Armando Iannucci: An Epic Poem for Our Times


Edinburgh International Book Festival
Central Hall, Edinburgh

Armando Iannucci

TV and film comedy writer Armando Iannucci was in Edinburgh to talk to Jenny Niven about his short book Pandemonium, released last November, which is a mock epic poem satirising the UK during the COVID pandemic.

Iannucci said that during lockdown, he got the idea for a poem and just poured out ten lines; he put it away for a month, then wrote another ten lines, and so on until he had a whole story.

He spent three years completing a PhD on Milton's Paradise Lost in which Satan gets all the best lines, God is tedious, "and don't get me started on Jesus". More recently, he read the Iliad and Seamus Heaney's adaptation of Beowulf. For this poem, he said he has put the characters of the COVID period on the stage of the Gods to see how they compare.

Boris shakes hands with the virus and then falls into the Underworld. He is advised by the blind prophet Dominic. Through comedy, he has attempted a true portrait of what we were all going through.

He said it was possible to excuse the politicians at first, even though the first lockdown was late and therefore cost lives, because this was a situation none of us had seen before, but as time went on, the mistakes kept piling up. He said that "Boris, even having got it [i.e. the virus], still didn't get it" but Matt Hancock at least "did the decent thing and resigned" so came across, comparatively, as an "angel".

The first wave of anger from the public, according to Iannucci, was over government contracts awarded to people and companies with no experience at all in what they were being paid public money to do but with links to the Conservative party. He said that even in a crisis, there are processes for this sort of thing, but the growing distrust of civil servants and experts meant that the proper procedures were bypassed.

The second wave of anger was over sending infected people back into care homes from hospitals; then there was Partygate—which happened after the book was written so isn't in there. He said he lost his mother during COVID but, due to lockdown rules, half of his Glasgow family couldn't attend the funeral, but at that time, "they"—i.e. 10 Downing Street—were having a party. However much politicians hope it will, "that won't go away."

He also worried that at present, if politicians and other public figures are given certain information, "if they don't believe it, they don't believe it," whatever the evidence. He quoted Tony Blair on nuclear weapons in Iraq saying, "I only know what I believe," but, he said, that's surely the wrong way round. Liz Truss, our probably future Prime Minister, believes all our ills will be solved by tax cuts, but she isn't being interrogated on this. When TV industry figures and specialists were consulted over the privatisation of Channel 4, 97% of the respondents said they thought it was a bad idea, but Nadine Dorries went ahead anyway.

He said that "the Trump example" shows that you can get away with it by not being held to account: "don't engage with people who disagree with you and it'll be fine." He said it is important to show over the next two years that this doesn't work. His hero as a Prime Minister is Clement Attlee who appointed able people to run each department in the Cabinet and let them get on with it, but now everyone has to agree with the leader or they're out.

Iannucci doesn't think of himself as a satirist; he writes about what interests him. He said you should be able to say what you like in comedy, but it's possible to be lazy—you should think it through as attitudes change, so he wouldn't use certain words now. However, if someone says to him that people will be offended, his reaction is, "what's wrong with being offended?"

He finished off by saying he couldn't talk about social media as "Zuckerberg has my family" but that when a company says it is "going through a journey" it means "it is corrupt to the core."

The book, by the way, is wonderful and will easily take multiple readings, discovering more in it each time.

Reviewer: David Chadderton