Rob Gilroy: Making A Stand – with Alpha Papa writer Neil Gibbons
Pictured: Alpha Papa writer Neil Gibbons (left) alongside twin brother Rob.
For this week’s column, I thought I’d change tact. I have decided to do an interview, but not just any old interview; a good interview.
Sure, we can all pretend we’re Parky when we’re sat having a poo, but which of us can truly ask those questions that probe deep into a person’s psyche?
Can you? Probably not. Can I? Probably yes.
And so, it’s with this in mind that I decided to interview Neil Gibbons, one of the writers of the hit motion picture Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa.
For the record; this interview was conducted in one of those proper swanky bars in Soho that are often frequented by media whores and arty types, because we’re proper mates and that.
It was not done over Hotmail, by emailing him a load of questions and then waiting patiently while he kindly answered them all. Nope, not over Hotmail. Definitely not. No siree.
And just in case the record needs to be absolutely clear; I did not receive a reply from Mr. Gibbons while I was shopping in Miss. Selfridges.
And on to the interview.
As I sat in the swanky Soho wine bar-cum-bistro-cum-CO:OP 8 till late, I could smell something. It was the smell of success, success in the media – a smell not unlike Slazenger Sport antiperspirant and cocaine.
I sipped my raspberry mojito and wondered what my interviewee, Alan Partridge writer Neil Gibbons, would be like. Then he arrived.
I’ll be honest; the eye-patch was a surprise, but he carried if off like a true pro.
As he swung open the door to the bar, narrowly missing one of those really cool canvases that has an inspirational message on it, he swaggered towards me, wearing a simple t-shirt and jean combo topped off with a silver crown.
Gibbons nodded at the waitress to indicate that he would have his usual, a strawberry daiquiri. Neil pulled a stool up which turned out to be too high for our table so returned it and dragged a chair across the floor instead.
After giving me a huge bear hug (we’re firm friends, y’know) he sat down, took a sip of his drink and got straight into it.
He asked me how I was doing and what I was up to these days but I had to remind him that today wasn’t about me, it was about him.
I leant forward, nibbled the end of my HB, and put my first question to him: “Neil mate”, I said, “with Alpha Papa’s release finally here, how are you feeling?”
He smiled at me, glanced away for a moment – some would say bowled over by the power of my opening gambit and the fact that it even sounded as though it was spoken in bold – and then responded.
“We’re grand,” he said.
“The real high five moment was when you finally finish the film – the fact people then come and watch it is just a bonus by that stage. By then it’s nice to have cleared the decks and be done with it.
“It was gruelling. It’s like when someone’s 8 months pregnant and longing for the baby to come. They’re one-third excited about having a child and two-thirds bored of carrying the thing around.”
“The film’s been getting rave reviews all round…” said I, showing a clear understanding of how the industry works. “Do you now feel your job’s done and you can relax, or is there still a nervousness surrounding fan responses?”
“The response has been great by and large,” he said, “and obviously that’s pleasing otherwise what’s the point? But I wouldn’t say any of us were nervous.
“Without being an arty wanker, you have to just do what you think is good, otherwise you’re pulled from pillar to post trying to fluff different segments of the audience.
“You start off wanting to please the audience but by the end of the process you’ve stopped trying to second guess viewers and end up doing what you think it good. And we’re happy with it so the pressure’s off.”
Neil leaned back in his chair (something he wouldn’t have been able to do on the stool). He was happy with his answer. And so was I. It was this classic type of banter that really showed what great mates we were. Everyone in the bar could see it. “Who are those cool guys?” they were probably saying.
“Were you originally fans of Partridge, before writing for him?”
“Definitely. We’ve followed the character since his radio days. I don’t know any comedy fans our age who aren’t Alan fans! He’s probably the greatest comedy character Britain has produced.”
I nodded in agreement.
“When did you both decide that writing comedy was what you wanted to do?” I asked, already knowing the answer because we’re like that (does the crossed keys-thing.)
“Quite late,” he said.
“I was half-heartedly dabbling in stand-up in London in my early 20s and saw something on a comedy site from a BBC radio producer (Mario Stylianides) looking for submissions from non-London writers.
“I mentioned it to Rob and we wrote a few scenes about a wannabe Labour councillor trying to get elected in the hope it’d win back his estranged wife and son. (Not sure it was ever broadcast, but weirdly it had Simon Greenall and Felicity Montague among the cast).
“Don’t think we’d discussed a career before then, but things took off and we just sort of went with it.”
“Does writing with your twin brother make the process easier or harder?”
“Bit of both. We have a short-hand which means we work quite efficiently, but we also have the family tie that means you don’t worry about being tactful or diplomatic. So it’s more brutal than it would be otherwise.”
“How did it feel going from your writing partnership to working with comedy legends; Coogan, Iannucci and Baynham? It’s the thing so many wannabe writers dream of – was it exciting or just plain terrifying?”
“It was a new way of working.
“On our own we tend to work separately and craft ideas a bit before swapping them – even typing out an email lets you get it across exactly as you’d want it.
With Steve, a lot of it’s done on the fly around a table so you’ve got to pipe up or there’s no point being there. But Steve has no ego when it comes to writing, so you quickly realise it’s very democratic and your idea carries as much weight as anyone else’s – which helps.
“Arm’s the same and Pete, who we saw a lot less of because he’s in LA, is just a really lovely supportive guy.”
A lot of people would have been impressed by the names that Neil was dropping, but I wasn’t. I was used to this level of fame. I’d once met Rula Lenska in the gents toilets of the Center Parcs in Thetford forest. I then went on to ask a question that, on the surface, may seem like I was gushing over him, when actually it was a very clever interview technique.
“I wanted to say a quick congratulations on the And Less Successful Characters Tour. I found it to be one of the funniest nights in the theatre ever. How did it feel to suddenly be playing with such a rich collection of popular characters?”
“Can’t claim the credit for that! We were asked to write a Paul & Pauline Calf comeback episode just before the tour (never got off the ground for various reasons) and were then asked chip in jokes for the show, and a handful were used for Paul/Pauline Calf and Alan.
“But Steve saw enough from the Alan material, and the promo material (Alan does a Time Out Q&A, does a column in the programme notes etc), to think we had a grasp of the character.”
“How did your connection come about? Was live character comedy something you had done before?”
“No, never! We’d just got a new agent and he sent an old script of ours to Baby Cow [production company] and they liked our stuff and asked to meet us. Then we were working on stuff with Baby Cow when the tour came about so they asked us to muck in.”
“Partridge is a much loved comedy character, like Basil Fawlty or the Pope. There is a huge amount of expectation whenever you do something new. Is that anticipation something you’re aware of when writing?”
“A little bit, but if you dwell on it too much it strangles you. Especially with Alan, where the audience feel enough of a sense of ownership to say, ‘Alan wouldn’t do this or that’ or be pissed off that he’s grown his hair longer. You have to just put the blinkers on and stick to your instincts.”
We both paused to consider what had been said. “What an answer” we both thought. “What an answer.”
It was at this point in our chat that it came to a natural break. Not that we’d run out of anything to say to each other, it was just one of those moments where one person sighs and the other nods.
You both know you need a minute to collect your thoughts.
It was certainly not due to the fact that my WiFi signal had momentarily stopped working. As I said before; this was not conducted over email.
And so, like an episode of The West Wing or Hey, Arnold! this interview is to be continued…
Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa is in cinemas now.