Maybe we took out a few too many lines here and there because there’s a bunch of them that I wish were back in there.
As back catalogues go, Declan Lowney certainly has a diverse one. From making his name in Father Ted, to the infamous TV movie Cruise of the Gods, to Little Britain at its height and, more recently, Chris O’Dowd’s Moone Boy, he’s been fixture in some of the great British comedy shows in recent history. He even had a hand in the 1988 Eurovision Song Contest. But, in the words that – it turns out – eventually ended up on Alan Partridge’s cutting room floor, “welcome to big school”.
Lowney helms his biggest project to date with Alpha Papa and he sat down to talk exclusively to Pure Movies editor Dan Higgins about Partridge, Apatow and the state of British comedy.
It’s been a film that has been hyped for much more than a decade. How much pressure did you feel being in charge of pulling it off?
I don’t think I was quite aware how obsessively people love Partridge and how strong the fanbase is, and how intensely they feel ownership of it. But, you know, Steve [Coogan] guards Partridge. There was a lot of talk about what Alan would do and, in the writing, that was always uppermost in their minds; keeping him Partridge and staying true to him.
So where did your loyalties lie: to create a new audience, please the real fans, or both?
Yeah we had to get a new audience as well as retain the old fans. I think the Mid-Morning Matters series had given the character a younger audience. We want it to appeal to as many people as we possibly can but, you’re right, we had to be absolutely true to Partridge for the real fans. If you piss off the fanbase, you’re in trouble.
How do you go about directing someone who invented and mastered the character they are playing?
Steve kind of directs himself to be honest. He also had me and Rob watching him all the time. There’s a lot of input and a lot of chat but he’ll keep going at something until he feels he’s got it right. He’s always open to input.
Did you ever worry about making Alan too much of a hero in the film?
No. Steve worried a lot about that but I think they had dealt with that by the time they had written it, particularly in the way that he responded to situations like when he wants to return as the face of the siege. But I think – if he was ever in danger of looking too heroic – we’d pull back on it.
I think the current US comedy formula is kind of tired now actually…it’s when they franchise them that it becomes a bit tiresome.
How did you first get involved with the project?
I have worked with Steve a few times before so I’ve been on his radar but I was doing Chris O’Dowd’s Moone Boy and Steve came over and did a cameo for it. He was around for a few days and I heard shortly after that he wanted me to do the movie. I was a bit shocked and I met with Armando Iannucci and we had a conversation about how it worked on Moone Boy. Chris O’Dowd and Steve are not dissimilar in some ways; they’re both very focused on making sure the gags are working.
Chris has now hit the big time with a series of Judd Apatow films and there seems to be more and more of the “Apatow comedies” with the same actors and plot devices over and over. How long do you think that formula can last?
Bridesmaids was a breath of fresh air but I think the current US comedy formula is kind of tired now actually. I’m finding the relationship ones a bit tiresome but, also, that’s not my generation so I might find it irksome because I’m older than them. If you take The Hangover, the first one is great. And Meet the Parents, the first one is great. It’s when they franchise them is when it becomes a bit tiresome.
Given Alpha Papa has been so critically acclaimed, do you think there’s a sequel in the future and would you want to be involved with that?
I’d never say never but I know that this was a long time coming and Steve has said that he’ll only do things if he thinks it’s the right time. The Alan Partridge concept is so multi-layered. It’s really clever stuff. I think a lot of it happened by accident and he’s evolved brilliantly with the technology. He won’t just do another film because it makes a lot of money and it’s successful. But those things help of course.
A lot of characters returned to Alan Partridge from different incarnations – Michael, Lynn, Sidekick Simon – was it ever a struggle to get them back on board?
They all jumped at it. Felicity [Montagu] was appearing in a really complex West End show at the same time and she had to keep going back-and-forth from London so there was a lot of pressure on her, but she just wanted to be in the movie. We couldn’t have recast her. Everyone was great, it was so Partridge.
There were some lines in the trailer that didn’t make the final cut. What happened to “Welcome to big school”?
Yeah [laughs]. It’s one of my favourite lines. It’s so funny in the trailer and on its own, it’s a really great line but the context is that he’s just walked away from Darren Boyd towards the front door and you’re trying to get on with what’s happening next, then it’s quite a long walk and he stops, says “big school” and then the doors open and it was just bringing down the pace. And I look at that now and, every time, I miss the line because I love it in the trailer. But it’s hard to know. Maybe we took out a few too many lines here and there because there’s a bunch of them that I wish were back in there.
So did you shoot loads of footage? How hard was it to edit it all down?
Certain stuff just presented itself and certain things like when Alan isn’t on the screen, the movie’s less interesting. So, a lot of the stuff that went were sub-plots with the police and stuff like that. As good as they were, they just ended up a bit superfluous. There was a feeling that we had to have other stuff in case the main story needed help but we didn’t need them. Steve would always fire off five great gags at the end of scenes and we maybe used two or three of them but all five were killers. With Alan as well you need the right level of madness; if he’s gabbling bullshit all the time, it’s tiring.
You were heavily involved with Father Ted, which is such an enduring comedy. It seems to me that BBC One in particular find it really hard to schedule a good prime time comedy, why do you think this is? And what do you think of the state of comedy at the moment?
I love Parks and Recreation, Modern Family and Arrested Development, US mainstream shows that are bit challenging. But homegrown comedy is struggling with it a bit at the moment I think. I quite like the new show from Graham [Linehan] Count Arthur Strong is pretty good. The fact that Mrs Brown’s Boys has found an audience is absolutely bizarre to me.
I think with Father Ted, there’s something about the writing that makes it timeless. The individual voices in Father Ted are different and unique and maybe feed in to a small core audience but if you’re doing mainstream shows that need to be getting seven or eight million, then they do become homogenised and sterile I guess.
You mentioned Arrested Development. What do you think of the binge-watching approach to TV shows?
Absolutely, it seems to be the way ahead. I got Netflix a few months ago and I watched all of Breaking Bad in the space of a month.
And what’s next for you?
I’m happy to do anything that’s funny really but I’d love to do another film. I’ve really enjoyed the process and having a bit more time and space to tell the story. So, I’d like to do more of that.
And in the process you’ve given Norfolk their seminal film?
Well yeah, I guess I have [laughs]. Norfolk comes out of it terribly well, doesn’t it? It was all very positive and everyone was really up for it. When you shoot in London, people are bit cynical and jaded and you’re in the way but, in Norfolk, we got a great reception. People were very warm to us.