In the Q&A session following his second Sydney appearance, Armando Iannucci – the creator of the HBO series Veep and the BBC’s The Thick of It, and the director of In the Loop – was asked by an audience member what was most to blame for the problem with politics today: the politicians, the journalists, or spin?
“Spin,” he said instantly; it was the unseen force influencing both.
The lively conversation – a precursor to Sydney Writers’ festival, which officially opens on 22 May – was facilitated by The Chaser’s Chris Taylor at Sydney Town Hall. Earlier in the evening, Iannucci said politicians had become overly circumspect, more influenced by fear of negative ratings and press than by their ideals.
Iannucci had been told of a UK minister being presented with two opposing policies on the same issue by his advisers: “Rather than the minister use his beliefs and his ideals, he just went: ‘OK, which one will play better with the press?’
“They surround themselves with these advisers who are telling them what not to say, what not to do – ‘If you do this, they won’t like it’. In an ideal world, they would do as little and say as little as possible.”
Iannucci said the recent upheaval in the UK – first the Brexit vote, now Theresa May’s snap election – was a result of politicians having concentrated their energies on appealing to the “tiny swing minority … just assuming everyone else would vote the way they’d always voted.
“Gradually, the mood has changed. The electorate has woken up to that and said, ‘No, you can’t take us for granted. We’re going to vote differently’.
“And what has happened is it’s all gone crazy.”
There’s plenty of material in modern politics – although the line between satire and reality had blurred beyond recognition, he said. For instance: a potential storyline for The Thick of It – in which a minister walked to the House of Commons so as to appear relatable – had been abandoned because he’d been told a car would have had to follow with the minister’s briefcase. It just seemed too much.
“Not long afterwards, David Cameron became prime minister and cycled to the House of Commons – and a car followed with his shirts,” he said. “I’m so annoyed we didn’t do that now.”
In a more recent example, the campaign slogan for Veep’s presidential candidate, Selina Myer, was “continuity with change” – “the worst, the most inane, the most harmless, the most forgetful” sequence of words the writers’ room could think of.
But, in his federal election campaign last year, Australia’s prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, offered his own version: “Continuity and change”. Iannucci – animated, amused, practically bursting out of his chair with anecdotes – gave credit where it was due: “Continuity and change … That’s two things.”
In S4 of Veep we came up with the most meaningless election slogan we could think of. Now adopted by Australian PM. https://t.co/64YmQvImj5
Politics around the world had gone beyond the pale of parody, he said, with the US president, Donald Trump, his own best satirist: every other US administration looked competent by comparison.
“Honestly, in hindsight, the Bush years is a halcyon period. You look back misty-eyed at a golden age of politics: he was such a bright, eloquent; he had ideals; he had a firm, competent team around him.
“That is sadly where we’ve got to, in which George W Bush is regarded with some affection. SOME affection. But still: some affection.”
Iannucci announced he was leaving the show in April 2015, handing the reigns to David Mandel.
“I’m so glad I don’t do Veep anymore because I don’t know how I’d respond to the situation in America now,” he said on Tuesday. “I mean, I don’t want to bring a downer on the evening … but we are that close to the end of the world.”
Host Chris Taylor described the “chaos and ineptitude” of Veep’s White House as antithetical to beloved Washington drama The West Wing, “where everyone was very capable”, brilliant and idealistic. Veep, he assumed, was “closer to reality” – but Iannucci’s counter-argument was that, in some ways, The West Wing was a self-fulfilling prophecy.
He recalled being given a tour of the White House by Barack Obama’s long-time “bodyman”, Reggie Love. The West Wing staff he met, he said, were “absolutely obsessed with the TV show The West Wing. They kind of hold that show in higher regard than their own job.
“[Love] was showing me around and he said, ‘Here’s the Roosevelt office, this would be where CJ and Josh …’ It’s you! Why don’t you say, ‘This would be where I would sit down’?
“They’re very excited by the fictionalised versions of themselves.”
The sort of people who couldn’t help but relate the real-life White House to The West Wing – “political nerds”, Iannucci called them – had come to dominate politics behind the scenes in the last 10 to 15 years. Though he has been campaigning to increase voter turnout among 18 to 24-year-olds in the upcoming British election, he is less supportive of the proliferation of young people in advisory roles.
“These 20-somethings do politics at university, graduate, maybe become a researcher for a politician or maybe join a thinktank and, before they know it, they are these senior advisers to cabinet ministers.”
While researching for In the Loop, he said he encountered people in their 20s who had helped to draw up the constitution of Iraq.
“None of them had bought a car, or organised a mortgage before – but they were brought in to help tell an entire country how to run itself,” he said. “That was the frightening thing.”