With 'Peep Show' & 'The Thick Of It' co-writer Jesse Armstrong
Peter Capaldi as Malcolm Tucker in 'In The Loop'

If you see a decent British comedy on TV then the chances are that Peep Show co-creator and The Thick Of It co-writer Jesse Armstrong had a creative input. He provided Clash with a detailed overview of the writing process behind hit comedy In The Loop

Four days into filming the sixth series of cult sitcom Peep Show and Jesse Armstrong is keeping his cards close to his chest. “With a long-running show you come back to writing with a fear that the well could be dry,” he admits. A promise of some “quite big story arc events” is all that he can offer. Similarly, he’s adamant that he’d rather leave details about his work on Chris Morris’ eagerly anticipated Four Lions to the man himself.

Happily he’s more revealing on the topic of the Armando Iannucci directed In The Loop. Wannabe sitcom scriptwriters take heed…

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'In The Loop' Trailer

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It seems that the challenge of this film would be to keep The Thick Of It audience happy while also doing something different for the big screen. How do you reconcile those differences?
It was Armando’s job to try to accommodate that leap from a show loved by a small number of people into something that would work as a film. From the writing point of view it had a bigger canvas and a bigger subject matter. Although we were writing at times for an American cast, the writing process was actually pretty similar.

TV comedies adapted for film often lose the spirit of what made them special in the first place. How do you avoid that scenario?
Why it’s been such a happy exception to the rule is that Armando saw that it was the right way to go to have it allied with Peter Capaldi’s character continuing, but to have a slightly different world. It’s not the same characters, it’s not the same show, you’re not just putting the same thing on the big screen. Often when sitcoms try to find a big enough subject for a film, they can’t. Most sitcoms are domestic in character so they overreach - the cliché is obviously going abroad, as if that gives you the bigger canvas you need for a movie. We were fortunate that the world of politics has a bigger story that’s very natural. Also Armando wanted to do something not specifically about the Iraq War, but the feeling generated around the war.

You’re part of a team of writers on In The Loop. How does that work in practice?
It’s exactly the same format as used in The Thick Of It. Armando holds it together in the middle. Simon Blackwell, Tony Roche and I meet him then come up with the story line. Us three go away and do the storyline then send it to Armando to be okayed and do the initial drafts. Then Ian Martin does additional material and rewrites as well. So it’s a five-man team but all broken down into different compartments. It never feels unwieldy.

So what do you personally bring to the writing?
Once we had the storyline mapped out with Armando, each of us took an act each, if you think of it as a three-act movie. I had the first crack at the first act, Simon at the second and Tony at the third. We looked at them all, Armando gave us notes and we did another rewrite and passed them around. It’s not like one person does the plot, one does the jokes and one does the politics, but we all have our different strengths.

I think a lot of the film’s strength seems to be in the balance of the humour; obviously it’s primarily satirical but there’s also more accessible humour such as the creativity of the swearing and Steve Coogan’s side character.
Again, credit to Armando. The script was so huge and in the edit it was obvious that he had a great eye for mixing up the tone. We wrote that stuff but it was Armando who made the crucial edits to ensure that the tone had variation but also remained consistent.

How about the research behind the film? Did you look back on your time as an MP’s researcher for example?
My experiences in politics now form just a sense that I have of what it’s like to be around politicians. It doesn’t really inform the film in a very specific way but it helps me to feel my way in writing. The film itself was informed by a lot of detailed research as well as the Woodward book [Bob Woodward’s Plan Of Attack] and the No Plan, No Peace documentary. They went on a research visit to Washington to get information on what the people are like as well as anecdotes and stories from bloggers, diplomats and politicians. Hopefully the research isn’t worn heavily in the movie, but it’s there so we felt confident in the world that we were writing about.

Words by Ben Hopkins

Optimum release In The Loop on DVD and Blu-ray on August 24th.

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