As a producer, writer and performer, Armando Iannucci helped to reinvigorate the Oxbridge axis of British comedy; during the early Nineties. Arguably the most important comedy producer to have emerged in the past twenty years, he is certainly the most influential and exacting. A more conservative presence than many of his peers, he claimed he “could only really have been an academic or a comedian”.
Born in Glasgow to a Scottish mother and Italian father in 1963, Iannucci studied at Oxford University. But it was only during his second phase as a research student, that he seriously pursued comedy. A writing partnership blossomed with Andrew Glover, and he performed in revue with Sarah Smith; and as part of a live double bill alongside David Schneider, forming long term creative relationships with all three.
From Radio to TV
In 1988, BBC Radio Scotland invited him to co host their experimental youth shows: No’ The Archie Macpherson Show and Bite The Wax. He moved to London after applying for a producer’s job with BBC Radio in 1989, and quickly earned a reputation for contentious broadcasts.
On The Hour (1991-92) and Knowing Me Knowing You (1992-93), are his best known radio productions, thanks in part to subsequent high profile TV transfers. On The Hour gathered aspiring comic performers and writers, among them: Patrick Marber, Doon Mackichan, Stewart Lee, Richard Herring, and old friends Glover and Schneider. The show layered comic disciplines, as though they were sources for a news report, marrying improvised scenes with tightly scripted narrations.
The Day Today, the 1994 BBC2 television counterpart to On The Hour; was nothing short of a landmark, firmly establishing Chris Morris and Steve Coogan (whose inept sports journalist Alan Partridge made his debut on the radio) as major stars. Having touted the show among independent production companies, and eventually settling on Talkback; co creators Iannucci and Morris maintained a remarkable level of control. The same year’s TV transfer of the chat show spoof Knowing Me Knowing You with Alan Partridge (sans Morris) was somewhat rushed, but even so hugely popular.
In Front Of The Camera
Iannucci had to date preferred to maintain a shadowy presence on his major projects. This changed in 1995 when he hosted the topical BBC2 series The Saturday Night Armistice, produced by Sarah Smith. The presenters (Iannucci, Schneider and Day Today writer Peter Baynham) were an unknown quantity, but they weathered well across three series and many specials.
A shift to Friday nights quickly improved on early ratings. Shortly after Baynham replaced Marber, as co writer of Alan Partridge’s ongoing story. With Coogan and Iannucci, the sitcom I’m Alan Partridge (BBC) won much praise upon its 1997 debut, and a mixed reception on its belated return in 2002. There were many factors behind this, not least a stressful production and drastic editing at the expense of plot logic.
Additionally, the ubiquitous docu-soap parody The Office (BBC 2001-2003) had, by this time made studio sitcoms with live audiences deeply unfashionable. The critical expectation was for semi improvised shows, with fewer gag lines and character actors; rather than comedians at the centre of the action. Ironically Iannucci had kick started this trend when working on The Day Today, with the spoof fly on the wall serials ‘The Pool’ and ‘The Bureau’. It was cruel confirmation of his influence on others’ comedy.
The Armando Iannucci Shows (C4 2001) experienced a difficult birth, from an Armistice-esque pilot, to a highly personal sketch show; strongly influenced by Woody Allen and Raymond Carver. Conceptually ambitious, its production fostered a strong connection with Adam Tandy, who would here on act as practical producer on virtually all of Iannucci’s TV projects; leaving the star to concentrate on being creative producer and, invariably, director.
Comedy Writing Influence
A new stable of writers have formed around Iannucci, since his return to the BBC in 2004. A BBC3 special in 2004: The Stupid Version, involved an unprecedented number of names; among them several web comedy artists. It was effectively a precursor to BBC2’s Time Trumpet (2006), chiefly written by Will Smith and Roger Drew; but nonetheless recognisably an ‘authored’ Iannucci project. Indeed, the central conceit stemmed from an earlier BBC2 one off, Clinton: His Struggle with Dirt (BBC2 1998). In which public figures were played by aged lookalikes reflecting on the past; which for the viewer was a distorted future.
The collaborative approach continued with The Thick of It (BBC 2005), his Westminster-set political comedy; which employed familiar improvisational techniques in an abrasive new form. This was the work of five writers, including former Labour researcher Jesse Armstrong and special ‘swearing consultant’ Ian Martin. The series proved an assured and award winning return to sitcom.
Working With Others
Latterly, he has also acted as executive producer on other BBC comedy projects. Notably Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle (BBC, 2009); which aired almost five years after it was first proposed, and benefited from its long gestation period. He has also presided over Chris Addison and Carl Cooper’s Lab Rats (BBC 2008); and Dave Gorman’s Genius (BBC 2009).
Until 2008, Iannucci had merely dipped a toe into cinema, contributing to London Underground anthology Tube Tales (1999); and failing to secure funding for an historical comedy in 2003. Bad fortune changed in 2009 with In the Loop, his critically lauded retooling of The Thick of It with an added American element.
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Matthew Willetts MA is the Director of Comicus who has over 35 years experience in television, film, theatre, and comedy club/cabaret entertainment, working as a performer, screenwriter, producer and agent. He lectured at Southampton Solent University in Comedy, Screenwriting, Television, Theatre & Radio. Matthew can sometimes be seen and heard on TV & Radio and often quoted in the national press and media publications. As well as speaking regularly at festivals and industry conferences, he has been a judge at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and the Montreux Television Festival.
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