As Alan Partridge struts into multiplexes with his big-screen debut, we met up in London with the Alpha Papa himself, Steve Coogan, to talk about his 20-plus years playing the character. Read on to learn why Partridge is like The Rolling Stones, which item of Alan-wear Coogan has in his closet, and which Hollywood stars are devotees of the Toblerone Lord...
The movie kicks off with Alan miming to Roachford's Cuddly Toy. How do you pick what goes on the soundtrack? When you write comedy with a character that's well established, you can't just do what the fans expect. You have to be slightly more inventive. So if a fan says, "I think Alan would play this", that's not what we choose. You have to be one step ahead. You have to make the fans go, "Oh, I wasn't quite expecting that" rather than exactly what they want. Because that's when you start to atrophy and become dull. For example, there's one thing we put on the internet where we used a track by Deadmaus to score Alan falling asleep in a chair. And it felt really fresh, because it wasn't a track by ABBA. We'll never use ABBA again - it's just boring now.
Do your tastes align with Alan's at all?
Alan is right wing-ish. Not terribly so - he's not fascist - but he's definitely right of centre. Whereas I'm definitely left of centre.
Yeah. Just because Alan likes it, it doesn't mean it must be naff. That's very two-dimensional thinking. A lot of the music I choose for Alan is stuff I like. Part of the costume for Open Books was this lovely pair of red shoes that I really liked. So I took them home and I still wear them. I don't think, "Oh my God, I'm wearing Alan Partridge's shoes!" They're nice shoes. (Laughs) Certain nuances and attitudes Alan sometimes has, I sometimes have. But there are other things that are definitely not me. The most fundamental thing that's nothing like me is Alan is a Daily Mail-reading little Englander. And I hate the Daily Mail and I hate Little Englanders. And Alan is right wing-ish. Not terribly so - he's not fascist - but he's definitely right of centre. Whereas I'm definitely left of centre.
What do you remember about the genesis of Alan? I was asked to come up with the voice for a sports presenter for some sketches for On The Hour. And if you hear it, it sounds nothing like the voice I do now. I just forgot how I used to do the voice, and also I got lazy, because the voice now is closer to mine. Originally he was a one-note, sketchy character. I remember Patrick Marber started asking me, "What do you think he'd be called?" I just said, "Alan is a very sporty name, so let's call him Alan." There was Alan Ball, Alan Hansen... We didn't want a name that sounded like it could have been an intellectual, and I don't know any intellectuals called Alan. The name trips off the tongue quite easily: Alan Partridge. It just sounded like a normal name you might hear on a sports programme.
Did he catch fire with the public immediately? We didn't think it was going to be a big character. We started doing some sketches, then some more improvised stuff, interviewing people as Alan. It would be a bit hit-and-miss, but Armando [Iannucci] would record it and we'd find funny stuff in it. Then Patrick said, "Why don't you do a talk show?" I remember being reluctant, thinking it wouldn't sustain half an hour. I didn't think he was interesting enough - there's not enough about him really. But Patrick said, "Let's develop him. Let's talk about where he's from and all that." He and I wrote the radio series, Knowing Me Knowing You, based on a pilot we did 21 years ago,. Which we recorded in front of a live audience in the Paris studios, now defunct, on Lower Regent Street. And I went to Lilywhites, at the top of Regent Street, to buy a sweater, a golfy Pringle sweater that I thought would go with some old-mannish trousers. Then I bought some slip-on shoes, a tie and a shirt. I came back, put it all on and then combed my hair a certain way. Even though it was for a radio show, there was a live audience and I didn't want to just be me putting a voice on. I wanted them to look at me and believe I was Alan. So they would introduce me as Alan Partridge at the beginning, before the recording started, and I would come out as him to chat to the audience. I was surprised how big the audience was that turned up for the radio show. There was a little cult following for him starting to develop. We recorded one show with various special guests, and I remember after that show we knew that this had legs. There was definitely something here that had not been done. I remember thinking, "This is going to be good." And Patrick said, "This character's going to change your life." I was like, "Really?"
Was it a struggle to convince the BBC to give Alan a shot on TV?
With the sit-com, it was a big gamble: it could have been terrible. But it worked out well.
Not at all. They wanted a series of On The Hour and a series of Knowing Me, Knowing You. The decision we had to make at the time was which to do first. They'd both been commissioned. Armando said, "Let's do The Day Today first." The first half of 1994 we made The Day Today, the second half we made Knowing Me, Knowing You. That was a really good year. A very exciting year, because I was also doing my Paul and Pauline Calf stuff, that I did with Henry Normal. They were all with different groups of people. And the comedy was tonally very different. The stuff I did with Paul and Pauline Calf was very traditional, almost like music-hallish, punchline-led stuff, which I enjoyed doing and audiences liked. More like Morecambe And Wise kind of comedy, with quite broad characters. Great fun. Whereas working with Armando, although there were some gags in it, it was definitely more adventurous and unorthodox.
After the chat-show, you shook up the format by putting Alan in a sit-com. Why? Alan had only ever been conscious of the camera. With a sit-com, he couldn't acknowledge the camera. It meant he could behave as he would if he didn't think anyone was looking. It closed one door but opened another in terms of the writing. It was a big gamble: it could have been terrible. But it worked out well. He was off television but wanted to be back on it, so everything was about trying to get back what he'd lost. We had to put him somewhere slightly out of reach and slightly alien. We chose the travel tavern because there are certain things, like dual carriageways and cheap business hotels, that are not featured in narratives because they're seen as boring or dull. And if they're dull and boring, that makes them interesting to us, because they're neglected and a fruitful area to explore.
Did you ever consider putting Alan on a reality TV show? That's a terrible idea, it really is. Because reality TV shows already dip into postmodernism. Celebrities go on there to be ironic about themselves, so it's not like a serious thing. If you take a funny character into a situation that's already funny, it's like magnets - it will cancel itself out. What's funny is taking a character and putting him into a serious situation. Alan doing a documentary series: much funnier. Because the format takes itself seriously. You put him in anything jokey, you're satirising something that is already self-satirising.
Right from the beginning, with "Aha!", there have been Alan catchphrases. Are you aware when you're writing of which bits people are going to quote? "Aha!" is really his only proper catchphrase. But later on we'd sometimes have fun thinking things up just to make people say them. "Jurassic Park" was one of those. And "Back of the net." Absolutely.
Co-writer Rob Gibbons mentioned that you sent him a text with an anecdote from Paul Daniels' autobiography... Yeah, when we wrote the autobiography we looked at several real autobiographies, and Paul Daniels' was one of them. Tony Blackburn's, lots of DJs. I mean, a real mish-mash. Some of these TV personalities' autobiographies are just raging egos with no filter. Alan's autobiography is actually, for him, quite well-written. It's thorough and better than what he'd probably be able to achieve. It's actually one of the best things we've done as Alan. Because you're reading a story about a man who's slightly delusional, so you're discovering things about his life by reading between the lines of what he's saying. The subtext is really the whole narrative. It's a really interesting dynamic.
Alan has celebrity friends, but you've never gone the Extras route of bringing them in as guest stars...
I think Judd Apatow knows about Alan. Ben Stiller's a fan. And Owen Wilson. But he's not well known in America generally.
We reference slightly obscure celebrities. We try to shy away from it a little bit. And also you've got to be careful about putting real people in there, because it's a bit too knowing. I mean, Extras had its moments, but I think when you get celebrities in, like "Look who I can get to do my show", it stops being funny. There are lots of high-profile people who would love to appear with Alan, but we like to keep it in its own universe and not break the fourth wall by having it bleed into the recognisable world. It's an alternative universe he lives in and we have to preserve that.
Is the character well-known in Hollywood? Some comedians love him. There's a sort of coterie of purists. Jimmy Fallon tweeted a picture of himself reading extracts to Chris Martin of Coldplay, who's a big fan as well. I think Judd Apatow knows about him. Ben Stiller's a fan. And Owen Wilson. But he's not well known in America generally. That helps me in my career, because Alan being famous here means I have to work extra-hard to get past the typecasting. That's why I have to write films for myself. Whereas over there, because Alan's not known and I'm not known, I've got a bit more freedom.
Would any of your other characters be suited to a film? I think Saxondale could sustain one. What I liked about that character is that in some ways he was the butt of the joke, but he was also funny himself sometimes. Whereas Alan is never funny himself - he's just unwittingly funny. Alan's never going to tell you a joke that really makes you laugh. Saxondale might.
Have you ever come close to hanging up Alan's driving gloves for good? No. I've put him away for a few years, but I've never felt an urge to declare it's the end. It's like a band, isn't it? No-one bothers asking The Rolling Stones anymore if they're going to break up. As long as I'm doing other things, I'm quite happy to dip in and out of Alan's world.