HBO EnterprisesBreaking into the American market: sooner or later every Brit worth their salt has a go. Satirist Armando Iannucci, having flirted with the US in In The Loop, the feature length version of his hit political series The Thick Of It, is making solid progress towards achieving this goal. His new sitcom is based on the political travails of the 'Veep' - the vice president of the United States.
So much of Iannucci's work is about the comedy of impotence, and Veep is no exception. Seinfeld's Julia Louis-Dreyfus stars as Selina Meyer, whose desperate attempts to make a difference are continually overshadowed by the president. The office she holds is afforded huge respect - motorcades and rooms full of hundreds of people are in a different league to the British politicians Iannucci has satirised. Behind closed doors, though, the story is the same: Meyer's influence is very, very limited indeed. She starts off fairly naive, making stupid mistakes, but ends up getting "more fragile and wily as the series progresses", Iannucci says. She wins significant victories by compromising her principles. That sounds familiar, doesn't it?
Translating Iannucci's free-flowing style of comedy across the Atlantic has its challenges. Perhaps the most obvious difference is the level of swearing: while it is hardly oath-free, there is significantly less profanity in Veep than there is in The Thick Of It. Iannucci says his team did research on this point. The state department doesn't swear (it would be very undiplomatic to do so) but at the Pentagon they "swear like dockers", he tells an audience of British political journalists in parliament. Democrats are thought to swear more than Republicans in the White House. But only if the Republicans are the religious-right kind. If they're the business-right-wing kind, all bets are off.
Less swearing isn't necessarily a disadvantage. And this is far from being the sort of show you'd want to watch with a six-year-old. In the opening episode the veep's speech is "pencil-f***ed" by the White House, which scribbles out huge sections. That was a real phrase, Iannucci says, in Washington. He did his research by asking the real political staffers in Barack Obama's White House and current vice president Joe Biden's office. Washington insiders say the characters are very true to life.
Despite the pencil-f***s, Malcolm Tucker's character is replaced by an inverse version of himself in the form of Jonah, the charmless junior White House staffer who has to be listened to because of who his boss is. That just reflects the fact this isn't a straight transferral of The Thick Of It to Washington. The series don't have the same storylines. What does remain the same is Iannucci's style: the script is left behind as much as possible once shooting begins to conjure up that very distinctive, realistic style. American actors seem more adept at letting go of the script than their British counterparts, he claims. Perhaps it has something to do with their more "filmic" background.
The actors were chosen for their "skills and abilities to interact - to not be proprietorial and work as part of a team". The cast is impressive: Anna Chlumsky returns after her role in In The Loop as Amy, the V-P's chief of staff; the excellent Tony Hale (Buster in Arrested Development) plays Gary, her body man. Matt Walsh, of Outsourced, plays Mike, Meyer's battered spokesperson.
Louis-Dreyfus as the harassed, distracted Meyer steals the show, however. Her character's dilemma is how far to compromise to make a difference and do the right thing. "What I'm interested in is showing the process we have and what it does to politicians," Iannucci explains. "I find the characters who come out of The Thick Of It who you sympathise with most are the elected politicians. The ones you have less sympathy for are the droves of people around them.
"Does it do more harm than good - by putting more people off politics? I don't have an answer to that."
Actually, he does. Iannucci observes that he doesn't think an interest in politics has declined. Party politics might be struggling, but non-traditional single-issue campaigns like Occupy and the Countryside Alliance are on the way up. The problem, he suggests, is the system. People "don't know where they go to have the discussion."
Ordinary people don't feature much in either Veep or The Thick Of It, which is itself perhaps a reflection of the state of things. Shooting has finished on what Iannucci says will probably be the final series of The Thick Of It. Tucker and Nicola Murray are now in opposition, making Peter Mannion the minister. But he is in coalition with a third party, known as 'the inbetweeners', who have their own demands. The Andy Coulson figure, the "f****er", doesn't feature much. He "wasn't a good appointment", as it turns out. Policies become more important, with compromises between the two governing parties at the heart of the matter.
Iannucci is a busy man. A new Alan Partridge movie is in the works, being written now and set to be shot early next year. The Thick Of It's final series is currently being edited, and will hopefully be ready this autumn.
For those too impatient to wait until then, Veep is about to start its British screening on Sky Atlantic HD on June 25th. It is slicker than any of Iannucci's UK work, and definitely less in-your-face. But there's no questioning who's responsible for its anarchic, anything-could-happen feel. Having swept Whitehall aside with consummate ease, now Washington is wilting before Iannucci's withering gaze.