Entertainment

Aha! – The Oral History of Alan Partridge

Steve Coogan, Armando Iannucci and other writers and actors reflect on almost three decades of Norwich's favourite son.
October 9, 2020, 8:07am
steve coogan alan partridge
Steve Coogan in 'Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa' (2013) Photo: AA Film Archive / Alamy Stock Photo

Alan Partridge is Middle England incarnate. From hapless sports presenter, to hapless TV presenter, to hapless podcaster, Norwich’s favourite son is as maddening as he is endearing. He’s also managed to do what very few characters in the comedy world successfully manage to do: endure.

From his beginnings on the radio show On the Hour (1991), via The Day Today (1994), I’m Alan Partridge (1997), Mid Morning Matters (2010), a feature length film, Alpha Papa (2013), various specials, biographies, audiobooks, a return to the BBC with This Time (2019), and now an 18-part podcast, From the Oasthouse, not only will Partridge refuse to die, but he actually keeps getting better.

Here, actor and co-creator Steve Coogan, along with several writers and actors who have been involved in Alan’s creation – specifically around the time of I’m Alan Partridge – reflect on the creation of a curmudgeonly icon. There are several women who were heavily involved during this era, including Felicity Montagu, Sally Phillips, Rebecca Front, Amelia Bullmore and Doon Mackichan, but unfortunately they all passed or were unavailable for interview. So: sorry it’s a bloke-fest.

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Left to right: Peter Baynham, Armando Iannucci and David Schneider in 1997. Photo: Neil Munns / PA Images via Getty Images

BEGINNINGS

Armando Iannucci (Writer/Co-creator of Alan Partridge): I asked Steve to be a sports reporter on the radio show we were doing, On the Hour. As soon as he started speaking, everyone in the room started laughing. Suddenly someone said: “He's a Partridge,” and someone else said, “He’s an Alan.” Then we started speculating about the details and his obsessions, and it all spilled out fully formed.

Patrick Marber (Writer/Actor/Co-creator of Alan Partridge): The general consensus was he should sound a bit like Elton Welsby, a bit Jim Rosenthal and a bit like John Motson. Steve was like, “I’m not really into sports, but I'll do my best.” We all fell about laughing, because [his character] was so accurate of a generic sports reporter.

Steve Coogan: (Writer/Actor/Co-creator of Alan Partridge): They made him a sports presenter, but I knew fuck all about sports.

Patrick Marber: He was able to improvise as an inept sports reporter brilliantly, because he genuinely didn't know stuff. What I knew from very early on was that Steve had a facility for this voice. When Steve's comfortable in a voice he can sort of do anything and take it anywhere. It sounds a bit pretentious, but he really does. He finds character through voice, and I think that's because he began as an impressionist.

Steve Coogan: I just thought it was this sports presenter guy, but Patrick Marber thought it had more potential – and so, against my better judgment, we recorded a half-hour talk show. At that point I also thought it had legs. Patrick was like, “This character is going to change your life,” and he was right.

Patrick Marber: I was able to see quite quickly that this character could have more scale than just doing sports, and it seemed to me that the chat show was a perfect vehicle. I had a very strong image for Alan, and whether it actually happened or not, I'm not sure, but I think I remember a sports reporter on TV interviewing some footballers who then threw him into the swimming pool. He had to put on a brave face while sopping wet. That, to me, was everything about Alan - having to be brave in the face of his own humiliation. The principle with Alan was: how can we torture him the most?

David Schneider (Actor: Tony Hayers,I’m Alan Partridge’): There was more human flesh on Partridge, if that's not too hideous an image, than some of the other slightly more satirical angry characters from On The Hour – inasmuch as he was born fully rounded in a Pringle cardigan. He's the one we got excited about the backstory for. I remember debates about where he came from, and at one point Milton Keynes was broached as a possibility, but was rejected because it was too obvious. Norwich was found as this sort of virgin comedy territory, but one that had realism. It didn't have any real stereotypes attached to it.

Patrick Marber: I wrote a treatment for the pilot for the radio show, and that's when I came up with the whole ABBA thing. I think Steve had already established that Alan was an ABBA fan, and I thought, ‘We'll use ABBA for the title.’ Knowing Me, Knowing You was the obvious title. Steve and I spent a lot of time in my flat improvising characters. We’d take it in turns to be Alan and the other characters he was interviewing.

David Schneider: We all dressed up, even though it was a radio show. It was set out like a chat show; we didn't just stand around with mics. So it was already like a television show, but on the radio.

Armando Iannucci: We put out a sofa and had potted plants, and Steve was in his sweater with slicked back hair. We kind of had it all mapped out visually, because the whole thing about the radio show was he was desperate to get on the couch. In his head he's inviting TV producers in to watch him do his radio show.

Patrick Marber: As soon as we had a live audience responding to Alan, you just saw: we're away here, this is going to work. The shows got better, and by the time we finished recording episode six I would say he was fully fledged. Steve was 100 percent inhabiting him.

Armando Iannucci: I think everyone knew someone on radio or television that reminded them of Alan. He was universally recognisable. The thing is, nobody admits to being like Alan, but lots of people say they know someone like Alan.

Patrick Marber: Alan used to say this line that always cracked us up: “I'm Alan Partridge, of that there is no doubt.” I thought that might be the catchphrase to take off, but it was “Aha!” Just the fact he mentioned his own name so much always used to make me laugh. He wasn’t ashamed to say his name, because his desperation for fame made it logical that he’d get his name out there as much as possible.

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Steve Coogan as Alan Partridge for Red Nose Day, 1995. Photo:

TRANSITION TO TV

Peter Baynham (Writer:The Day Today’,I’m Alan Partridge’,Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa’): Alan was this sports reporter who knew nothing about sport, and was more obsessed with groin strains. On The Day Today, I had to write idiotic names for horses for him to read out. Like, “Trust Me I’m a Stomach” or “Mrs Boothroyd’s Holiday Dancer”.

Armando Iannucci: Because the radio stuff had all been done like a TV show, the move to doing Alan on screen for The Day Today was quite smooth.

David Schneider: What was really exciting was the transition to I'm Alan Partridge, when you actually get to know more about this guy's life. It's great that he's an interviewer, but there's much more going on. There's all this terrible stuff behind the scenes, so it was like: why don't we tap into that?

Armando Iannucci: The thought for the sitcom was: he's born for the microphone, he's born for the camera, so what happens when that is taken away from him?

Patrick Marber: Steve, Armando and I did a research trip to a travel tavern for it.

Armando Iannucci: Because the premise was that he was staying equidistant between Norwich and London, we went to one that was. The idea was we were going to go for 24 hours and have dinner, breakfast and lunch. We didn't make it as far as lunch because it was so horrible. It was bleak. There was a helicopter circle where helicopters should land, but it was all cracked and shit, and it had never been used. In my room the chest of drawers was on a slight incline, so the top drawer permanently slid out. Steve got rang up at 7AM to be told that the car valet system wasn't up and running that day.

Patrick Marber: We tried to get into the David Lloyd sports centre that was attached to the travel tavern, but that had closed down. I remember us all in the carvery having dinner and eating pigs in blankets, and just going, “This is so Alan.” The aim was to check out the rooms and the vibe of the place, and make sure that it was suitably depressing, which it was, so we were absolutely elated and we knew this was the right location.

Armando Iannucci: There was a poster about a Valentine’s meal for two with a complimentary half bottle of champagne, but in brackets saying “not to be taken into the main bar area”. We used that in the show.

James Lance (Actor: Ben,I’m Alan Partridge’): I remember this feeling hanging in the air, because another of Steve’s characters, Tony Ferrino, had come out and it hadn't landed with the public in quite the same way as Alan. That feeling was in the background. It felt like there was quite a lot of expectation on this series and on Steve.

Armando Iannucci: I watched a lot of sitcoms and noticed they were often very theatrical and kind of shouted at the audience. I thought, ‘What we need to do with Alan is actually confine him within four walls.’ So we built this studio set and there was an audience, but each set would have four walls. This forces the actors to speak to each other rather than to project out to the audience, but it also meant they could hear the audience and they could stay in the rhythm of the scene with their laughter.

Arthur Mathews (Co-creator,Father Ted’; Actor: Paul Tool,I’m Alan Partridge’): Armando came to one of the recordings of Father Ted and asked us some questions about sitcoms, which was very flattering. Armando asking you something is kind of humbling. We were neighbours at Talkback productions, too. We actually had Steve read for Father Ted at one stage, because he did this impression of an Irish relative he had. We were going to use that kind of character – it would have been for the Eurovision episode, he would have been the presenter – but it didn't work out.

Armando Iannucci: We had a rehearsal room in a church hall, and we put a bed in there to act as Alan's room. We built a reception desk, and for two weeks in between filming each episode we'd be in this dingy room. We’d just workshop stuff and re-workshop it. It almost became like putting on a stage play. Then the shoot itself became a very nerve-wracking performance of the stage plays.

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Steve Coogan as Alan Partridge and Felicity Montagu as Lynn. Photo: BBC

CASTING

Simon Greenall (Actor: Michael, ‘I’m Alan Partridge’): All the instructions I got for my audition was: he’s called Michael, he works in the hotel and he sort of gets on with Alan. I was going to make Michael from Leeds, but that morning I'd done a voiceover as a Geordie and thought that might be funny. So I did him as an ex-army Geordie. I made up this thing about how I love making and preparing the breakfast each day, but then I hated it when people ate them. I started off quite normal and pleasant, and then got really angry.

James Lance: I’d only discovered Alan about a fortnight before my audition, via Knowing Me, Knowing You. So for the first five minutes, I was just like: is this guy for real? There wasn't a script for me to look at. The premise was that I was a bellboy, and I just had to do a couple of improvisations. There was one where I made up that Alan was jammed stuck behind a radiator. I pretended I’d just found him there, as I don’t think my character would have been all that handy with anything other than the receptionist and rolling cigarettes. At the time I was a tour guide on a London bus, and to be honest, getting this gig gave me a career.

Armando Iannucci: Sally Phillips [who plays Sophie] wrote lots of little notes on what she thought should go into Sophie’s character, and one was what Sophie’s greatest fear would be: being stuck in a lift with Alan, because she wouldn't be able to stop laughing. That was great – the idea that she would laugh at him and have to leave his company because it’s unprofessional. So we built that in right from the start.

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Armando Iannucci in 2007. Photo: Edd Westmacott / Alamy Stock Photo

THE CREATIVE PROCESS

David Schneider: You're professional, and you try your best to keep it together, but Steve is so real as Alan and will do all these bits of improvisation that take you by surprise. There was a moment when the waiter pulled him back in that scene when he's hitting me in the face with the cheese, and Steve improvised, “Alright, Rambo.” It was so Partridge, because of course he would love Rambo and fantasise about being Rambo, as well as it being a bit of a dated reference – and I remember just thinking, ‘God – hold it together, hold it together.’

Simon Greenall: They welcomed input and lines from other people. I made the suggestion about the boiled eggs for breakfast, and then “laying them, you big chicken”. But I never saw it as “my line”, or took any ownership. There was a feeling of: if it’s good for the show then throw it in there.

Peter Baynham: Steve always felt very strongly about things, and would be the gatekeeper of Alan. With Steve, he would either hate something and go “fuck off”, or he would love it. If Steve loved an idea, he would defend it to the death. I realised early on that was a great thing to be around.

James Lance: A lot of it was just improvising around subjects until you landed on something, and a script would then be put together from that. The filming was on a Friday night, and you didn't get the script until the Friday, which gave it a real energy. With there being an audience, it added a sense of live theatre. Steve would do the warm-up as Alan, so before the episode had actually started the audience were in cahoots already.

Peter Baynham: We’d write out an hour-long version of something that could only ever be a five-minute scene. Our scripts would be 120 pages per episode. Whenever I work with Steve and Armando, the process is partly chaotic and partly incredibly focused – it's a weird combination. I think it works, but it was crazy. We did a lot of late nights, a lot of arguing and a lot of laughing.

Arthur Mathews: I remember the scripts coming in, and it was pretty late, whereas our scripts were pretty well done in advance. There weren't a lot of changes we did, whereas Partridge seemed to be up until the very last minute they were changing things and doing rewrites and adding bits.

Simon Greenall: It was very by the seat of its pants. It was very tense and a lot of pressure. We didn't know if it was funny or not. We thought it was funny, but the danger with comedy is just making each other laugh.

Peter Baynham: You become very nerdy writing for Alan. You become a bit obsessive and like the biggest Alan Partridge fan in the world. Like the most crazy Marvel comic book weird men in their bedrooms. The people writing the show have to be the least susceptible to selling out. You never wanted to make it cheesy or shit, like an episode of a sitcom where they all go on holiday. This makes you the most resistant to somebody coming in from a marketing department – or an executive – and saying, “What about this or that?” so that your immediate response is just, “No, no, no, fuck off.”

Simon Greenall: Peter Baynham is the funniest little man in the room. He’s very quiet and unobtrusive, but he’ll come up to you and suggest the most fantastically funny things. He loved my character and would whisper suggestions for me to throw into improvisation. We came up with the throwing the monkey in the sea bit between us. My daughter came to set that day and was about five years old, and said, “Dad, did you really throw a monkey in the sea?”

Peter Baynham: I used to be in the Merchant Navy, so I existed in this pseudo-military world for a long time. I knew a lot of people like Michael – these kind of weird, rootless men. I love Michael, because I love that haunted thing about him that very occasionally brings up the question, “What the fuck happened to you?” I loved his slightly broken nature. I remember first going to London after I left the Merchant Navy, and I took my redundancy money and ended up in some fucking horrible house-share in this grim situation. When we were writing Michael, I thought of that and these weird places you end up living, like with a guy in the room next door who plays Sabbath records at 4AM or the smell of the fucking horrible food coming out of his room. That's the world Michael lives in.

THE RULES OF ALAN

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Steve Coogan as Alan Partridge at the premiere of 'Alpha Papa' (2013). Photo: Stills Press / Alamy Stock Photo

Steve Coogan: Alan has to be within the realms of a sort of authentic reality – it has to be rooted in the true. There's an ethics at play in terms of the comedy of Alan. I would say I'm quite moral about the comedy I do. I don't like comedy that is bullying. I don't like comedy that is cruel or sick for the sake of it. I never punch down. I always punch up, and I don't like comics who laugh at weak people. I think they're cunts.

Alan isn't mean, he's just sometimes misguided. A lot of the comedy comes from his misjudgement, not nastiness. He's just sometimes a bit clueless. He means well, but he's just inherited a lot. I mean, fucking 70 percent of the British population are like Alan Partridge. His innate little prejudices and occupations are those of many people – some of them even me. But if he says something which has sort of a residue of being racist or sexist, then the laugh comes at his misjudgement, not a celebration of any kind of racism or sexism. That's not an accident, that's deliberately engineered, because I don't want to add to the sum total of human misery. I want to point out things where we can improve our behaviour, myself included.

I have strong views on things, but I like to use comedy to satirise and poke fun at things that I think need poking fun at. I’m left-wing, but The Guardian annoys me just as much as the Daily Mail – well, not quite as much, but not far behind. So any of my frustrations I just put into the character; but I don't make fun of people who live in council houses, for example, as some people do. I think if you've got a skill and you can make people laugh, use it to hold people who are privileged and powerful accountable. That's what you should do. That doesn't mean you can't like dumb jokes – and I like stuff to be broadly accessible, I don't want to go around waving a flag. I like lots of people to laugh at what I do – that includes people from different backgrounds politically, as well as different generations.

GIVE ME A SECOND SERIES, YOU SHIT

Simon Greenall: We needed a break, because I think Steve, Armando and Peter were ready to kill each other. They’d been locked in that bloody room together for months, debating and talking and trying to make it work. I really think they’d had enough of each other. There needed to be time to decompress.

Peter Baynham: I was ready to go ahead and do a second series straight away. So there was a debate, and then it was decided to take a break and go and do other things.

Steve Coogan: I think the second series wasn't quite as good as the first one. I think we should have kept him living in a hotel.

Armando Iannucci: It was good fun, but it just felt that was something off. That was also the point where I definitely felt the realisation that you're spending all day in the company of Alan. It comes to a point where, after like five months of being in a room with Alan Partridge, you just think, ‘Shut the fuck up. I beg you.’ I think we left it too long after the first series too, and therefore it had that strange thing of getting back into the mindset of what you did five years ago. So I think it's a much more erratic show. Although there’s still some of Alan’s funniest bits in that series. The scene where he pierces his foot on the spike had me literally rolling on the floor.

Peter Baynham: It was a harder slog, and it took longer. I felt more weight of expectation because I'd been partly responsible for this thing that people loved. I don't know why I didn't feel that so much on the first series, but on the second series it felt more like, “Oh god.” It just felt harder and more stressful, and we were more scared. I concur with Steve that I think the first series is better.

Armando Iannucci: There was this whole weird thing of people saying, ‘Why is there a laughter track? There wasn't a laughter track on season one.” And I said yes there was. I was there. In those five years the environment had changed slightly, and hearing a studio audience laughing was slightly more unusual.

Peter Baynham: The laughter track stuff was really annoying. They were saying “this is a dated format” and that the audience sitcom is dead. No, that's bullshit. I think that was what was hard when the second series came out; it felt like there was more judgment.

Simon Greenall: There did seem to be a little bit of a thing forming at the time, of if you were in the David Brent or Alan Partridge camp in terms of who was better. They were two monstrous main characters, but very different shows.

Peter Baynham: At the time it felt like “The Office is here now, fuck you guys”. But looking back, they’re both great – we all loved that show, too. I don't know about Steve, but I'm haunted by the memory of making the second series. It didn't feel happy, like the first time. There was a lot more arguing. For series one I remember rehearsing and writing scenes where you didn't know where it was coming from, it was just coming out of you. It fucking sprang out of the ground - that weird thing with creativity where you're not entirely responsible for it, there's just magic in the room.

On the second series, some of that magic in the room wasn't there. Suddenly you’re arguing about other things, like, “Where the fuck were you this morning?” Or whatever was in your personal life. I was anxious and had shit going on in my life – stuff to do with my dad and some horrible family history, and then he died during the middle of it. I felt like I couldn’t take a half-day off to mourn, so I just thought I would hide in the jokes.

I remember filming the scene in the cemetery when Lynn was visiting her mum’s grave, and I saw a child’s grave and just burst into tears and had to go home. So all that was going on, along with whatever personal issues Steve had going on. It was tough for him and it was tough for Armando. So arguments about “should Alan say this” became bitter and nasty, and you realise the argument is partly about the material, but partly about underlying tensions between each other. But we pushed through. I mean, it wasn’t Fleetwood Mac making Rumours, with everyone off their tits and all fucking each other.

THE EVOLUTION OF ALAN

Armando Iannucci: Tonally, the more real it feels, the better, I think. Also, the key is to keep him evolving. Alan was ambitious and kind of obnoxious, and as he's grown older he's become a little bit more mellow and sympathetic. He's trying to understand attitudes and the changing social landscape. I think he's a bit more relaxed in his own skin.

Steve Coogan: Alan is an opportunity to explore quite subtle forms of comedy, because people know who he is; they feel connected with the guy. He feels real, so you can explore all these avenues. There’s not that many comic characters that last as long, so for us it’s an opportunity to really explore the character and explore comedy in this innovative way.

Armando Iannucci: The Gibbons brothers [the current writers of Partridge, with Coogan] have come along and injected a completely new energy into Alan. They get the tone perfectly.

Steve Coogan: It’s tricky, because you have to give the audience what they want, which is what they're familiar with, but you can't just repeat yourself. So that's a circle you have to square. How do we give them what they want, but make it a bit different at the same time?

David Schneider: I think the thing with Alan is he’s constantly evolving. As history evolves, it’s gone from having to deal with PC culture to sort of a Brexit world, where you feel it's his world again. We follow him as he evolves and develops – there’s a richness in following a life.

Steve Coogan: I was recording stuff within half an hour of coming up with the voice, so Alan has lived entirely in front of people. His gestation and development has been entirely public. Because the character is so real, all you have to have him do is react to a changing world. The world doesn't stand still, the world changes, and Alan is just a mirror to the world in which you live. So generating material is not difficult in that regard, because Alan just reacts to all that. He's just a filter for what happens in society.

STEVE AND ALAN

Simon Greenall: Steve stays in character as Alan all the time, and that’s what makes it good. That dedication and focus. Steve is a tremendous hard worker. People say, “Oh, it's a bit weird these days, staying in character – it’s a bit arty farty.” Not at all. If you're going to make something good, you've got to give it absolutely everything.

Steve Coogan: There is a Venn diagram where I overlap with Alan, definitely. Some of the things Alan says I find odious, and some of the things he says I agree with. Although, I don’t get up in the morning and think, ‘What would Alan think about this?’ I just get on with my life. With Alan, it's like putting on a really comfortable pair of slippers.

Fifteen years ago, when I was trying to figure out what to do with my career, I didn't really want to talk about Alan. What changed my life was writing Philomena. Now, I spend most of my time writing drama. I don't need to do Alan – I choose to do it because I enjoy it. He makes me laugh, too, so I do it for the pleasure of it. As long as I can do my other things, that, to me, is the perfect balance, because I don't want to say goodbye to Alan. If someone said tomorrow, “Steve, you can do whatever you want and you never have to do Alan Partridge ever again,” I wouldn't want that. I'd miss him. He’s like an alter ego.

Armando Iannucci: I think Steve needed to get away from him for a bit and not just be the guy who did Alan. Doing things like his films with Michael Winterbottom and Philomena has made him a bit more comfortable with Alan again.

Steve Coogan: He is his own character, but he’s quite a good Trojan horse for me, where you can discuss issues that I personally probably wouldn't be able to talk about. So: politics, sexual politics, post-woke cancel culture, all the rest of all that stuff that people get very passionate about. I just wouldn't bother talking about that stuff because I want a quiet life. That's why I don't use social media. I don't want to get sucked into a vortex. I've seen other people get sucked into pointless conversations with people they don't know, and I just can't think of anything worse. If I want to express myself, I don't need to do it on a public platform, I just do it through Alan and it's a more productive use of my time.

THE LEGACY AND FUTURE OF ALAN

Arthur Mathews: Everything [Coogan has] done as Partridge has been great; he hasn't really made any wrong steps along the way. It's been consistently good.

Patrick Marber: Great British comic creations are rooted in this kind of ordinary suburban simplicity, and Alan conformed to that. He's in the same tradition as Captain Mainwaring or Basil Fawlty or David Brent. They're all the same sad little man. As a nation, we're good at these little men. Ultimately, though, I'm just a fan, and really proud to have been involved at the beginning and help shape him.

James Lance: Still, to this day, I don't think I've been in a room with such dynamic comedy minds. Alan’s just going to keep on going to the end, isn't he? He'll probably be a hologram.

Steve Coogan: Doing this podcast was a different format to explore, and it was good and fresh because it just gave a different spin. With the podcast, you get a sort of intimacy – you get a little bit inside his head and a little bit more of the unguarded Alan; you can just let the character lead the way. We’re writing the next series of This Time now and filming at the end of the year. It’s a bit of a mad scramble, and it's always like, ‘Oh god, it's gonna be terrible,’ but we somehow manage to pull it off. With Alan, you just wind him up and see where he goes.

From the Oasthouse: The Alan Partridge Podcast is available to download from Audible.co.uk

@DanielDylanWray