Alan Partridge is back – with six new episodes of Mid Morning Matters starting tonight, a new book of essays and “think pieces” and a one-off documentary in which he tackles the thorny subject of inequality, or, as he calls it, the “schasm” (schism/chasm) between the haves and the have-nots. In it, he will travel to the North, doorstep a loan shark, hang out with a gang and other cringey things.
“He says something on air that he shouldn't to some working-class people. And then he realises that there's some capital in it because he can do one of those documentaries where he puts on a leather jacket, goes on a journey of redemption and comes out of it a better man,” explains Rob Gibbons, who together with his twin brother, Neil, is one of the chief architects of Partridge's Noughties comeback.
Now 38, the twins have been immersed in Alan for eight years – not counting a few years of young fandom during Partridge's Nineties peak. Having started out writing material for Steve Coogan's 2008 live tour, they went on to co-write the 2010 comeback web series Mid Morning Matters, the bestselling autobiography I, Partridge: We Need to Talk About Alan and the 2013 film Alpha Papa with Coogan and Armando Iannucci. “They are,” says Coogan, “essential to 21st-century Alan.”
Being as prolific and essential as they are has come at a price, though. “People sometimes say that if you write a lot of Partridge, you find yourself becoming Partridge. I've always thought not, but then I looked on my TV planner the other week and I'd recorded a documentary called The Golden Age of Trams,” says Rob. “So it's happened, I just have to accept it.”
The Gibbonses, originally from Sandbach in Cheshire, never set out to become comedy writers. “All we knew was that we had an ambition not to be in an office job,” says Rob, older by one minute, clean-shaven and the slightly softer-spoken one. “And not to live in Sandbach,” adds Neil, younger, bearded and slightly gruffer.
After university – Neil did law at Manchester, Rob, political science at Warwick – they moved to London where they lived together in Tooting. Rob was working in PR and Neil was working on Leisure Week and doing the odd stand-up gig when he could be bothered, which wasn't very often. One day they were tipped off about a BBC competition for new comedy writers – “One of those schemes they do once in a while when they realise that everyone who works from them is from London,” says Neil. “They were trying to encourage writers from the regions – either living in the regions, or had been to, or had heard of the regions…”
They submitted a sketch about a Labour supporter who sets out to become a councillor in order to win back his ex-wife. “It was quite Partridge-esque. Or like The Thick of It, if The Thick of It had turned out really badly,” says Rob. They won, got an agent and started doing odd sketches for BBC Radio 4 programmes such as Dead Ringers. “Not our thing, really. It was totally unfulfilling,” says Rob. “I'd rather do office work, to be honest.”
They soon got a new agent, who sent one of their scripts to Baby Cow, the comedy production company owned by Coogan and Henry Normal. That was Pigsy Doodle, a bleakly funny tale of a man who has an early mid-life crisis, which re-acquaints him with his childhood imaginary friend, an animated pencil drawing who has gone to seed. Coogan and Normal called them in straight away and asked them to write material for a revival of Paul/Pauline Calf. “Our style was similarly northern and crude, I guess,” says Rob. They did as requested and wrote a bit of extra Partridge material too, just in case. A few months later, just when they thought they'd been dropped, they were called back in to write Mid Morning Matters, the first Partridge show for eight years, which films him broadcasting his North Norfolk Digital radio show via webcam.
“I asked the Gibbonses to write some material for Alan Partridge as a roll of the dice,” says Coogan. “What they sent back was a revelation. They seemed to intuitively understand Alan's psyche in a way that was faithful to the character yet surprised me. I had tears rolling down my face from laughter. I knew that Alan could not only be revived but that he could be developed in a fresher way. They brought a vulnerability and pathos to the character as well as making him more 'socially liberal', in a David Cameron sort of way.”
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Certainly Partridge 2.0 is a different beast from the bombastic Nineties TV star. He's been through a lot, not least the radio station siege that formed the plot of Alpha Papa. “We don't want to make that a major part of his character, though. Alan is a local radio DJ, a small man who wants big things for himself – and if you start reminding people that he's been in a siege and shot a man dead live on air, then suddenly he's got a really interesting life and you don't want that,” explains Neil.
In the new series, Alan has a girlfriend, Angela – first seen in Alpha Papa – and finds himself grudgingly in charge of her two stepsons. In the first episode, he tackles blood sports, dinner parties and Jimmy Savile while making the usual gaffes – “A quick correction: yesterday I read out a text saying oestrogen was a kind of gas used to blow up balloons. Of course it isn't. It's a hormone used by women to perform a number of tasks relating to, ah, er, themselves.” As the series continues, he loses his broadcasting mojo. “He looks around and sees that broadcasters aren't held in such high esteem any more and he has a bit of a wobble,” says Rob.
“We've tried to put in an extra layer to Alan. He's not just blurting stuff out that anyone else would regret. There's a little more art to the kind of things he says now. He's a reflection of the Blair years, in a way. He's a Little Englander but he's aware that that is not always the fashion,” he adds.
“He's metrosexual sometimes, too,” says Neil. “He understands that that plays well. He's always trying to present a version of himself – whether it's a tough man of character or a touchy-feely, sensitive soul. You can't be too Partridge-by-numbers. You have to play with the competing thoughts that are going on in his head. If you make it too much of the former, it feels like Alan 1.0. Not that it wasn't a brilliant character but when he was in On the Hour, it wasn't the distilled character study that Mid Morning Matters Alan is.”
The brothers watched Partridge when they were growing up but were never “anorak-y” fans, enjoying Cheers, Fawlty Towers, Porridge, The Mary Whitehouse Experience as well as The Day Today. They were aware – still are – that their subject comes with baggage. As Coogan says: “It's not easy as you have to satisfy diehards and also bring something new. It has to be better each time. The new series I think passes muster with the best of Alan.”
“Because people have taken Alan to their hearts, there's a version that they think is sacred,” agrees Neil. “You're aware of that but we were always mindful not to be straitjacketed by that. I'm Alan Partridge was 20 years ago and people change in 20 years. If you allow him to just play the same 'Back of the net!', 'Cashback!' James Bond fanatic version then it doesn't feel real, because no one is frozen in time like that.”
Neil lives in south London with his interior designer wife and their 18-month old; Rob lives nearby with his wife and four-year old son. They come up with plots together then write separately – “You have a shorthand if you're brothers. It makes things easier but it can also make things more difficult because you don't have to bother being polite, which can cause arguments.”
When they have a rough script, they sit down with Coogan. “He's very, very forensic about what makes a joke work or not work. He'll really focus on the minutiae, sometimes to a fault. But he's generally a very fair man and brings no ego to the table at all,” says Neil. “He does like to have an afternoon nap. If it gets to 2pm and he's had a lunch that contains carbs, there's a little sofa in the writing room and he has the ability to fall asleep on it within 30 seconds.”
“We leave it a few minutes then cough loudly,” adds Rob. “And then it's like someone's pressed 'on' – he's back and absolutely fine.”
They are now writing a BBC Film which will star Coogan as a 17th-century witchfinder. “It's a two-hander about a witchfinder and a witch, a roadtrip movie before there were roads, basically.” They also wrote on the last series of Veep and still have a sitcom script floating around that was “sort of” based on Chris Huhne – “About a politician who had come out of prison and was living among the constituents he'd let down”.
Next, they have to write the follow-up to I, Partridge in time for Christmas. “And I think after that we'll have to put Alan back in his box and slide him back under the bed for a couple of years,” says Rob. “Everybody needs to have a break, recharge the Alan batteries.”
'Alan Partridge's Mid Morning Matters' returns to Sky Atlantic tomorrow at 10pm
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