godfather” of the show. Iannucci does not feature in the show’s credits for the very good reason that he played no part in the writing, producing or anything else. But what Cox was referring to was the inspirational reach of his fellow Scotsman’s style – the mixing of improvisation with well-written scripts, black comedy with straight drama. It’s an approach that Succession’s showrunner, Jesse Armstrong, developed while working as a writer on Iannucci’s political satire The Thick of It.

Political satire The Thick of It starring Peter Capaldi. Photo/Alamy

Armstrong is not the only success story to have served his time in the Iannucci comedic empire. The list includes a long line of British luminaries, among them Steve Coogan, Chris Morris and Stewart Lee. How does Iannucci feel about the people who have worked for him going on to enjoy great success?

“There’s a sense of pride,” he says, without appearing particularly proud, “but they got there with their own talent and ability. I like to bring in young writers and directors and be able to see them go off and do their own thing.”

Having performed a similar role half a century before and watched the likes of Dudley Moore and David Frost go off to become global stars, Cook came to the conclusion that he’d reached the limit of his own gifts – or perhaps of his interest in exploring that limit. He took to drinking to escape the ensuing boredom, and at 57 he died from a gastrointestinal haemorrhage.

Iannucci’s past comedy hits include Steve Coogan’s Alan Partridge. Photo/Supplied

A job, not a lifestyle

Iannucci was never in any danger of following that path. As a teenager, he considered becoming a priest, and there remains a quality of moral seriousness about the man that is instantly apparent. It’s not that he’s above joking but more that, as a New Yorker profile put it, he “seems to guard against workplace ebullience”. Comedy is a job, not a lifestyle.

Iannucci is deep into what might be called the third stage of his career. Having started out in the 1990s on BBC radio with his news parody On the Hour, he moved into TV with such shows as The Day Today, I’m Alan Partridge and The Thick of It. Now his third film as a director is just out, The Personal History of David Copperfield, an adaptation of Charles Dickens’ eighth and most autobiographical novel.

Iannucci is a lifelong Dickens fan, not just of his work as a novelist but as a comic writer.

“He’s the finest comedian we’ve ever produced,” he says. “So much comedy today is still conditioned by the way Dickens wrote in the 19th century.”

Scnes from Iannucci’s Copperfield. Photo/Supplied

Dickens combined the roles of journalist, critic, novelist, playwright and actor. It was probably his workload that contributed to his death at 58. The danger with Iannucci, who is 56, was always the Dickens rather than the Cook path. He has what it takes to be a workaholic but not an alcoholic.

In his twenties and thirties, he says, he did overdo work commitments. Nowadays, a family man living in a picturesque village in what used to be called the London stockbroker belt, he says he tries to keep to normal working hours. That said, he’s still the kind of guy who, between projects, will write a libretto for an opera on plastic surgery.

Dickens was 38 when he wrote David Copperfield. It’s a book that Iannucci thinks marks the author’s transition from an episodic writer to one capable of a more mature and far-reaching kind of fiction that he would develop in later works such as Bleak House and Little Dorrit.

Dev Patel as Copperfield. Photo/Supplied

To swear or not to swear

Iannucci’s first love was literature. He studied for a PhD that was focused on Milton’s Paradise Lost. So in a sense, a literary adaptation is a return to familiar territory. But the comedic approach he takes is unlike anything he’s done in recent years. It’s a surprisingly benign and broad kind of humour, a world away from the scathing insults and expletive-filled language of The Thick of It. He disagrees when I make this observation, pointing out that many shows he’s directed, such as I’m Alan Partridge, were not in the least profane.

“I personally am not a sweary, angry man,” he says, and it’s true. There are no four-letter words in his conversation and he remains a model of composure throughout our interview.

Nonetheless, both his previous films – In the Loop and The Death of Stalin – were explicitly political, as well as being verbally ribald. Perhaps the most explicit element of his David Copperfield is its commitment to colour-blind casting. David is played with great sympathy by Anglo-Indian actor Dev Patel, and the rest of the cast is a vibrant representation of modern-day London’s ethnic diversity.

Photo/Supplied

“It didn’t seem like a bold choice,” says Iannucci, seemingly bemused that anyone would notice. “I just felt, why are we not doing this? Although it’s set in 1840, for the people in the film, it’s the present day. And it’s an exciting present. It wasn’t a conscious reaction to Brexit, but the conversation has gone very insular in terms of what Britain is and what it doesn’t want to be. I wanted to celebrate what Britain actually is, and it’s much more of a carefree, enjoyable, humorous kind of zesty, energetic place.”

It’s a decision that certainly helps distance the film from some of the more starchy conventions of costume drama. On top of which there are some lively performances from Tilda Swinton as Copperfield’s capricious aunt, Betsey Trotwood, and Hugh Laurie as her eccentric lodger, Mr Dick. There’s even a role for Peter Capaldi – best known for his foul-mouthed Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It – as Wilkins Micawber, the inveterate debtor.

Micawber was thought to have been based on Dickens’ own father, who had spent time in debtor’s prison. That impoverishing experience left the young Dickens with a lifetime’s anxiety about money and status that no amount of either could entirely remove. David Copperfield is a novel that clearly displays this preoccupation with its keen eye for the precarious financial predicament that so many endured in Victorian Britain.

“The whole book is about status anxiety,” Iannucci agrees. “That’s why I thought it was contemporary.”

Capaldi and Iannucci after The Thick of It won a Bafta in 2006. Photo/Getty

Classic outsider-insiders

Dickens thought of himself as an outsider, someone who had to force his way into society, and was never confident that he’d been accepted. Yet he was for a while arguably the most famous person in England. Iannucci’s progression through childhood to his first job was a testament to elitist convention – he attended a private Jesuit school in Glasgow before studying English at Oxford, then three more years at the same university on his aborted PhD, before joining the BBC. Yet, he says, both he and Patel, coming from second- or third-generation immigrant families, feel as if they, too, are partly outsiders or in some way not fully integrated.

The irony is that it’s hard to think of someone more firmly established in the Anglo-American comedy establishment, admired and respected by almost everyone. Like Dickens, Iannucci is a classic outsider-insider, someone who, regardless of success, knows what it’s like to feel not entirely at home, and who retains a sceptical eye.

As much as it’s about status anxiety, David Copperfield is also a story of aspiration. Many of its characters – most egregiously, the unctuous Uriah Heep – have their sights on a higher station. It’s a theme that in one way or another runs through Iannucci’s work. With Coogan he co-wrote Alan Partridge, the downwardly mobile broadcaster, who is desperate for status but suffers from a panoramic blind spot about himself.

Hugh Laurie as Mr Dick in Copperfield. Photo/Supplied

Iannucci has said that Partridge is all about “aspiration and dejection”, noting that people always see someone they know in him but never themselves. Even the hapless politicians who feature in The Thick of It and his first film, In the Loop, want to get ahead but are thwarted by circumstance, the media, or malign communications enforcers.

Some observers have complained that, with his mocking portrayals, Iannucci has undermined public confidence in politicians. Yet his creations are not venal or corrupt but instead badgered and ineffectual. In any case, he’s moved away from contemporary political satire in recent years. Politics has grown too weird to satirise.

“It just doesn’t feel real,” he says. “I still don’t genuinely believe that Boris Johnson is Prime Minister. I think satire requires some kind of universally recognised code of behaviour that you’re then disrupting. But if there is no longer a code of behaviour, I don’t quite see how you can do the disrupting, because they’re doing the disrupting by saying there’s no code of behaviour.”

Tilda Swinton as Betsey Trotwood in Copperfield. Photo/Supplied

A certain genius

With his second film, The Death of Stalin, he turned instead to history for his political laughs. It was a dark comic triumph but also, perhaps more surprisingly, a genuinely unsettling piece of drama. More than many overtly “serious” films that have dramatised Stalin, it managed to capture something of the psychological terror of life under the murderous tyrant.

“The idea was to try to recreate the low-level anxiety that people had to go through every day,” he says. “So not the heightened anxiety of ‘they’re going to shoot me tomorrow’ but more like ‘I don’t know if they will shoot me tomorrow or the next day or the day after’.”

Stalinist Russia was obviously a terrifying and dangerous place to be, but it was also utterly absurd. Many of the scenes in the film were so outlandish that people assumed they were made up, where in fact they were absolutely true.

“Yes,” Iannucci says, “Stalin’s son did lose the ice hockey team in a plane crash. Stalin did make [the Politburo] stay up late at night and watch cowboy movies and dance. It’s all there.”

If it is all there in the history books, it takes a certain genius to fish out the bizarre details and shape them into a compelling drama that isn’t played just for laughs. That’s Iannucci’s gift. The understated fellow with a stellar career knows how to tread the blurry line between reality and fiction, borrowing from both to add value to the other.

In the process, however, Iannucci remains something of a self-possessed blur himself. Julia Louis-Dreyfus, the star of Veep, Iannucci’s American sitcom about politics, once called the creator of the monstrous Malcolm Tucker “an exceptionally kind person”.

The Personal History of David Copperfield is a kind person’s kind of film: gentle, colourful, even uplifting. It’s not what you’d necessarily expect from Iannucci, and that’s half its pleasure.

“I wanted people to feel that they’d watched a whole life with all its ups and downs,” he says, “but also the life of someone who at long last has kind of made some sense of it all.”

I suspect that the self-possessed Iannucci made sense of his own life many years ago, but long may he carry on showing us the struggles the rest of us suffer.

This article was first published in the March 28, 2020 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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