While the weather did its best to ruin the superb Festival No.6 in north Wales, GQ took shelter with Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa and Father Ted director Declan Lowney, culminating in a Q&A on Sunday evening at Portmeirion’s majestic Piazza stage
Words Lee Gale
On The Prisoner, Patrick McGoohan’s lavish 17-part cult spy series of 1967, there isn’t much in the way of relentless precipitation halting No.6’s daring attempts to escape the Village. It’s all well and good proclaiming, “I’m not a number, I’m a free man!” and scowling in a defiant manner when a Mini Moke approaches, but when the rain’s falling so hard that lyns form around your walking boots and the wind’s toppling metal fencing in a furious show of intent, there isn’t much you can do other than flap open an umbrella and hope that you’re not carried into the sky like Mary Poppins. Let it be said that at Festival No.6 – the nation’s most eccentric and all-round fun cultural gathering – it knows how to rain.
Now in its second year, Festival No.6 has forced its way into the media crowd’s affections, positioning itself as a boutique retreat at the opposite end of the Glastonbury/V/Reading-Leeds spectrum. Its focal point is the pastel-shaded Portmeirion, the totally bonkers Italianate village that was created by out-there architect Sir Clough Williams-Ellis in 1920. This year, Chic, Manic Street Preachers, My Bloody Valentine, Tricky, James Blake and Johnny Marr, among many, many others, took on the elements overlooking the Afon Crigyll estuary.
Rather than just mope about with a notepad, GQ decided to spend the weekend in the company of Declan Lowney, the director of this summer’s surprise hit film Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa – plus, in the Nineties, Lowney filmed the finest sitcom off all time, Father Ted. With the idea of thwarted escape, there are definite parallels between The Prisoner and Father Ted.
Lowney might be in his fifties, but he’s the chief practitioner of the hands-in-the-air dance technique that had its foundation in New York disco in the Seventies (this I know, because I DJ’ed in the VIP bar on Friday evening). It was decided by Festival No.6’s “No.2” figure, the prolific music writer and bon vivant Luke Bainbridge, that while we were in the neighbourhood, it might make sense for GQ to interview Lowney at Portmeirion’s Piazza stage, warming up the deckchair-reclining throng prior to the arrival of Caitlin Moran and Stuart Maconie (whose controlled, tight dancing style on Friday was in stark contrast to Lowney’s semaphore signalling).
Following a decidedly balmy Saturday, where hangovers evaporated on the beach through careful consumption of cheese crepes and sips of beer, Sunday roared its disapproval with a very capable impression of the Falklands Islands in 1982. GQ’s Q&A with Lowney, scheduled for 2pm, was agonisingly postponed till 6.30pm for safety reasons, leaving us oodles of time to practise scripted ad-libs, discuss the merits of Roachford’s power-pop masterpiece “Cuddly Toy” and debate whether Dermot Morgan would have made a great No.6 in a re-make of The Prisoner while remaining in his Father Ted guise.
What’s your opinion of Festival No 6?
I love Festival No 6. I spent time in Wales years and years ago with a bunch of girls who were students at Aberystwyth, around 1979 or 1980. They took me to Portmeirion. I couldn’t believe the place. I’d forgotten all about it and Jenny, my wife, said, “There’s this festival, we should go there.” It’s a special place. There’s nothing else like it. So in terms of beauty and landscape, it’s fantastic. It’s just a shame that’s it’s held at the top of Wales at the end of September, because of the rain.
Have you seen The Prisoner?
Do you think you’ll get round to it?
It’s difficult to buy.
Does it turn up on eBay?
Yes, but it’s really expensive.
Is it one of those things from the Sixties that you look at now and say, “F*** me, this is really crap”?
The first six episodes are fantastic, but the rest of it is largely unfathomable.
Countryside and general outdoor living – are you a fan?
Do you like camping?
No, I don’t really like camping terribly much. I have to say the boutique camping thing is the way to do a festival. You turn up and your tent’s already there and you walk away and leave it behind. It sounds like you’ll be leaving your tent behind anyway.
I put a Stanley knife through the canvas when I was getting it out of the box. That storm last night took its toll. It’s not looking good. The zip’s gone on it too, so we’re open to the elements.
So yours is almost as expensive as our boutique camping and you’re going to have to dump it? So it would have been cheaper for you to come into boutique. And you can stand up in our tent, and it doesn’t blow away in the night.
Does it leak?
No. There’s a lot to be said.
Right, Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa. Historically, British sitcoms haven’t translated easily to film format. Was that something you weighed up when you were asked to direct the film?
Everybody was conscious of not making the same mistakes that a lot of other shows have made when they’ve gone to the big screen. But then, this isn’t like your normal sitcom that’s transferred to the big screen anyway. We didn’t take them all off to America or on a holiday to Disneyland, or anything like that. Part of the reason why I think it works is it stayed true to Alan’s roots and we kept him in Norwich, kept him in the radio station, and then created a situation in the radio station that he wanders into. So it wasn’t taking him out of his normal environment.
Alan Partridge has become the comedy that people quote in offices, taking over from Monty Python. What is it about Alan Partridge that we love?
Well, we’ve all grown up with Partridge, haven’t we? It’s been around for 20 years. All my time in this country, Partridge has been around. Partridge has this ability to say what we’re all thinking of saying, but we don’t say it because it would be the wrong thing to say, or it would be offensive to say it, or rude to say it. He just comes out with this shit. He doesn’t have that edit button. He doesn’t have the pause control that we all have in our brain. And that’s really enjoyable to watch, knowing someone’s going to put their foot in it. But we identify with him, because we often think the same thing.
Is it all scripted, or does Steve Coogan play with ideas as he goes along?
It’s all scripted. He would have thought of all the options at the script stage. But the writers are there all the time and occasionally they’ll think of something. He’ll sometimes try stuff, and we’ll just keep rolling.
Steve Coogan, Armando Ianucci, Peter Baynham, Neil and Rob Gibbons, these are the best comedy writers in the country – they’re not going to let any poor gags through.
And they’re so bang-bang-bang on it. There’s a lot of communication without even saying stuff. If they’ve got a new idea, they’ll throw it to Steve. Rob will particularly say, “Why don’t we do it like that?” But we tend not to cut for those things. We keep it going. As soon as you stop on film, everybody’s changing things and tweaking things. Because we’re not shooting on film, because we’re on digital format, you can keep going for 20 or 30 minutes. Sometimes Steve’s takes have run 15-20 minutes. He doesn’t stop, he just keeps going backwards and forwards and the other actors try to work out where he is. It keeps them on their toes.
Have you worked like that before?
Not as madly as that.
Had you tracked the downward spiral of Alan’s career?
I’ve been a fan. Whenever there’s been a Partridge every four or five years, I’ll watch, so it’s been easy to keep up with him. I’ve kept track of the whole downward thing, going back to Norwich, living in a caravan, and digital radio. I can’t think of any other comedy characters that we keep going back to every few years, and seeing them in so many different formats as well. Online stuff, the biography…
The only thing I can think of is John Shuttleworth, but that’s on stage. Shuttleworth had one television series, 500 Bus Stops, which was fantastic. BBC2 just didn’t get it, I don’t think. He started at the same time as Partridge.
What’s his real name?
Does he live in Brighton?
I’ve been told that Steve Coogan is a rather unusual character, admittedly by people in pubs, who’ve probably never met him before. What did you make of Steve?
That’s a good line, that. He’s very focused on what he does and the most important thing when he’s working is what he’s doing. And it’s called the Alan Partridge film, so it’s all about him. If he isn’t brilliant in that film, nothing else works. The other actors, he won’t be challenging them, but he will say, “Don’t say it like that, say it like that.” In the heat of things, people might say, “F***ing hell, he’s a bit in-your-face.” But why take ten minutes to say something that can take ten seconds? It’s all in his head – he just gets straight to the point. He’s just incredibly focused on what he’s doing and it’s brilliant to be around that sort of focus.
Now, a director’s job, from what I gather, is to yell “Action!” and “Cut!” and “Do that again with more feeling!”, but with Alan Partridge, was there a different dynamic, because Steve Coogan owns the Alan Partridge character? How did that work?
The poster says “12 hostages, 24 hours, one Partridge”. It should have said “12 executive producers, six writers, one director”. It says my name, directed by Declan Lowney, so it definitely was me. You can’t have more than one director. Comedy’s different to drama. You can’t have the actors saying, “Oh, I think you should do it like that.” It’s all hanging on Partridge. He is Partridge, and he knows better than anybody else what Partridge should or shouldn’t be doing. He’s open to suggestions. Sometimes he says, “Let’s go away for half an hour and write something better and come back and shoot that.” So you stop for half an hour.
Is it quite difficult keeping up with the past of Alan Partridge?
It is, yes. It’s very difficult, but they know stuff that we don’t. They know stuff that they shot mid-morning that they didn’t use, but they know that they still know that stuff. That’s Donald Rumsfeld, isn’t it? The known unknowns and the unknown knowns. They know stuff and they refer to it even though no one else knows that shit. It still informs their choices.
When I was at your house a few weeks ago, drinking all your wine, for which I wholeheartedly apologise, at the apex of our drunken state, I asked if you were genuinely happy at the way the film had turned out. What did you reply because I can’t remember?
I said, “Yes, I’m absolutely thrilled.” I think it’s fantastic. I think it’s really funny, even when I see it now, and I’ve seen it an awful lot of times. There are always a few things that you’d change or wish you’d done differently, but I know there’s lots of me in there. I was very happy with what I did on it.
Why were you asked to direct the film, and not one of the TV series directors?
Because they’ve all gone on to do better things… No! Armando might have wanted to direct it himself but couldn’t.
He did some of the TV episodes.
He’s done one of the series. I’ve worked with Steve before. I think he felt he had a safe pair of hands. They were nervous about who they gave this to because the wrong director could f*** it up. And although they wouldn’t let it be f***ed up, it could have made life very hard for them if they felt it was being taken in the wrong direction. What I seem to be good at is being able to let the comedian/actors/producers all have a voice, to make that work. It’s about juggling people, keeping people happy, and getting stuff done.
Have you plans to go to America after Partridge?
Yes. I’m going to America in October for some meetings.
What’s your next project?
I don’t know yet. I’ve been offered a film but I don’t know if I want to do it or not. And I’ve got a meeting coming up about a Colin Farrell film. That might happen next year. It’s just juggling shit.
You had an unusual big break when you were asked, in 1988, to direct coverage of the Eurovision Song Contest, which was held in Dublin. Was that a bolt out of the blue?
I thought it was a big break at the time, although it could have killed my career. It was a huge show to do, and I was a 27-year-old rookie who’d only been directing a couple of years.
And you put some noses out of joint.
Yes, I did an interview for the Irish papers which was published a week before the contest, where I slagged the whole thing off. And I was right about what I said, it just wasn’t politically right to have said it at the moment. You know, they shouldn’t have let me go and sit in the canteen with a journalist for an hour without a minder there.
Who won the Eurovision Song Contest in 1988?
We gave the world Celine Dion.
So it was a comedy of sorts. Do you think that a person from Canada should be allowed to represent Switzerland – there’s a lot of that about in the Eurovision Song Contest.
There’s too much of it going on. Down with that sort of thing. I mean, nobody really wants to win it any more. Ireland was winning the competition every year and needed to not win it for a while.
Would you say that your experience in 1988 in any way influenced the classic episode of Father Ted, titled “A Song For Europe”, where Father Ted and Father Dougal unleash their song “My Lovely Horse”?Absolutely. And the need for Ireland to not win the Eurovision Song Contest, that’s what that episode is about.
Were you responsible for locating Craggy Island?
Yes. Jenny and I had spent time on Craggy Island a few years before and I knew of the existence of the island but couldn’t shoot the whole show over there. In the opening titles, we did a helicopter pass over the island and we did those sweeping shots. We shot everything else on the mainland. All the other exteriors are on the mainland, in County Clare. All the interiors are in the studio in London. But yes, I found that lump of rock out there. Although, people found it before me – it already existed.
So people can stay on the island?
There’s a few hundred people living there – it’s three islands in a row. We had Jenny’s 50th birthday party there two years ago. We had our 40th there as well and brought a lot of people over. It’s a f***ing amazing place to go if you want to get away from people.
What did you think of the Father Ted script when you first read it?
I got Father Ted straight away. I love Irish humour and that just ticked all my boxes. I was laughing my head off when I read that stuff. And we hadn’t seen anything like that on TV over here, with the Irishness of it all. So I think I got it straight away.
Would you say that your humour matches the Father Ted world?
It’s Irish humour. It’s also Irish humour of that generation – Arthur [Mathews] is closer to my age than Graham [Linehan] is. I think we grew up with a lot of the same sort of things. We’ve obviously got a lot of the same influences.
There’s lots and lots going on in an episode. It’s a bit like The Simpsons in that respect. You go on a long journey, but it’s all in half an hour. There’s no wasted time.
It’s busy on scenes. There are short scenes, which is unusual for a sitcom. The Simpsons was around for a while before Ted. I know Graham was a huge Simpsons fan. All that thing like, “I’m sure this wouldn’t happen in the Vatican…” Phump! You cut and that exact same thing is happening in the Vatican! Phump! Cut back. That’s a two-second cut. That was all fairly new for comedy. And it’s a pain in the arse. It takes hours to set up that two-second shot. But you know, it’s what makes it work.
Were you good friends with Dermot Morgan, who played Ted – I know you named your son after the character?
Yes, I’d known Dermot for years because we’d worked together on Irish TV. I think he felt confident knowing I was there. It’s not like I got him into it – he was always uppermost in their minds. He was the right guy for it, you know.
Did Dermot and Ardal O’Hanlon know each other quite well beforehand?
No, not at all.
Did you see Father Jack [Frank Kelly] on Emmerdale?
No! Is he still on it?
He’s left now.
It’s interesting, because Frank’s a proper actor, a very serious thesp. Ardal was a stand-up. Dermot was a stand-up, but he did a lot of other stuff. It was a real mixture of dissidents there. I know Dermot struggled to learn the lines. Dermot had most of the scenes, and he had tons of dialogue. Frank would learn it. But I know it was tough for Dermot to learn. He’d learn all Ardal’s bit as well. He learnt the whole f***ing script. The only way he knew when to speak next was by knowing everybody else’s lines as well. It was a lot of work for him, to do that on a weekly basis.
So Dermot found it stressful?
How did you hear about Dermot’s death and was it a complete shock?
It was the end of series three, but I wasn’t doing series three. I was in Manchester about to start shooting Cold Feet. I’d gone to work and Jenny got the call when I’d left the flat. I was on location. We were shooting the first morning of Cold Feet. As the morning went on, more and more people knew, but I didn’t know. I was focused on what I was doing. I was told at lunchtime. F***ing hell. “Dermot’s had a heart attack.” And I said, “But will he be OK?” You hear the heart-attack bit, but you don’t believe the died bit.
How do you think Dermot’s career might have panned out? I understand he was intending to write a sitcom about two retired footballers who shared a flat.
He had big ambitions. I know he was writing a sitcom about two footballers. Dennis Waterman was going to be the other guy. But I know that Dermot loved that Minder era, because Dermot was a generation older than us. I know he had ambitions to write and create stuff and he would have been a producer.
Might we have seen a Father Ted film? I don’t know that a film would have worked. It didn’t need it. But then again, I wasn’t convinced that Alan Partridge needed a film.
I don’t know. I’m not quite sure what they’d have done with it. A Father Ted film, the instinct would have been, “Let’s take them all off to America,” and do the obvious thing with them. It wouldn’t have worked. I don’t know if Channel 4 would have just left them on the island and an event happen there, because that’s really what the Father Ted film should have been, something happening on the island. Maybe the island’s taken over by someone. I don’t know. They always said they’d never do any more than three [series], they always said they would never do a film, but had Dermot been alive, it may have been different. But I’m glad they didn’t. It’s more perfect that way.
Have you ever been to the annual TedFest at Craggy Island AKA Inis Mor?
I’ve never been to the TedFest. I’ve been invited and I hope I can go some day. It’s f***ing full of lunatics, ha-ha-ha!
Funnily enough, I’ve got a question from the chief lunatic, Peter Phillips, co-founder of TedFest, and he asks… In Father Ted, how much input did the actors have while shooting. Was there a lot of improv?
I think it’s a mistake that people think there was a lot of improv. There wasn’t. They might make suggestions and bring things to the part, but Graham and Arthur always had a really sure idea, and a lot of the guys in smaller parts might not have fully known where we were going with the humour. So, in short, no.
I’ve got two questions here from Steve Coogan. The first is this… On the film, did you worry that you were the captain on the Titanic?
I knew we were having a tough time. I knew the crew all felt, “F*** me, this is actually tough-going.” But it wasn’t like the Titanic, where I felt people wanted to jump off. They were staying onboard because they knew that what we were getting was really, really good. And I think people admired Steve, even though it was tough going, and we had to change things so much. It was frustrating, but we understood why it was happening, and the organic nature of the process, and we were getting really good stuff and it was worth it. So I didn’t feel that the crew were going to jump off.
Steve’s other question is this… How did you not lose your temper, like [producer] Kevin Loader did?
Ha-ha-ha! That’s very specific, Steve. I don’t blame Kevin for losing his temper. As a producer, it’s very tough to keep a rein on things. I’m only aware of Kevin losing it once. When I was a trainee, I worked with a director who was a shouter, and I didn’t think it was the best way to get stuff out of people. Sometimes you think, “F*** me, the only way I can get people to do stuff is to shout.” Occasionally, you might snap at people but for the most part I prefer to keep a happy atmosphere on the set. I hate it when an actor loses their temper at somebody, and it’s terrible the way people get bawled out at films. It’s not fair. I just don’t think it’s the right way to deal with people. I don’t think it’s the best way to get the most out of people.
I also have a question from Ardal O’Hanlon. He asks… Why are people from Wexford known as yellow bellies?
There is a myth that Cromwell came to Wexford and did a pretty good job at getting rid of half the town’s population. And a lot of people ran. There was a reputation for Wexford people being cowards. A yellow belly meant you were a coward. But the Wexford hurling team colours are purple and yellow, and the yellow is worn on the stomach, and the purple is above that. Yellow belly, purple chest. That’s where it comes from.
Are there any plans for Alan Partridge 2?
I don’t know. Alan Partridge 1 took a long time coming. Everyone is very excited about the success of it. I think if there was an idea, and an interest in there being a second film, I would jump at it and I think the boys would jump at it. But I don’t imagine it will be for some time.
Do you have a favourite band?
Ha-ha-ha. In terms of live bands, and I’ve worked with them a number of times, so I’m biased, I think U2 are spectacularly brilliant as live performers. But I don’t go to see bands. If I see Chic tonight, I might say Chic.
And is your Eddie “The Eagle” Edwards project shelved.
I can’t see it happening. It’s a very expensive picture to make. It’s got to be shot in the snow and it involves ski-jumping, which is a very expensive thing to stage, with a huge amount of stunts and trickery. To be shot in the snow is really, really slow. You need American money and they don’t seem to get this thing about the guy coming last being a hero. It’s a great story and would be a great film. Cool Runnings was a terrible film – the Jamaican bobsleigh team. Really awful. Really shit.
As I work for GQ, my final question is, what clothing labels do you buy?
Ha-ha-ha. Ted Baker. And Pretty Green! All my shirts are Pretty Green. And I’ve a few Paul Smith items – suits.
Fantastic. OK, that’s all folks. Thanks to Declan for driving such a long way from Brighton to spend some quality time with us in Wales. Be seeing you!
Be seeing you!