Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa opened in UK cinemas yesterday and our friends over at AskMen.com have been lucky enough to sit down with the film’s screenwriters Neil and Rob Gibbons to talk about breaking into comedy and working with Steve Coogan on writing Alan Partridge from Mid Morning Matters through to Alpha Papa. They were also kind enough to let us share with you our highlight from the unedited interview so read on below where Neil and Rob discuss how they came to write for UK comedy’s most cringeworthy character and what collaborating with Steve Coogan is really like.
Neil: [Our] new agent sent the scripts to Baby Cow and literally within 48 hours we were sat in front of Henry Normal and Steve Coogan, with them saying “we really like your stuff, I really liked the line about” this or the way you did that.
Rob: When you’ve been struggling to get somewhere and you have those guys not just saying it’s good, but saying a specific line, then you’re just, “wow”. Actually, the line that Steve liked was pretty shit, but, you know.
It was a sitcom about a guy with an imaginary friend, of which there are quite a few around, but they just liked elements of it and some of the lines. So Steve said that he liked the Northern sensibility of it, which fitted with the way he used to do Paul and Pauline Calf. And that he’d been looking for writers for a few years with the same sensibility and quality of lines that could basically bring them back for a one-off. He then asked us if we’d be interested in doing that and coming up with a half-hour show. The meeting finished and we went to the lift. Steve’s assistant followed us out and said, “Boys, I know Steve can be quite forceful. I just wanted to let you know, it’s entirely up to you, you don’t have to say yes and take your time.” And we said, “Oh, thank you. We will, thank you.” And the lifts doors shut and we were like, “Of course we’re going to fucking do it!” So, anyway, we wrote it, but it didn’t for some reason. But from there, we started doing more stuff with them, mainly for the tour he did a few years ago with a lot of his characters.
Neil: At the party after his tour had wrapped up, Steve said that he was planning on Alan doing this travelogue programme, where he rediscovers the old Britain through blacksmiths and stuff like that. But the germ of that idea we later brought back for Places of My Life. But he seemed to like our Partridge style. There’s two versions of Alan, one on stage and one “real Alan”. Mid Morning Matters happened quite soon after that. From that point on, we’ve been all Partridge.
Rob: I remember being in meetings with Steve and improvising Partridge material. You have ten minutes of absolutely nothing and finally you get a great line and feel terrific for the rest of the day. And Neil would say to me the next day, “you realise that was in series two of I’m Alan Partridge, don’t you? I just didn’t want to say in the meetings.” 90% of the time it’s me, Neil and Steve in a room and Armando if he’s around.
Neil: He’s a sort-of godfather. He’s very good at anchoring things back to the Partridge essence. So, if you take too much of a divergence, he’ll close that road.
Rob: With Mid Morning Matters, which were self-contained 12 minute episodes just in the radio studio, we would write a script, take it in, pull it apart with Steve and rebuild it again. But sometimes we start from scratch with Steve in a room. Both times the process is the same, really. You start talking about the joke and why it doesn’t work and then try and improvise ways to fix it. And you have to sort-of do that in an Alan voice.
Neil: Even if you did the best Partridge impression in the world, it’s still going to be rubbish because you’re doing it in front of Alan Partridge.
Rob: But you have to go halfway because otherwise it’s not clear if it’ll work. Sometimes Steve will be “doing Alan” and then he’ll say something like “last night I saw a great episode of Air Crash Investigation,” and you haven’t realised he’s back as Steve. You’ll start writing it done and he’ll say, “Oh, no. That was me.”
Neil: On the day of the shoot, we’d often have to write fresh scripts! Everything we’ve ever done with Steve kinda goes like that. Even when they did I’m Alan Partridge in front of a live audience changes were being made right up until the last-minute.
Rob: And you have to buy into that or you’ll get spat out the other end. I remember on the first day of anything we do Partridge-wise, any new cast or crew just goes a bit pale. There’ll say, “This can’t be how it goes?” The first day of the film, all the assistant directors were just looking around as we’d be doing a take, then stop, change the line again. Get halfway through, stop, change it again. We were getting to somewhere good, but it wasn’t always set it stone when we started shooting it. The crew were all looking around saying, “Surely it can’t be like this for eight weeks?” They were coming up to Neil and I saying, “You’ve done this before, this is a one-off, right?” and we’d say, “No, no, this is quite a good day, actually.” And it went on from there.
Neil: As a writer though, those environments are good though, because you don’t ever become precious about lines. Because you’re writing new lines constantly. Just by its nature, once you start getting into that speed of churn, good stuff gets chucked out when it shouldn’t do. It has its benefits, too, and you come up with some inspired stuff on the day, when you’re there and react to what’s around you on set, but there is some unfortunate wastage. Armando on Twitter at the moment is burning though this 200 page document of unused Alan material. I guarantee that’ll be boiled down from many, many more pages. We’ve probably got more than that each. People ask how many drafts of the movie script did we do and I’m not sure there was ever even in a draft. There was just constantly a swirling cloud of starlings constantly juggling jokes in the air.
Neil: There’s more Mid Morning Matters lined up for early next year. So we’ve got six months. We had the book, the Sky specials and then the movie and I think we lost perspective a bit about what was funny and what was working and what wasn’t.
Rob: I think when you turn up at 6am for a day of shooting on a film and you don’t go home until 9pm and you’re at home doing rewrites until 2am, it’s very easy to think, “Fuck this”. It’s stressful and it’s hard work. But all of it is because we’re fussy and picky about wanting to make it good. It’s painful to do it. Good stuff doesn’t often come out when it’s too easy for you. You should never forget, too, that it’s Partridge. He’s a gift for a writer.
Neil: You hear those stories about American team writing, where you’ve got a ball-breaker sat around a table and it’s very industrial and things get shut down. With Partridge, it’s high pressure and you’ve got to bring your A game and come out with stuff on demand, but it’s always a laugh. It’s a really good laugh.
The rest of this interview detailing how to write comedy can be found at AskMen.com