Life and soul of the Partridge

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The Independent Culture
"Your autobiography... what's that all about?" Thus the world's greatest living sports commentator and chat-show host, Alan Partridge, to his distinguished guest Lord Morgan of Glossop, in the final episode of Partridge's Radio 4 series Knowing M e, Knowing You. Lord Morgan, understandably taxed by such searching queries, died in mid-interview. Demonstrating yet again the resourcefulness and sheer grit that has taken him to the very summit of his profession, Partridge hastily improvised a shroud from his Pringle sweater and ordered the nation to observe a minute of silence.

Pity the BBC staff member who was logging complaints when that exchange went out, for the demise of Lord Morgan occurred in those innocent days before even the most literal-minded of listeners - a category that included at least one outraged public school headmaster - had caught on to the fact that Partridge was not the real thing, but a magnificently ghastly fiction born of a working partnership between Steve Coogan (who plays Norwich's greatest son) and Patrick Marber, who played the unfortunate peer.

The Coogan-Marber marriage has been fruitful. Together with their producer Armando Iannucci and their fellow players, it has also spawned the mock radio news show On the Hour, its television successor The Day Today and the sordid adventures of Paul and Pauline Calf. But as Marber puts it, theirs is "an open marriage", and both partners are free to have their professional flings. So Coogan is now in Hollywood, working on a Frank Oz movie, while Marber is at the Royal National Theatre, directing his debutstage play Dealer's Choice.

This counts as Marber's first solo project since his pre-On the Hour career as a stand-up. If he's somewhat less well-known than Coogan, it's partly because he's a bit of a backroom boy: as he says, his ambitions lie more in writing and directing than inacting. Rather than writing fully fleshed-out monsters of the Partridge family for himself, he has opted to play such supporting roles as, say, Jacques-"Jacques" Liverot, The Day Today's resident Baudrillard-style idiot philosopher. (Marber's tutor at Oxford was the literary theorist Terry Eagleton, which helps account for the gags about Jacques Derrida in Knowing me, Knowing You.)

Dealer's Choice is similar to Marber's previous work in being a comedy, unlike it in being neither deadpan pastiche nor anarchic fantasy. You could think of it as a kind of English counterpart to the sort of low-life matter David Mamet tends to fancy. Set in a London restaurant, with an all-male cast, it uses the ritual of a weekly after-hours poker match - Marber has been a regular player since college days - as a short-cut into stories about compulsive gambling, delusion and the painful bond of a father and son.

"Poker seemed such a simple and obvious metaphor for male relationships - six guys sitting around a table trying to take each others' money. I'm not claiming that the metaphor's original in any way, but I don't think poker has really been treated accurately in dramatic or narrative form. Damon Runyon and Dashiell Hammett were keen poker players, but their games were more to do with background stories and atmosphere than the one in my play. Having said that, it's not really about poker as such, it's about these six characters and their power relationships."

Marber has been developing the play for a year or so at the invitation of the National - "It helped that Richard Eyre is a big Alan Partridge fan." He worked in collaboration with a group of actors, three of whom are now members of the cast, but wrote upthe results alone, rather than in the kind of huddle in which he, Coogan and Iannucci produce their scripts. The process was, he says, harder than the radio and television writing, but more satisfying, because, "I'm saying what I want to say about the world directly rather than filtering it through one of Steve's characters, or one of mine. And it's been a great luxury to be able to think, `Oh, I can write on my own,' because when you've written collaboratively, you start to wonder whether you can do it any other way."

The experience of solitary labour on Dealer's Choice has been all the more reassuring for Marber since his earliest literary ambitions ran to the loneliness of the minutely crafted page. "I thought I was going to be a novelist. I thought I was going to go to Oxford, work very hard and have a first novel on the go... and then I got seduced by the bright lights."

After college, he managed "just about" to support himself without giving in and taking a proper job. Working first as part of a duo, and then on his own, he took his stage act through a number of different incarnations. His break came in 1991 when Iannucci, an Oxford contemporary, recruited him for On the Hour. His new colleagues included Coogan, Rebecca Front, Doon MacKichan and David Schneider. "Very early on, we established that we'd have a house-style that was a kind of naturalism. Armando wanted todo a comedy show that didn't sound like a comedy show."

The success of this poker-faced format provoked apoplexy in the gullible, and swiftly propelled the Iannucci team into television, first for The Day Today and then for the television version of Knowing Me, Knowing You - not a simple translation of the radio shows, but a complete rethink.

"We wrote each of the television shows in blocks of six days, working day and night, living on takeaways, thinking we were going to explode. We had agreed a production schedule that was murderously difficult for us - we thought we were going to write thewhole series in advance of making it, and of course we pissed about and didn't, so then we had to write it between shows. The whole series was an essay crisis."

Despite all this stress, Marber is pretty sure that the team will produce at least one more Alan Partridge series, further murky glimpses of the Calf family and probably another Day Today. He's wary, though, of milking the formulas, and cites Fawlty Towers and Blackadder as admirable instances of "knocking something on the head at the right time."

When Coogan returns from America, he and Marber will be working on a six-part series of half-hour comedy-dramas, each starring a new creation; and, whatever the fate of Dealer's Choice at the hands of the critics, Marber is keen to pursue his new career as a playwright. The only minor obstacle is subject-matter: "I don't have another hobby like poker I can put on the stage. Except that I am interested in dogs, and there's a play at the back of my mind about bestiality, about a man who falls in unnaturallove with a dog." Doesn't he fear the wrath of the RSPCA? "Well, he does love the dog." And, as Mr Partridge would sign off, on that bombshell... n `Dealer's Choice' is now previewing at the Royal National Theatre, London SE1. Opens 9 Feb. Booking: 0171-928 2252