Last year, one of the great British TV comedy creations, Norfolk local DJ and disastrous BBC chat show presenter Alan Partridge, returned after nearly a decade off our screens. Three things were notable about the comeback, Mid Morning Matters. First, it was presented online, sponsored by a brand of weak lager and issued without much fanfare in ten-minute webisodes. Second and more important, it was good: fans watched the first episode through nervously squinting eyes, but were relieved to see Steve Coogan’s alter ego slimmed down, boxed in and spouting vintage Partridgean lines.
Third, and perhaps most startling, Mid Morning Matters had been co-written by two blokes nobody had ever heard of.
Since then, Neil and Rob Gibbons have masterminded Alan Partridge’s autobiography and begun work on a film about him, which is set for release in 2013. And tonight, the first of two Sky Atlantic specials – Welcome to the Places of My Life with Alan Partridge – marks Alan’s reappearance on proper TV. Again, the Gibbons brothers are behind it.
I ring them and, apparently, interrupt a heated debate. What’s going on? “Just a few arguments between me and Rob,” says Neil (left in pic). “But that’s sibling rivalry, it always happens.”
The pair, originally from Sandbach, Cheshire but now based in London, are not just siblings but twins, aged 34. But they’re not the sort to dress identically and sleep in bunk beds – this is a conference call, because they’re on opposite sides of town.
“We have to work in different post codes,” Neil goes on. “Otherwise we’d be like two spiders in a jam jar. We have to be remote enough from each other that it can’t come to blows even if you’d like it to. We work out what each one’s doing over the phone or instant messaging, then scurry off and write bits. Then we argue about it again.”
The twins’ writing is clearly worth the stress. Tonight’s programme, a mockumentary in which Alan presents his own very personal guide to Norwich and Norfolk (“A Partridge pilgrimage. A Partrimage. A Pilgrimartridge. A Partrimiligrimage”), is up there with the best TV Partridge there’s ever been: with not a duff scene in the hour, we’re talking I’m Alan Partridge series one standard.
Next week’s programme, Open Books with Martin Bryce, is a fake literary discussion in which the guest – Alan Partridge – reads extracts from his book and talks pretentiously about his writing process. It’s a gentler, lower-key beast than Welcome, but still high-grade Partridge.
More of those later. The script Neil and Rob Gibbons are wrestling with as we speak is the much anticipated Partridge movie. Armando Iannucci, who co-created Alan Partridge for Radio 4’s On The Hour more than 20 years ago, let slip last week that it will see Alan’s current workplace, North Norfolk Digital, taken over by a faceless media corporation and renamed Shape. The Gibbons brothers reiterate this, but say it’d be wrong to draw any parallels with Steve Coogan’s recent battles against News International, as some press reports did.
“It never occurred to us that it’s the Murdoch empire,” says Neil. “North Norfolk Digital is bought by one of those big media companies that try to homogenise the output so you get very vanilla, corporate radio. For all Alan’s faults, and much as he’d probably like to be, he’s not very corporate. But that’s just the starting point.”
So what happens then? The brothers are, understandably, unwilling to give details. Neil reveals that: “Alan is put in a position where he has to make a decision between his petty, selfish considerations and something more heroic.”
Rob confirms that the action will be set entirely in Norwich and its environs. “What we should have done is write in some glamorous locations, but we’ve put together a film where we won’t leave East Anglia. Our fault. Not too late to rewrite, though…”
Which comedy films did they watch for inspiration? Neil: “The films we’ve talked about have tended not to be comedy films. They’ve been films that are quite compact, detailed, driven by character and which hinge on a single large incident.”
There won’t be a bigger, shinier, multiplex Alan?
Neil: “It’s a tightrope. You don’t want to betray the Alan people love: parochial, small, obsessed with details. But at the same time you don’t want to make a 90-minute episode of a sitcom. You want it to earn its place in a cinema and the story needs to justify that. He’s Alan 2012, the version you see in the Sky specials and in Mid Morning Matters.”
Iannucci is co-writing the movie, while I’m Alan Partridge co-writer Peter Baynham is less intimately involved. (Rob: “The problem with Pete is he’s too good and too successful. He’s in Hollywood.”) The Gibbonses are clearly integral to the project. And on the two Sky specials, it’s just them and Coogan, with Iannucci as exec producer.
Mid Morning Matters, which introduced Alan’s current gig at microscopic regional radio station North Norfolk Digital, was the first time the Gibbons brothers wrote Partridge for the screen. After the dismayingly unsubtle second series of I’m Alan Partridge on BBC2 in 2002, fans were pleasantly amazed to see the character return with new focus, trapped in a small studio.
“He’s evolved. When we came up with the idea of Mid Morning Matters, you suddenly had to strip away anything too farcical and focus on the inner workings,” says Neil. “He’s on the up again! He’s working at a station where he gets to call more of the shots. That’s where he comes alive, in a radio station. He’s having a bit of a second wind.”
After Mid Morning Matters was well received, the brothers found themselves as the chief writers of I, Partridge, the great man’s memoirs. Published last year, it was a sensationally funny spoof autobiography: 87,000 words – or seven hours in the audiobook version – of juicy, sirloin Alan. It’s the best in-character comedy book since Christopher Douglas trashed B-list luvviedom with the similarly titled I, An Actor, the writings of fictional actor Nicholas Craig.
The Gibbons twins, it turns out, knocked off their masterpiece in six weeks. Coogan and Iannucci threw in comments, contributions and ideas, but the brothers churned out the bulk of it, writing chapters individually before comparing notes with the team. Neil: “Some of it was almost entirely written round the table in the writing room, and when we sent it to Armando he’d say drop this, you need more of that. He’d throw in jokes. But if it had been written by committee like a TV show, we’d still be writing it.”
Nobody’s better placed, then, to discuss the 2012 version of Alan Partridge, the one we see in the Sky specials. And he is different: still pompous, pathetic and furious with cyclists, but slightly calmer and more self-aware. Slightly.
Rob: “Alan 2012 is more liberal. Early on, you could easily see him with a copy of the Daily Mail in his hand. Now… well, he might still read it, but I’m sure he’d be very comfortable with gay marriages, for example. Although he’d talk about it to such an extent that he protested too much.”
Neil: “We play with that struggle, that inner turmoil about how confident he is in what he believes. We don’t want him to be a caricature of a little Englander. We want him to have mellowed a bit and become a bit more thoughtful.”
Adds Rob: “Alan is a gift to a writer because he can be contradictory: he can be liberal and right-wing, stupid and well-read. Almost anything you think might be funny, Alan can get away with. But the other thing about Alan 2012 is that he’s a bit more at ease with himself, he’s well into middle age and he’s comfortable with that.
“You sometimes see that in his choice of clothes. He’ll now happily wear jeans, a brightly coloured roll-neck and ice-white trainers. Steve did an interview in character on The Jonathan Ross Show, and Simon Pegg got in touch with him to say, ‘I love Laid-Back Alan.’ That’s quite a good description.”
Having spent two decades trying to appear laid-back, now he actually is?
Rob: “Exactly. Now it’s too late!”
You might expect the brothers to be nervous about tinkering with such a beloved, not to mention analysed and quoted, character. Especially when their rise to become Alan’s main source of material was so swift: having sent a (non-Alan) script called Pigsy Doodle on spec to Coogan’s production company Baby Cow, the pair were asked to collaborate on a potential Pauline Calf revival before helping out with material for Coogan’s 2008 live tour. After that, suddenly they were key members of the team.
Neil: “He liked the economy of language we have – we try to underwrite rather than overwrite, which chimes with Steve’s approach. So they brought us into the fold, but we didn’t know Alan was going to be be brought back. It was only when there were murmurings about an online series that we realised we might be writing Alan Partridge.”
This prospect, however, was not daunting. Says Neil: “We were fans of Partridge but not obsessives. We got the character and we’d seen it all, but we didn’t have quotes cluttering up space in our heads. We weren’t duplicating the rhythm and language people had heard already because we didn’t know it well enough to do that.”
And, the twins say, they weren’t the only ones lacking an encyclopedic knowledge of the holy Partridge canon.
“Steve doesn’t remember a lot of what happened in the old shows,” says Neil. “He doesn’t go back and re-watch. People will come up to him in the street and quote bits of Partridge and he doesn’t know what they’re talking about.”
Rob: “He remembers every word of every Monty Python sketch, but not Alan Partridge.”
Neil: “Maybe it’s a defence mechanism. If he could remember all the words and had them all in his head, he’d have been carted off by now.”
The writing of Partridge – for television – is in any case fluid and spontaneous. Rob: “One of the main ways we write is to sit in a room with Steve, and he’ll be Alan or I’ll be Alan or Neil will be Alan, and we’ll improvise. Ninety per cent of it goes in the bin.”
Neil: “And stuff comes out when it’s being filmed. Steve likes what comes out of his mouth to be fresh: there’s never been a time on Partridge where the script’s been finalised weeks in advance.”
Wait a sec. In the writing room, the Gibbonses do Alan Partridge to Steve Coogan, the man who is Alan Partridge?
Neil: “It’s not like there’s a tennis ball and whoever’s holding it has to be Alan. Everyone is Alan. Steve does the voice. We don’t. That would be weird.”
Welcome to the Places of My Life tinkers with the Partridge format: Alan is credited as writer and director, the film has been produced by his company, Pear Tree, and he has painfully obviously edited it. It’s a mockumentary – the Gibbons brothers are huge fans of John Morton’s People like Us – as opposed to the traditional character comedy of I’m Alan Partridge or the polished chaos of Knowing Me Knowing You, where the imaginary director was doing their best.
At various points Alan, in the cutting room, tries and fails to cover up when interviews go wrong – either because he dislikes the interviewee or, in the case of an encounter in Alan’s favourite municipal swimming pool, because he has nearly drowned.
“We just wanted the density of the jokes to be as satisfying as possible,” Neil explains. “Having it as a Pear Tree production meant you could get away with more: the shoddiness you associate with Partridge. One of the good things about Alan is the difference between what he wants you to think and what you can clearly see. He’s made a clumsy effort to spin what’s happening on camera.”
Near the end of Welcome…, Alan again loses control of what’s he showing us and there are two or three at least semi-serious moments of personal anguish – something Partridge programmes have generally only hinted at in the past.
“We didn’t say right, let’s crowbar some pathos in,” Neil says. “But we did think that to sustain it for an hour we needed to pull back the curtain a little bit more. And Open Books is all in the studio, with Alan pretending to be someone he’s not. So we wanted Welcome to be a slightly more personal journey than he anticipated: another story bubbles away on the side which gives us an excuse to drop the TV presenter act a bit.”
Alan also seems to become a vehicle for direct spoofery. The whole show is vaguely a take on banal celebrity travelogues, and a sequence where he recalls the momentous political battle over a plan to extend parking charges in Norwich city centre is heavily influenced by a modern breed of grandiose, hindsight-fuelled history presenters.
Neil: “It was meant to be more that Alan has seen those programmes and seen them do well. He’s thought, I could do that. Alan watches the way the wind blows in broadcasting.”
Who would be Alan’s favoured modern history presenter? My guess: Andrew Marr.
“Yes, it would probably be someone who doesn’t have an academic historical background, someone coming in from broadcasting and having a go.”
So what next for Neil and Rob Gibbons? After the two Sky specials – and Sky Atlantic’s forthcoming version of Mid Morning Matters, which glues together the best of the web series to form half-hour TV episodes – there’s the film to finish, plus a brand new second run of Mid Morning Matters on Sky Atlantic next year, most of which is in the can already.
“We’ve done so much Partridge recently, we’ve not thought past the film,” says Neil. “Any strong ideas we have are focused on that. It might be that after the film there’ll be another hiatus. Armando’s doing Veep; Steve has got films on the go. This concentration of Partridge won’t last indefinitely.”
But the twins are now, surely, the hottest comedy writers in the country and can start planning their own projects away from Alan. “We’ve got a few plans. A couple of sitcoms we want to get off the ground and a film idea we’ve been tinkering with for a while. It’s great now Sky have come along and invested in new comedy, but there’s still a bottleneck for writers trying to get their shows on. Have you read the book Conversations with My Agent? It’s by Rob Long, one of the showrunners of Cheers. When it ends they try to get their next project on the go. All the goodwill from Cheers counts for nothing. We’re not counting any chickens.”
Neil, the loquacious but pessimistic half of the pair compared to his breezily incisive brother, grudgingly admits they are proud of the work they’ve done on Partridge, but concludes: “I always think everything I’ve done is s**t, and not in a whiny writer way. Fortunately we work with people who won’t tolerate half-arsed work. And if the film’s s**t, it won’t be lazy s**t. It’ll be s**t that we’ve really worked on.”
Given the Gibbons brothers’ strike rate so far, the chances of Partridge falling from the top of the tree seem remote.