Peter Baynham on the making of I'm Alan Partridge: "It’s like building a plane as it’s plummeting to Earth”
The Oscar-nominated screenwriter talks the classic BBC sitcom, bringing Alan to the big screen and finding "kindred spirits" in Steve Coogan and Armando Iannucci.
This year marks the 30th anniversary of the first broadcast from Alan Partridge, a truly iconic comedy character whose calamitous journey through life has been guided largely by the same small group of writers – and Peter Baynham is one of them.
After leaving the Merchant Navy in his early twenties, Baynham began his writing career by working on satirical radio shows alongside the likes of Chris Morris, Stewart Lee, Richard Herring and Armando Iannucci. Despite being a prominent voice among this new wave of edgy comic writers, Baynham didn't get the chance to work on Alan's first ever project – BBC Radio 4's satirical news programme On The Hour – and feared at one point that he'd "missed the boat".
"I remember hearing On The Hour and really feeling that everything in that show, including Alan, felt like a new kind of humour," he tells RadioTimes.com over Zoom from his home in Los Angeles. "I was thinking ‘that’s the comedy generation for the next 10 years’."
Fortunately, it wasn't long before Iannucci approached him to contribute to the television adaptation, BBC Two's legendary The Day Today, which served as his first encounter with sports reporter Alan Partridge (played by a fresh-faced Steve Coogan). Revisiting the show today, fans will instantly recognise the defining traits of the character, but it would be fair to say he wasn't quite as richly developed as the version that the country would later fall in love with.
"When we went onto The Day Today, because it was visual, it was an opportunity to explore some of the awkwardness of him," Baynham explains. "But he’s still bracketed and contained within presenting to camera… so it wasn’t the fully formed character by any means and not as three-dimensional as the version we ended up with in I’m Alan Partridge – but still huge fun to work with."
Following the success of chat show parody Knowing Me, Knowing You, Coogan, Iannucci and Patrick Marber began working on a follow-up for their aspiring television personality, bringing Baynham aboard a little project known as I'm Alan Partridge.
"I think they’d gone into those waters, as I did, with much trepidation because you don’t want to be doing an Alan sitcom per se... they just wanted to see behind-the-scenes and see what this guy was like in his private life," he recalls. "So I came into that and they had a canvas of ideas for how it would go and we then got down to the nitty gritty of fleshing that out."
The writing process for the hit sitcom was experimental and improvisational, beginning with the core creative team bouncing ideas off each other for potential Partridge zingers.
"It’s my happiest, most fun writing experience ever really, it was just so exciting... We would sit in a room, all pitching ideas in Alan’s voice – the rule was you had to say it in Alan’s voice," Baynham tells me. "So you’d write out a sprawling document in multiple type-face, just a weird mutation of a script, and we would then at some point go into a rehearsal room with that."
It was there that the geography of the series started to come together, with Alan's claustrophobic residence in Linton Travel Tavern among the first locations to be mapped out. New ideas continued to be added to the mix at this point, with cast members including co-star Felicity Montagu (Alan's long-suffering assistant Lynn Benfield) putting forward their own suggestions.
"The fun of seeing Steve and Felicity collapse in laughter… it was just so joyous to be writing that way," he continues. "It felt like the embodiment of what writing should be, people really collaborating in a fun way and seeing it grow before your eyes."
Of course, the consequence of this untempered creativity was a "chaotic" production cycle that would often come down to the wire, as Baynham and his colleagues were forced to kill their darlings to ensure the project kept on schedule.
"We can’t show up for rehearsals on Monday, when we’re recording the episode on Friday, with a 200-page script because the cast will freak out," he laughs. "We wouldn’t show it to them. As the first series went on, we would show the script to them later and later in the week. We’d be up until two or three a.m. sometimes trying to wrestle with it and make sense of an episode, but then not wanting to lose what we thought was hilarious material... It’s like building a plane as it’s plummeting to Earth."
The late nights were all worth it, however, as I'm Alan Partridge went on to be a critical and commercial success, picking up the BAFTA for Best Comedy Series while Coogan won another for his powerhouse performance. Baynham was keen to start working on a second series as soon as possible, but ultimately the decision was made to take a break before returning to the material – which also meant saying goodbye to the show's unique setting.
"I look back now and I think I would have loved to do another series in the Linton Travel Tavern because it felt like the perfect location," he says. "Any sitcom or show like that, it’s great when the character is trapped somewhere and, in the end, the travel tavern was like a prison. It was like a prison where Alan is the prisoner and the staff felt like his guards."
When work did get underway on series two roughly four years later, it was agreed that Alan's life needed to have moved on or else the realism of the character would be shattered.
Baynham explains: "That’s why we thought, ‘Well, he’s got a bit of success now and things are happening for him, so let’s have him in a house’. But then, obviously with Alan, you want to make it not ideal in some way because if you give him everything he wants then he kind of stops being funny. Alan is a character who needs to be frustrated and needs to have problems in his life."
There's plenty to go around in the six-episode follow-up, which sees the title character living in a cramped caravan, dating a woman he shows genuine contempt for and desperately trying to convince people that he has, in fact, bounced back. The second series has no shortage of iconic Partridge moments, from "I've pierced my foot on a spike" to "stop getting Bond wrong". But nevertheless, the team behind it have voiced some dissatisfaction with the end result.
"When you make something, it’s almost impossible to separate your experience of making it from the product," Baynham says. "So, we go back to ‘oh God, it was so hard’. It felt like it took three or four times as long as the first series, you’re worrying that you’re going back to the well and messing with something that was really good. And it was just tough for all of us, it felt like we argued a bit more.
"We got reactions to it that I think compounded our sense of regret," Baynham added, remembering one particular critique which falsely accused the creators of putting canned laughter over the second series. In reality, it was filmed in front of a live studio audience, just as the first had been. Baynham credits this frustrating reaction to a general shift away from audience sitcoms following the release of revolutionary workplace comedy The Office – which he describes as "a masterpiece".
As I'm Alan Partridge series two came to an end with its title character walking out of view after pulping his autobiography, the team were more than ready for a break and began pursuing other projects. Iannucci brought his acclaimed political comedy The Thick Of It to BBC Four, Coogan took film roles working with the likes of Michael Winterbottom and Ben Stiller, while Baynham collaborated with Sacha Baron Cohen, Anthony Hines and Dan Mazer to bring another iconic comedy character to life: Borat.
Released in cinemas in 2006, Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan earned Baynham his first Academy Award nomination in the category of Best Adapted Screenplay. Just last month, he secured a second for his work on the mockumentary's timely sequel, Subsequent Moviefilm, which is currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video. But even as he rubbed shoulders with Hollywood's biggest names, a certain Norwich local was never far from Baynham's mind, particularly as ideas for a film spin-off began to take shape.
"I dearly missed [Alan] and I really missed Steve and Armando and everyone in it," he said. "But I was in touch with them constantly anyway as friends and we talked about [a movie] for years, virtually from when I got here we would talk about it. And then it would go quiet for a while and everybody would get busy with other stuff."
Eventually, Baynham, Coogan and Iannucci were able to reunite, joined by two more recent additions to the Partridge talent pool, Neil and Rob Gibbons, and they set about creating Alpha Papa. Going into the project, it seems there was only one concrete rule: "We can’t do Alan goes on holiday."
The finished product felt like the culmination of everything we'd seen so far, featuring cast members from both I'm Alan Partridge and Mid-Morning Matters, while pitching the overall style of humour closer in line with the latter. Many British comedies have tried to make the leap to the big screen over the years and most have failed spectacularly, but Alpha Papa stands out as one of the few which gets it right.
Speaking of the film adaptation, Baynham said: "It’s very Alan and it’s super local but it’s also dramatic and there are life or death stakes in it, so it’s got things that a movie feels like it needs. Whilst I was involved in the back and forth and the developing of the original idea, they [the Gibbons Brothers] had taken on the mantle of Alan with Mid-Morning Matters which was so brilliant."
In recent years, the Gibbons (along with Coogan, of course) have become the primary creative force on all things Partridge and Baynham has only the utmost respect for all they have accomplished with the character. Mid-Morning Matters is perhaps Alan in his most concentrated form, restricted to one location and dispensing of the live audience that was such an integral part of the character's earlier outings.
"That’s absolutely the right decision and I so admire that," Baynham said of the Sky Atlantic series. "If I was asked to write on that, maybe I could but I’d be scared to, because I think it’s so their voice. My Alan era was a certain thing... and when I saw that, I thought they’ve taken it further: so there’s the Alan on The Day Today, there’s the Alan that we did and there’s the Alan of Mid-Morning Matters which becomes more detailed."
While Baynham would be "really intimidated" to return to the world of Alan Partridge, he adds that he would "love to jump in at some point" in the future. What's clear from our conversation is how much adoration he has for the people he worked with on I'm Alan Partridge as well as for the title character himself. The series has indisputably left a lasting impact on the landscape of British comedy, but for Baynham, it also served as a formative moment in his career.
Baynham reflects: "I felt so happy writing that show and I felt such kindred spirits in Steve and Armando. And something about that time on that show on I’m Alan Partridge where it just felt alive. Something about working with two people that you feel completely in-tune with, almost to like a telepathic level, made me not just more confident about what I thought was funny but made me funnier. It was just something between us all, growing in front of our eyes."
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