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"We're good at television!"
A region 2 DVD review of THE ARMANDO IANNUCCI SHOWS by Slarek
 

If the name Armando Iannucci is unfamiliar to you then fear not, you're likely to be in good company. He's never been on the front cover of Radio Times, you won't see his face on advertising billboards, and he's never been dropped into the jungle and asked that they get him out of there. But then for the most part Iannucci has been positioned firmly behind the camera as a writer and producer on such shows as The Day Today, Knowing Me, Knowing You and I'm Alan Partridge. Not a bad pedigree.

In late August of 2001 a new Iannucci show appeared, one starring not Chris Morris or Steve Coogan, but Iannucci himself, and as himself. A bit of a risk, especially for a Channel Four already corrupted by Big Brother and the like, but the cult potential was there, and if enough people saw it then word of mouth would...

Three shows in, two planes were flown in to the World Trade Centre in New York and the only thing the majority of TV viewers were watching was the news and the plethora of opportunistic documentary and current affairs programs that sprang up in the incident's wake. Iannucci's show was seen by a few, and they did talk about it, and later repeat screenings expanded the audience further, but we're still talking a very small following here, not enough to convince the television types that a second season would be worth their while. Which is something of a shame.

Iannucci's approach might best be described as observational surrealism, scattershot comments on small but significant aspects of everyday life played out with the slightly fractured reality of a just-before-you-wake dream. As well as featuring in many of the sketches, Iannucci provides the sometimes tenuous links as a slightly cynical, slightly paranoid everyman who confides in his audience and shares his views on the world as it affects and worries him. Largely self-depreciating, his insecurities will doubtless prompt some sympathetic nods – his inability to function effectively in social and business situations, his difficulty parking in vehicle-packed side roads, his failure to kick a ball in public or dress for a jog without prompting howls of derision – but it's when he connects these to an underlying conspiracy theory that he really moves into interesting territory. His failed attempts to hold sway with a crowd of football supporters watching a match in a pub, for example, turn out not to be down to his lack of sporting knowledge but because the supporters are all being fed up-to-date information through ear-pieces from experts located in the pub cellar. And that guy who is always the life and soul of the party is shown only able to be so because someone is hiding witty lines of dialogue for him in his food.

Several characters re-occur throughout the series, from the insufferable television execs to the hilarious Hugh, an old man who recalls his youth as a sort of alternate reality in which elements of modern life seem to have slipped back through a worm hole ("Of course the internet was in black and white in those days and was only on for three hours a day – we used to get dressed up in our Sunday best to log on to it"). One of the funniest has to be the straightforwardly named East End Thug (played by familiar face Alan Ford, who played Bricktop Polford in Snatch), who fixes a washing machine by barking threats at it and loudly berates a woman in her own home for not reading every word of the current issue of The Observer. But top prize has to go to Iannucci's barber, whose slightly accented, often nonsensical stream-of-consciousness ramblings repeatedly reduced me to fits of giggles.*

Many of the sketches are downright inspired. Personal favourites include the quiet country village that hires an East European sniper to spice up their lives by shooting at them, the 'Walking With Nazis' TV show parody, the man who accidentally screws his hand to a wardrobe and is too embarrassed to tell his wife, the impassioned plea by Kenyan villagers to save British theatre, the couple who are shown around a house that turns out to have been drawn by mischievous children, the nun who runs a home for middle-aged men (the lead performance alone sells this sketch), and the man who follows the sound of his young daughter's imaginative storytelling to discover that the fantasy creatures she is talking about are all real – "Don't tell anyone about this!" she sternly warns, then sends him away.

Iannucci's past association with Chris Morris is frequently evident in the structure and tone (there are occasional similarities to Morris' pioneering Jam), and in his cheerful skirting with the taste barrier – the priest who sleeps with all of his parishioners, the young schoolgirls whooping with delight at a male puppet doing a striptease, the design consultants who help a woman fashion a really effective suicide note, the Knife Attack reunion in which the attackers joke and exchange funny stories with their victims – just stopping short at the point where Morris would leap in with both feet. But this is no criticism of Iannucci's approach, which is different enough to that of the mighty Morris to give this show its own very specific and instantly engaging identity. If you've not caught it on its two TV runs – and most did not – then I'd really recommend checking it out. It has all the makings of a cult show (being cancelled after one season certainly helps), but it's also smart, inventive, and often very, very funny.

sound and vision

Framed 16:9 and anamorphically enhanced, the show was shot largely on what looks like digibeta with a few DV inserts and looks as good as most other UK shows shot in this format – if you have any VCI discs of UK comedy series you'll have an idea what to expect. Good detail, colour and contrast, with deliberate variances on all three caused by filters and post-production effects. On the whole, an unsurprisingly pleasing transfer.

Sound is the standard Dolby 2.0 stereo and does the job clearly and with some stereo separation, but there's nothing flash going on here.

extra features

For a show that only ran one season and few have actually seen, The Armando Iannucci Shows have received decent treatment on DVD. There are some very nicely designed menus and transitions, and the extra features here, though not exactly numerous, are nonetheless all very worthwhile.

Most surprising is that there is a commentary track on all eight episodes, the first four featuring Armando Iannucci, fellow producer Adam Tandy and fellow writers Kevin Cecil and Andy Riley, the last two of whom are replaced by producer Davis Schneider on the final four episodes. All of these commentaries are furiously busy with stories, information about the making of the show and specific scenes, and the world in general, and there is even intermittent information provided on the European Champions League final, which was playing out at the time the commentary was recorded. This is an absolute must for anyone who enjoyed the show, as the banter is sometimes as comical as the series itself and occasionally as risky on matters of taste, not least in the rather jocular remarks about the September 11th attacks (a date Iannucci insists be referred to under the British date system of 11/9) and how they affected the show's first screening. Consistently interesting and entertaining, there's never a dull moment here, and once you hear one, like the show itself, you'll either tune out or be in for the full eight.

There are a six deleted/extended scenes: Kangaroo (2:02) extends one of the barber's ramblings; Great Adult (3:50) is a fuller version of Iannucci's school class on being an adult; Coma (1:14) is a scene discussed in the commentary in which a tape of East End Thug threatening horrible consequences is used to revive a coma victim; Nut Allergy (3:09) is a further sketch featuring the elderly upper-middle-class couple at dinner; St. Francis (0:57) has the barber suggesting a fight between Lennox Lewis and St. Francis of Assisi; Traffic Lights (1:34) features more material of the company man whose ideas no-one takes seriously; and Porn Film (6:03) looks behind the scenes on a porn film shoot in which the star refuses to go naked and demands script revisions to make the story more realistic.

Cast & Crew lists just about everyone who had anything to do with the show.

One final thing I will mention is probably not included with the DVD, but you never know. Just for the record I'm working from a press copy of the series, a plain-looking disc in a clear plastic case, with details of the production supplied on an accompanying press release. Usually these are fairly straightforward black-and-white A4 affairs, but just occasionally you get one that can't help but put a smile on your face, and the 4-page A4 colour piece here is just such a case. Wittily written in Iannucci's own style (I could almost believe it was written by him – maybe it was, but full marks to whoever did if not), it provides an amusing and everso slightly cynical introduction to the series. Quietly mocking the misleading use of terms like 'special edition' and 'collector's edition' on DVD covers, it reproduces a favourable quote from celebrity gossip magazine Heat and then proceeds to wonder "in reality what can a plumbing magazine know about an eight part comedy series originally broadcast on Channel 4?" A similarly positive line from The Observer prompts the question "What can a publication about standing and watching life go by really tell us?" I can only hope some of this made it to the DVD cover. If it does, make sure you give it a read.

summary

An unusual and imaginative oddity that fell victim to circumstances that effectively killed the show after just once series. You could argue, quite rightly, that it lacks the sheer satirical bite of Chris Morris of the sink-through-the-floor comedy-of-embarrassment that Steve Coogan nailed with Alan Partridge, but part of the charm of The Armando Iannucci Shows is their disarmingly gentle approach and the everyday nature of their observations. The programme is well served on Freemantle's DVD, and we can only hope that its release finds the show a few more fans.



* A typical example: "Something people don't realise about Emma Freud is that she's got a big spider tattoo all over her head. And she's also got an antler growing out of her head as well. Yeah, just the one. She used to have two, but she lost the other one in a fight with Sade, in the gutter, back in 1986. They was fighting over some man or something like that, the usual sort of thing. Anyway they locked horns, so to speak, and I think one of Emma Freud's antlers got caught in Sade's jaws, because she's got them, uh, detachable jaws, a bit like a snake, you know, so she can swallow big objects whole, like, for example, I don't know, like a little baby pony, or a football or something like that. And that's what gives her a distinctive singing voice."

The Armando Iannucci Shows

UK 2001
196 mins
director
Armando Iannucci
starring
Armando Iannucci
Stephen Mangan
Ian Ashpitel
Steve Brody
Donald Douglas
Alan Ford

DVD details
region 2
video
16:9 anamorphic
sound
Dolby stereo 2.0
languages
English
subtitles
English
extras

Crew commentary on all eight episodes

Deleted and extended scenes
Cast & Crew details
distributor
Freemantle Media
release date
4 September 2006
review posted
9 September 2004

See all of Slarek's reviews