Rob and Neil Gibbons are the comedy writing brothers who have breathed new life into the career of Norfolk broadcaster Alan Partridge. We caught up with them to discuss writing for the movie Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa, how to take on such a popular character and Alan's future in a martial arts movie featuring Sebasian Coe as his nemesis.
Sky Movies: You're the unknown quantities in the film. You came to Partridge full-formed with the book and then Mid Morning Matters. It was almost like you didn't have to learn anything. But where did you come from?
Rob Gibbons: Well, we collected coupons on the back of cereal boxes and we got enough in the end to be on the Partridge writing team. It was that easy, really.
Neil Gibbons: Basically that...but we also sent a script in to Baby Cow that was totally unrelated to any existing Coogan character. They asked if we'd be interested in writing a comeback episode for Paul and Pauline Calf. Which we did and they liked it but it didn't happen in the end. But they realised our comic sensibilties were the same, a good fit and we had a very fluid way of working with them. You'd have to ask them why they were so relaxed about it. It's always been quite straightforward, the process, and we were made to feel very welcome. That gives you the confidence to get fully involved.
SM: It must have been quite daunting because he was a full-fledged comedy character and not just liked, worshipped. How did you go about making sure you got it right?
RG: One thing that helped was that we knew Partridge, we'd seen all the Partridge stuff like anyone, especially blokes of our age. But we weren't anoraks so we weren't beholden to all the stuff that had come before, all the situations and catchphrases. That made it easier. We had a working knowledge but we knew we didn't have to talk about Bond or a Corby Trouser Press.
There were things we needed to acclimatise to though. When you first start writing Alan it's very easy to write the stupid stuff but, in many ways, he's quite well-read and smart. It's just that he goes about things in a cack-handed way. Importantly, he's not a bad broadcaster - he's been doing it for twenty years. Yes, he's killed a man live on air but, apart from that, he's pretty good. He's like the Richard Madeleys of this world - they're funny characters but they can do the job alright.
NG: Another thing that helped us was that there was a break of several years and, within that time, Alan would have changed. So we weren't working within a very strict template of the character. He'd relaxed a little bit, he'd moved on and he was working in a different place, his life was in a different place. So that helped us a lot.
SM: It's very much a group effort, Steve's got a lot of input as well. How do you work that out?
RG: Some people think that Steve reads out other people's words but, you're right. Steve is very heavily involved. Over the last three years we've had Armando (Iannucci) when he's been around, and me, Neil, and Steve sat around in a room improvising stuff, doing the Alan voice and just coming up with lots and lots of material. Ninety-nine per cent of it gets chucked in the bin and then we'll go away and knock the good stuff into shape. Then we get there on the day of the shoot...and lots of it gets ripped up and we start again.
SM: It's notoriously difficult to move a TV programme from the small onto the big screen. How did you achieve that?
NG: You're right to say that. Sitcom's are all about character - at the end of a sitcom you want the character to be at the same place he was at the beginning to it's reset for episode two. Whereas, in a film, a character goes through a journey of discovery or transformation.
The story is the king in a film. If you're aware of those traditions and you play with them a little bit, then that sort of takes the spell off them a little bit. We tried to plot a course between keeping Alan as Alan but giving him the tough choices and moral dilemmas to make in a film. We were aware of the quandary we were in but made sure we were true to Alan the whole time because, in this case, the character is more important than the traditions in an action film.
RG: It was making it less like Die Hard and more like Dog Day Afternoon, because in that film it's a lot about the detail, the practicalities and minutiae of being in a siege. There's a bit when they want to go to the loo and a bit where they're bored and the girl starts playing with Al Pacino's gun. Even in life-threatening situations, there's a way of writing so that you can focus on the detail. It's the route we had to take with Alan because Alan is all about the mundanity.
SM: The previews have gone down very well. How pleased are you with the finished product?
NG: To be quite honest, I've got no idea. We've been that close to the film for so long - the writing, the shoot, the edit. Yet there are no changes I'd make to it. As to how it's going to go down, I just don't know.
SM: If you were completely cold about Alan, how do you think the film would play?
RG: I think it's got a lot of good stuff in there, a variety of jokes. It benefits from bring back Lynn and Michael and Dave Clifton and Sidekick Simon. And being on that Norfolk canvas enhances that.
NG: We've also tried to make it so it's just not a product for the fanboys. We've tried to make it so you can come to it completely cold and still enjoy the story and engage with the character. Hopefully, it's not just a retreat of just the best bits of Alan. Hopefully, it's something new that adds to the Partridge legacy.
SM: Where does he go from here?
NG It's a good question. If you are thinking of it as a constant production line, a stepping stone to the next thing , then you're dead. So you have to write the latest thing as a self-contained piece of work.
RG: Neil really wants to do a martial arts movie with Alan Partridge where the martial art is judo.
NG: Seb Coe is his nemesis. Desperate to do that. Seb's keen.