Neil and Rob Gibbons on writing Alan Partridge's big screen debut
This month Norfolk’s premier broadcaster, Alan Partridge, makes his debut on the big screen in Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa. We speak to Neil and Rob Gibbons, the writing duo responsible for Partridge's glorious comeback
Sitcoms, as a general rule, make for lousy movies. But that didn’t stop the British film industry churning them out in the 1970s with the nonchalance of Kate Middleton squeezing out an heir to the throne. If you don’t believe me, tune your google box in to ITV4 of an early evening and you’ll find them there still haunting the airwaves: Steptoe and Son Ride Again, Mutiny on the Buses, The Alf Garnett Saga – and those are just the sequels. Over the last few decades, however, our appetite for feature length sitcoms seems to have waned, save for a few rare examples (the good – In the Loop (2009); the bad – The League of Gentlemen’s Apocalypse (2005); and the downright ugly – Keith Lemon: The Film (2012)).
However, the unexpected success of The Inbetweeners Movie, which ended its theatrical run as the UK’s third highest grossing film of 2011, has put the sitcom spin-off back in vogue. Jennifer Saunders has announced that she’s currently working on a feature length version of her riot of bad taste and badder behaviour, Absolutely Fabulous, while this month Steve Coogan’s most enduring creation, Alan Partridge, finally finds a medium big enough to contain his considerable ego – his own movie, Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa.
The cynical might suggest that Alpha Papa is an equally cynical cash in, but unlike most other TV comedy spin-offs, which tend to appear around the time the series in question is past its sell-by date, Alan Partridge is as popular and as funny as he ever was in his mid-90s heyday, what with a best selling autobiography (I, Partridge: We Need to Talk About Alan) and Mid Morning Matters, the hilarious bite-sized internet series that served as the character’s comeback in 2010.
Behind that book and internet series, and co-writers of the upcoming film, are comedy writing duo Neil and Rob Gibbons, 35-year-old twin brothers who’ve gone from scripting a few gags for Coogan’s grotesque Calf siblings characters (Paul and Pauline) to being Partridge’s chief writers.
A few weeks before Alpha Papa makes its world premiere in Partridge’s spiritual home of Norwich, I spoke to the Cheshire-born brothers via a three way conference call to discuss their involvement with the film and I start by asking what it’s like to be writing for a long established character, especially one so iconic and much-loved as Partridge?
“We watched Partridge growing up but we’d avoided becoming anoraks. We liked it but there are a lot of blokes that know every word he’s ever spoken,” reveals Neil. This might sound like a hindrance, but, in fact, Partridge’s creator also has a blurry recollection of the Norwich broadcaster’s back catalogue. “When Steve is walking down the street there are people who’ll shout a Partridge line at him but he just thinks they are abusing him because he can’t remember saying it himself. So we had an understanding.” And this lack of obsession over the character’s past means they weren’t beholden to doing Partridge the way that he had always been done.
Another reason why Neil and Rob felt comfortable putting their own stamp on Coogan’s character was that Partridge had been off our screens for nearly a decade. “Alan was in a slightly different place in his life,” explains Rob, when I ask how the Partridge of Mid Morning Matters and Alpha Papa differs from the one we saw in the last episode of I’m Alan Partridge in 2002. “He’d sort of changed as a person in the same way that real people change. He’s sort of softened a little bit. He’s less of a desperate schoolboy, he’s now someone trying to be a a bit more relaxed and cool.”
He’s certainly more relaxed. It’s hard to imagine the Partridge of old discussing his erectile dysfunction live on air, as he does on an episode of Mid Morning Matters (for the record, he blamed his lack of tumescence on being distracted during foreplay when he remembered his tax disc was out of date). Rob puts this freshness down to a pact he and his brother made with Coogan when they initially sat down to work on Mid Morning Matters: “Neil, Steve and I decided collectively that we were going to try and avoid the Partridge clichés,” he explains. “People, for example, always think about Partridge and James Bond. Since we’ve started doing Partridge we haven’t done any Bond whatsoever because that feels like it’s just too easy a place to go.”
“The thing about Partridge is that if you’re determined to sort of just make him a collection of greatest hits, buzz words from the past, then he stops to feel like a real person,” continues Neil. “He’s more of a sort of frame of mind than a checklist of hobbies and interests; he’s got a skewed way of looking at things and a sort of desperation to be respected. And that just broadens your scope massively because you’re not ploughing the same furrow all the time.”
“The thing about Partridge is that if you’re determined to make him a collection of greatest hits, buzz words from the past, then he stops to feel like a real person” – Neil Gibbons
As laid back as the new 2.0 version of Partridge is, he’s still prone to some fairly dark thoughts. While interviewing a Tory councillor on an episode of Mid Morning Matters his mind segues to Fred and Rosemary West when he tries to come up with an example of a coalition, and when discussing counter insurgency techniques with a reluctant secret serviceman, Partridge invents a hypothetical scenario where Bill Oddie has radicalised an RSPB terrorist cell after a Russian oligarch has eaten the last osprey egg in Britain for breakfast. How do they get into that warped mindset? The answer, they reveal, is improvisation. And awkwardly they often do this improv in the same room as the man who’s played Partridge for over two decades.
“What we do, is me, Neil and Steve sit round a table and the three of us sort of improvise as Partridge and when we come across a half-decent line we’ll write it down,” explains Rob. “Steve will obviously do the Alan voice, but we feel we’ve got to give it a go too so we can differentiate from when we’re just speaking.”
“To be fair, Steve doesn’t always throw himself into doing the Partridge voice,” says Neil. And this can often lead to confusion. “Sometimes he’ll just be improvising as Alan and he’ll say he saw a brilliant episode of Air Crash Investigation last night and you’ll start laughing, but then you’ll realise that he’s actually talking as Steve Coogan.” So the line between Steve Coogan and Alan Partridge is quite hazy, then? “You can never tell if he’s berating you for being stupid,” says Neil, “or if he’s improvising a line that Alan would say to Lynn [his put-upon, but ever faithful PA, played by the great Felicity Montagu, who, the brothers inform me, will make an appearance in Alpha Papa]. It’s weird, you’ve got to stay on your toes.”
This anecdote perhaps reveals why Partridge has been so enduring. Beginning life as the sports correspondent on Chris Morris’s seminal spoof current affairs show On The Hour in the early 90s, Partridge has proved a rather durable character, going on to host his own spoof chat show Knowing Me, Knowing You, being the centre of the brilliantly awkward sitcom I’m Alan Partridge, and he’s slipped seamlessly into the online world of Mid Morning Matters. And now he’s about to be a movie star. Why can’t Steve Coogan, despite his flirtations with Hollywood and ‘serious’ acting (this month also sees Coogan star in What Maisie Knew, a drama based on Henry James’s novel of the same name), let go of Partridge?
“There was a slight clue in the title of the tour he did in 2009,” suggests Rob, “which was just called Steve Coogan – As Alan Partridge And Other Less Successful Characters. I think there’s some truth in the fact that Alan is the character Steve was born to do, and when you can do something at that level I supposed you’re loath just to let it die.”