Neil Gibbons: 'You can turn into Alan Partridge if you're immersed for too long'
- Murray Robertson
- 15 February 2019
Alan Partridge co-writers/directors Neil and Rob Gibbons on bringing him back to the BBC in This Time with Alan Partridge
The last time Alan Partridge hosted a prime time BBC TV show, he punched his commissioning editor – the late Tony Hayers – in the face with a turkey. And that particular incident directly followed an episode in which he shot a guest 'live' on air. But almost a quarter of a century has passed since these minor transgressions and Partridge has finally secured his second series – albeit as a stand-in co-host – on weekday BBC One magazine show This Time with Alan Partridge. Twin brothers Neil Gibbons and Rob Gibbons have been writing for Partridge alongside Steve Coogan for more than a decade. They explain how the character has endured for so long.
'Alan's always been very good at putting a finger in the air and seeing which way the broadcasting winds are blowing, which is why he's able to spot current trends and have a stab at them himself,' explains Neil. 'That gives him (or us) new areas for him to fuck up in, and keeps the character fresh.'
Over the years, we've followed Alan on TV, in books, at the cinema, on stage and on the radio (analogue and digital). Now he's gone full circle, returning to the format that made his name in the early 1990s. 'The whole show takes place during a 30-minute live show but we'll sometimes stay on the studio cameras when they're "off air" during a VT,' explains Rob. 'So we get to eavesdrop on fragments of conversation and get a glimpse into Alan's life away from the show.'
Partridge's politics have always skewed right-of-centre but the changing world has clearly had a big influence on the man. 'He's recognised that his strident right wing views aren't the fashion any more,' explains Rob. 'Instead, he's learned from the likes of David Cameron and George Osborne to couch them in a more socially liberal outlook – being totally okay with gay people, standing up for women, being down with young people – but in a painfully performative way.'
It's not just external factors that have affected the host. 'Part of that is his advancing years,' explains Neil. 'He started out as a man who was fusty before his time, like when you see a schoolboy with a briefcase; he was frigid and uptight. That becomes less funny when he's getting on in years – because they're traits you associate with older, right wing people anyway. So we loosened him up. And he's now an older man clumsily going out of his way to be right-on, on-trend, happy to talk about contraception or kissing.'
After years in the broadcasting wilderness, including a long spell (two series of Mid Morning Matters) at North Norfolk Digital, Partridge is in for a culture shock when he returns to the channel that made him. Nevertheless, he relishes the prospect. 'It's reawakened something in him,' says Neil. 'Twenty-odd years in local radio have lowered his horizons and suddenly, thanks probably to the BBC wanting to represent all demographics of a divided audience, he's been handed a golden ticket back to the big time, potentially. The knowledge that this is his one and only shot at redemption scares the shit out of him.'
Neil describes the task of bringing Partridge to life as a protracted three-part process: writing, shooting and editing. 'It starts with us all sitting round, trying to avoid talking about work until the small talk about Banged up Abroad segues into Alan of its own accord. We do a lot of talking about ideas, big and small. Then me and Rob go away and actually write stuff. Once we have scenes scripted and it's not just formless hot air, it has a shape so it's much easier for the three of us to then pick it apart and get to work on it back in the room.'
This fractured process brings its own rewards. 'It gives you a greater variety of laughs', says Rob. 'The jokes you write at your laptop are generally more crafted and considered, with a written structure to them. The ones we come up with in the room are the kind you could never put down on paper: facial expression, tone of voice, odd inflection, or the kind that trip off something happening right there in the scene – which is often the funniest stuff. So having those two processes running concurrently gives you better density and variety of laughs. Or that's the plan anyway.'
Once the script is finished it continues to evolve until the cameras roll. 'On set we'll hammer it again and again, before and between takes, partly to gives us more options in the edit,' says Neil. 'And then there's the edit itself which is another phase altogether. The assembly that's put together at the beginning of the edit is miles from the finished article. We carry on writing until we deliver the final show, basically.'
In the past, Coogan has talked about how, after trying to distance himself from Partridge, he eventually learned to embrace him. Are Rob and Neil still enjoying their time with the character? 'It's still a big thrill, yeah,' says Neil. 'We have more Alan coming to the BBC next year so that's already being worked on. We also have a different BBC Two sitcom of our own shooting later in the year. And thank fuck for that. You can turn into Alan if you're immersed for too long.'
This Time with Alan Partridge is weekly on BBC One from Mon 25 Feb, 9.30pm.