Armando Iannucci talks 30 years of Alan Partridge: “I genuinely don’t know what’s going to happen next”

The prolific screenwriter looks back on three decades of the comedy icon he co-created.

Armando Iannucci

“I can’t believe it’s 30 years, that’s crazy.”

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Armando Iannucci is talking about 2021’s milestone anniversary for comedy legend Alan Partridge, a character he has helped shape since the moment he arrived “fully formed” on BBC Radio 4’s On The Hour. Iannucci approached up and coming comedian Steve Coogan to voice the satirical news programme’s resident sports reporter, but couldn’t have anticipated just how quickly he would strike a chord with everyone in the room.

Steve just came up with this composite voice that sounded like everyone and yet no one,” he remembers in a Zoom call. “It was almost like he was fully formed, the moment he started speaking we laughed because we all thought ‘we kind of know this guy, we know his aspirations’. We knew he felt paranoid that the journalists on the radio show looked down on him as not a serious journalist because he did sport. And really, he had ambitions to go to television and all that. And we just couldn’t help talking about him when we weren’t making the show.”

Within days, they had mapped out an entire biography for the character, with his narcissistic goal of becoming a television personality being a major influence when deciding Alan’s hometown.

“We thought let’s put him somewhere where nobody comes from in comedies,” Iannucci explains. “So instead of Telford or Milton Keynes, [we thought of] Norwich. Not that we have anything against Norwich, it’s just no one had come from Norwich. And also geographically, we liked the fact that Norwich is quite a way from London and if he’s obsessed with making it big in London, just the drive he has to do to get a meeting we found quite funny.”

Things started happening “really quickly” after Coogan teamed up with writer Patrick Marber to work on a spin-off series revolving around the character, with the initial pitch being a radio programme “where Alan introduces guests to ABBA songs”. But while that delightfully absurd premise serves as the bedrock of what would later become Knowing Me, Knowing You, the show was originally envisioned to be quite different from the finished product.

 “I think originally it was a non-audience thing,” Iannucci reveals. “It was almost like [BBC Radio 4’s] Start The Week format, but the more we talked about it, the more we thought Alan would want an audience. He’s mister light entertainment and actually he wants to see this as a sort of try out for his TV show, so that’s how the chat show started.”

Despite being in an audio-only format to begin with, care was taken to set-up a “mock TV studio” complete with sofas and plants, while the hilariously awkward physicality of Alan Partridge was already being refined.

“Steve did Alan completely in character, Pringle sweaters and hair slicked down,” says Iannucci. “He came on as Alan and in-between takes talked as Alan. He stayed as Alan throughout the evening. His look, his mannerisms, his use of the clipboard and looking at a watch while his guest was talking, it was all visually happening [during the radio recording].”

This allowed the transition between BBC Radio 4’s Knowing Me, Knowing You and the later television adaptation to be as smooth as possible, with the cast and writing team returning to shepherd their creation into a visual medium. Debuting on BBC Two in September 1994, the show was an instant hit and the rest is history. Alan quickly became a heavyweight of British television, spawning a BAFTA-award winning sitcom and a variety of follow-up projects, each one carving out their own distinct space in the character’s growing universe.

Steve Coogan as Alan Partridge

I think that’s why he’s sustained,” Iannucci states. “We haven’t done six series of Knowing Me, Knowing You and five of I’m Alan Partridge. We’re always kind of moving him on. It’s partly because we like to watch him grow as Steve gets older and Alan gets older. But I think it was also just a thing of convenience as well in that whenever we did a project, we’d all then go off and do our own things and getting us all back together became just harder and harder.

“So it then became every three or four years really before we could pin it down and do the next thing. And in that time, whenever we’d meet we’d always be speculating as to what Alan was up to now, so that by the time we arrived three or four years later, we had a rough idea in his timeline of where he’d moved on to.”

The longest hiatus came following the second series of I’m Alan Partridge, with the team behind the sitcom parting ways to pursue other projects. When the character made a formal comeback almost eight years later in Mid-Morning Matters, he took on a somewhat more grounded persona crafted in collaboration with writers Neil and Rob Gibbons. According to Iannucci, this version of Alan was “more resigned to the fact that he was never going to get big in television” and instead settles into his comfortable status as a local celebrity to the people of Norwich.

“Then suddenly we thought: ‘But what if something big happens in his local area that gives him a chance once more of going into the spotlight?’ That would be too tantalising, too tempting,” Iannucci says, which set the wheels turning on 2013’s Alpha Papa.

So many British comedies have attempted to make the jump to cinemas and most have ended in disaster, but Alan’s big screen debut stands out as a notable exception. Earning strong reviews from critics and solid box office success, it wasn’t long before producer Henry Normal revealed that a sequel was in the works, but the trail on that project has since gone cold. When asked, Iannucci reveals that there is “always” talk of another film, but packed schedules have kept it from becoming a certainty.

“Again, it’s that thing of finding the time, getting us all free at the same moment,” he says, but adds that the Gibbons brothers have been a “game-changer” in this regard.

Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa
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Iannucci continues: “They clearly just completely understood Alan and the voice, and they had that energy and originality to take it somewhere new. Because up until then, we had wanted to keep Alan going, but it had always been tough finding the kind of time to knuckle-down, halt everything else and do it… I kind of watch Alan as a punter now in that I genuinely don’t know what’s going to happen next.

The writing duo have taken the Partridge baton and run with it, leading high-profile new projects including BBC One’s This Time and Audible’s From The Oasthouse. In the meantime, Iannucci has been kept plenty busy with the likes of Veep, Avenue 5 and The Personal History of David Copperfield, but he has by no means left Alan behind.

We’re always saying let me know what’s happening, if I’m around I’d love to,” he says. “Nobody’s stormed off, nobody’s fallen out, it’s just that thing of everybody’s got their own separate career, but we’re always mindful that there is Alan and wondering what he’s up to.”

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