First published on 23 Jun 2010. Updated on 4 May 2012.
I'm standing in a cramped room full of wires and monitors and young runners with clipboards in a seventeenth-century mansion on the edge of north London. It's been turned into a mini film studio for In The Loop, a political comedy from the team behind The Thick of It. Next door there's a room dressed to look like an office in Downing Street - wooden panels, mahogany desk, and on the windowsill a tasteful model of a rampant horse. Elsewhere in London, set designers are busying themselves for other scenes that will be shot in the coming weeks: a sports hall in Mill Hill will double as the inside of the US State Department, and the Royal Festival Hall will miraculously become the interior of the United Nations headquarters.
Director and writer Armando Iannucci has already satirised the psycho that lurks deep within the political psychology of Whitehall in his TV series The Thick of It. Now, for cinema, he's shepherding many of the same team back and forth across the Atlantic to envisage what might go on behind closed doors in London and Washington in the lead-up to a not-so-fictional war in the Middle East.
I hear the actor Peter Capaldi through my headphones before I see him. He's playing to the camera next door, while Iannucci is sitting across from me watching the action unfold on his video monitor. I take a look. There he is: Capaldi is playing Malcolm, the Glaswegian enforcer, a government spin-lizard with eyes so deep in their sockets that you wonder if he ever sleeps and language so blue Yves Klein could paint with it.
"You're a fucking farce. I should just replace you with a Benny Hill chase sequence and some jazzy saxophone and be done with it," Capaldi is barking at Chris Addison, immediately recognisable as the lanky, shaggy-haired actor who played political lackey Olly alongside Capaldi in The Thick of It. Today, Addison is playing a chap named Toby who is Olly in everything but name: a Whitehall wannabe with a sado-masochistic desire to work with arseholes and a taste for sleeping with women on the other side of the political divide (this time he has a one-night stand with a US State Department flunky). Also in the scene are actors Tom Hollander and Gina McKee, both new to Iannucci's gang. McKee is playing a civil service press chief; Hollander takes the role of Simon Foster, a government minister at the centre of a sharp-tongued game of political intrigue. Hollander is a politician with less power than he thinks. It's a role similar to the one played by Chris Langham in the first series of The Thick of It, before his conviction for downloading child pornography ruled him out of any further involvement in the series.
During a break, I grab Hollander. He's feeling nervous about stepping into a comic troupe with such a strong reputation for combining on-the-edge comedy with sharp political commentary. Before The Thick of It, Iannucci collaborated with Chris Morris on The Day Today.
Before that, he worked with Steve Coogan on the Alan Partridge shows and hosted his own comic news review, Friday Night Armistice. You can understand why Hollander, a classical actor with roles in Gosford Park and Pride and Prejudice under his belt, might feel a little out of his comfort zone. Iannucci works with a script but likes his actors to muck in and improvise wherever possible, to keep the mood fresh and topical.
"I feel liberated by being able to improvise, but I feel burdened by the shadow of The Thick of It," Hollander says, as he sinks into a sofa outside his dressing room. "It's slightly weird coming into a story that's half been told before. Some days I don't feel like I'm walking on virgin snow. I'm not playing the same character, but I'm aware of the energy that Chris Langham had in a similar role. And I'm intimidated by the
cleverness of the other performers who have done it before and who are writers as well as actors."
Foster is a fresh-faced secretary of state for the Department of International Development (DFID) who gives a disastrous appearance on a political debate show at the start of the film, which positions him in opposition to a brewing war. An even more disastrous attempt at damage limitation inadvertently makes him a "hawk" in the eyes of the US and British governments. This secures his role as a political pawn: his inexperience and idealism make him an ideal plaything for hardened crocodiles like Malcolm. Soon, Simon is in Washington, hob-nobbing with a US army major, played by James Gandolfini, and an ineffectual, canapé-loving British ambassador to the UN (Alex MacQueen, who was the wily, balding Julius Nicholson in The Thick of It).
Iannucci tells me that he sees In the Loop as a cousin of The Thick of It. The similarities are everywhere, down to the docu-style, handheld camerawork evident on the monitors (it's the same director of photography) and the anti-West Wing production design that throws all notions of political glamour out the window. The writing team of Jesse Armstrong (who co-writes Peep Show), Simon Blackwell, Tony Roche and Iannucci is intact. Each day there's a writer on set - as well as Iannucci - to offer the cast extra lines and to adapt scenes off the cuff. The script that I read before coming on set crackles with superb one-liners, but it is very long: the idea is that they'll cut and add scenes as they go along.
I watch a scene between Capaldi and Hollander. Their characters spend ten minutes batting lines that debate the nuances of being "on the verge of making a stand". It's a masterclass in serio-comic absurdity. Hollander: "I'm in the antechamber of statement." Capaldi: "The PM doesn't want people on the verge. He doesn't want vergers." When Iannucci calls out "Cut!", co-producer Kevin Loader turns to me: "That was very free. That had very little to do with the script after the first three lines."
Later on, Iannucci recalls the scene. "One of the reasons we have this partly improvised style is because the whole thing is about people sort of making things up as they go along. These two characters talk bollocks for about ten minutes, but out of that bollocks there were one or two moments when they really nailed the absurdity of this pathetic position that Simon is adopting. And it feels real as well."
The looming war is central to In the Loop. We learn there's a possible conflict in the Middle East and that Britain and the US might be involved. But beyond that there are no details. Writer Simon Blackwell explains how they deliberately dance around the specifics. "The issue of the war becomes somehow anaesthetised; very few people talk about people being killed and the horrors of it. It becomes a theoretical thing." That said, everyone I speak to on the set makes it clear that Iraq is in everyone's mind. Hollander even hints that his character is at least partly inspired by Hilary Benn, who was secretary of state at DFID between 2003 and 2007 and remained in the cabinet during the war in Iraq.
Blackwell considers Hollander's government minister to be the moral heart of the film: a young man trying to make a stand at DFID but lured into the snake-pit of international diplomacy. "Simon's central dilemma is that he went into politics to do good. By working in international development, he thinks you can make decisions that save or transform lives. But he's also feeling the pull of power, which he can justify slightly by saying: 'I need power to do anything.' Reality comes into play, and he can't be Bono. He has to be Phil Collins or whoever is the opposite of Bono."
There's something intimidating about speaking to Capaldi so soon after hearing him scream with venom ("Christ on a bendy bus!") on set. Talk, perhaps inevitably, considering he plays an aggressive communications chief, turns to Alastair Campbell. "Obviously he's an influence. When we started nobody said: This is supposed to be Alastair Campbell, but obviously in the foul-mouthed, cynical spin-doctor category there is only one über-spinner, unless you're going to be Peter Mandelson, which is much more of an iron fist in a velvet glove."
Somewhere in the parish of British cinema is a mass grave marked "sitcoms that died on the big screen". So it's little wonder that when you talk to Iannucci and some of his collaborators they're keen to distance themselves slightly from the The Thick of It. Iannucci likes to think of In the Loop as running parallel to The Thick of It rather than continuing where the series left off. "It's not The Thick of It: The Movie,' co-producer Adam Tandy tells me. "It's essentially a new thing, with its own slice of the universe." Iannucci develops this line further: "It's implied that the world of The Thick of It does exist in the film, but in a separate building.
"Peter [Capaldi] and I have agreed that Malcolm's opinion about the Ministry of Social Affairs, which was the focus of the TV show, was that it was just one of 12 of these fuckers he's got to deal with every day. So he's always in a rush, he's always annoyed. With this, it's more critical. There's a war on the way. Also, Malcolm has to deal with people in America who he can't fight and he doesn't like that."
Back on set, Capaldi is off again. "You sounded like a fucking Nazi Julie Andrews!" he bellows at Hollander's red-faced Simon, who has just told a reporter that the government is "climbing the mountain of conflict". Then he spits an even bigger mouthful of bile at Addison's Toby: "Shut up, stem cell."
Scene over, Kevin Loader, the film's other co-producer, who was responsible for such British films as Captain Corelli's Mandolin and Enduring Love, turns to me and laughs at the dialogue we've just heard. Loader, who is working with Iannucci for the first time, says there was never any question of toning down the language for the big screen. "I don't think there'll be an airline version," he deadpans. "It won't play between LA and Chicago."
In the Loop is out now on DVD (Madman, $34.95)
More on In the Loop? Malcolm Tucker - interview, Armando Iannucci - interview