Rob Gilroy: Making A Stand – with Alpha Papa writer Neil Gibbons #2
Pictured: Alpha Papa writer Neil Gibbons (left) alongside twin brother Rob.
Welcome, dear reader, to part two of my cosy chat with one of the writers of TV’s Alan Partridge.
All good things have a part two – The Godfather, half an apple and someone with a split personality.
So without further delay; here it is, my intimate portrait of writer, comic mind, Ludo-fanatic and occasional Quaker, Neil ‘Alpha Papa’ Gibbons.
Again for the record; we’re both proper mates and that, so this interview was more of a booze-up between pals and not just one of those standard email-and-reply-type jobbies.
When you left us, myself and the incredibly talented Neil Gibbons had taken a brief pause in our probing interview, partly to collect our thoughts and partly so that I could take a waz.
I don’t see myself as a particularly ‘scripted’ interviewer, I’m more free-form.
In a way, my interview technique is like Jazz, it ebbs and flows to its own rhythm, reacting and responding to other frenetic sounds.
And it often takes place in low-lit, seedy bars.
I tend not to prepare my material too much, nevertheless, while I stood in the gents toilets of the swanky Soho club-cum-vegetable patch, playing target practice with one of the urinal cakes, I was suddenly hit by several potentially genius questions.
I shot out of the gents so quickly I didn’t have time to wash my hands (that was hyperbole, I did) so inspired was I by my next line of questioning, I practically threw myself at the table.
Neil, I could tell, was impressed by my show of eagerness, so much so that he almost didn’t see the bog roll trailing after me.
I didn’t wait for an opportunity; I dove straight in with my next question – BLAM.
“Finally, after many rumours, the Partridge film is here. How do you feel about the finished product? Was it a labour of love?”
Neil was clearly stunned by this original angle. That and the fact I had shouted ‘blam’ whilst thrusting my open hand towards his face. Yet without missing a beat, he responded.
“Yep, we’re pleased with it,” he said.
“It was a monumental ball ache at times but we’re all restless and want to improve it as much as we can so it was a well-intentioned ball ache.
“Rewrites are never-ending. Not just on this but Mid Morning Matters as well. We’re constantly ripping stuff out, inserting new jokes, tweaking lines. It makes it feel fresh but it’s intense at the time. I think we’re all happy with it though.”
“The difficulty of bringing TV characters to the big screen is well documented, how did you approach this with Partridge, someone who is not only well established already, but also very much a part of the Little-Englander mentality?”
“I think we always felt it wasn’t the same challenge as previous sitcom-to-film crossovers. Alan has existed in several different incarnations and is adaptable enough to take on a life in pretty much any format.
“If he’d only existed in one specific show, it would have been harder to wrench him out and plonk him in a movie – people would have been hard-wired to see him in that one specific vehicle. But we also knew we had to create a story that played to his strengths, lock it down and then layer it with Alan.
“Some Partridge die-hards might have been content with him pottering around for 90 mins – I probably would have been too – but about 200 people would have come to watch a film like that.
“We had to make it cinematic and then Alanise it.”
“I’ve read that Alpha Papa is like Die Hard meets Network, were there any specific films you took for inspiration?”
“We’ve mentioned Dog Day Afternoon a few times. We liked the detail of it – hostages asking if they can go to the toilet etc, people phoning up to butt in.
“Ace in the Hole was another – someone trying to spin a news story to gain profile. But we didn’t study that many films.
“With the autobiography, we ingested books by the likes of Paul Daniels, Rodney Bewes, and others so we could nail the self-serving celebrity memoir template. There was less need to do that in the film as we didn’t want to create a spoof.”
“With the script constantly being tweaked and rewritten during filming, how does it feel working under that pressure?”
“Tough at first. The joke that everyone agreed was great six months ago is ditched because it feels stale. But you get into a groove, and it’s about coming up with plenty of material whether it’s 2am the night before shooting or between takes.
“It’s good training to have your comedy muscle worked and it means you don’t develop an attachment to specific jokes. The ego is taken out of the process.”
“When do you know that a joke or a scene can’t get any funnier?”
Neil smiled. This interview was going brilliant, we could both tell.
“Sometimes you don’t. You just try several versions and then look at it in the edit. Other times it’s obvious. Sometimes a scene just sings. It develops a rhythm and comes off the page. That’s when you need to stop dicking around with it. In theory.”
“How is it working with Steve Coogan? Does it feel weird to be giving someone you admire notes on their most famous creation?”
“No, not at all. Steve appreciates people being straight with him – so telling him to make his performance smaller or that a joke isn’t very funny is something he really values, otherwise you might as well not be there.
“Rob’s particularly harsh, by the way, he doesn’t hold back.
“But we all just want it to be as good as it can be. And because Alan was in hibernation for several years before we got involved, it meant we could update the character, and reinvent him a bit.
“We weren’t tied to the template of Alan 2003 so had leeway to be creative. That ownership was something Steve always tried to encourage as well. We both really enjoy working with Steve though. We all have a similar sense of humour so it’s a good laugh. It doesn’t feel like we’re the Organ grinder’s gibbon.”
I laughed at this answer. Particularly the last line. Because his last name is Gibbons. I guess you had to be there. It was at this point my line of questioning was starting to run dry, so I quickly Googled some other interviews he’d done for inspiration. Turns out there are loads more questions you can ask him.
“Music plays an incredibly important part in AP’s world. Is it something you’re thinking of throughout the entire creative process?”
“Yep, all the time. It comes from character so it’s very, very specific – I doubt writers would get involved in music choices otherwise. And, like Alan’s character, it’s moved on from the naffness of Abba and Wings.
“There’s a lot of early 80s synth in there, plus folky anthems. And we were also aware that some songs sound great on a loud cinema sound system. Roachford and Willy Nelson for example.
“We actually spent an afternoon at Steve’s house trying out different tracks for the opening titles mime-along – Sister Sledge was an option, so was Roxy Music plus current pop like Stooshe.
“Get Steve onto the subject of music and you might as well wave bye-bye to the rest of the working day. (Cars even more so.) And the discussion as to what should be playing over the cards at the end… Christ, it went on forever – the email chain is staggering. Cher, ABC, Deacon Blue, Imagination, King, Dire Straits, Tears for Fears, Hues Corp, The Look, Del Amitri, Pilot, Jane Wiedlin, Sparks. I have a playlist of them all. It’s mint.”
“The title – Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa – has an almost Bond-like quality to it, it also suggests he could be brought back for further cinematic adventures. Is this something you’ve considered?”
“Not at all. I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a conversation down the line, but we’ve not even gone there. To return to the pregnancy analogy (It’s in part one, keep up – me), it’d be like asking a new mum if she’s planning any more kids while she’s being stitched up.”
“Now that Alpha Papa is done, you’re obviously working on Mid Morning Matters series 2 – but what then for Partridge?”
“Same again. No one’s suggested killing Alan off but you just have to make what you’re currently working on good and then deal with the legacy after that. Otherwise you’re thinking one or two moves ahead and it’s a head-frig.”
I realised our time was coming to an end, I had a hot stones massage at two. I took a deep breath, zipped up my fly which I had noticed was still open from the previous piddle-pause, I looked at Neil and nodded. He nodded back. It was a nod that seemed to say ‘I understand. You’ve got hot stones at two.’ And with a heavy heart and a nearly-full Pukka Pad, I breathed breath into my last question.
“And what then for the two of you? Are you looking to break away from Partridge for a bit and work on some solo projects?”
“We’re working up a couple of film ideas and have sitcoms in the works with BBC, Channel 4 and Sky. We’re also newbies on the writing team for Veep season 3, which we’re delighted about as huge fans of the TTOI and Veep.”
I folded my pad shut and put my Bic back into those metal loopy-hole-binder things. It got stuck. We both stood and smiled at one another. Then we embraced.
As Neil got me in a head lock and tussled my hair, he said: “It’s been brilliant, mate. We need to do this more often.” And he was right; we did need to do this more often.
We did one of those long, complicated and cool handshakes that rappers and particularly pathetic children do, then we parted ways.
I pushed open the door to the bar, daylight crashed in, momentarily blinding me. I looked up into the sky, thought about how blessed a life I had to be able to spend time in the company of this wonderful and wonderfully talented man.
I turned back to give him a final wave but he’d already tapped ‘The Cha-cha Slide’ into the electronic jukebox and was parading around the clientele. What a guy. What. A. Guy. I doffed an imaginary cap to him, turned to face the day and stepped out into oncoming traffic.
Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa is still showing in most cinemas nationwide.
A huge thank you to Neil Gibbons who donated more time to this interview than he had to. He may yet sue us because of the write up, but at the very least it’ll be the good basis for a faintly humorous column.