Wexford-born DECLAN LOWNEY has come a long way, and now the Father Ted and Moone Boy director has conquered the big screen with Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa.
When the 11-year old Declan Lowney started making short films with his uncle’s Super 8 down in the wilds of Wexford, he knew straight away that this was the life for him.
Of course, the prompt winning of awards for his documentaries and stop-motion offerings would have helped the little tyke to just such a conclusion. The 16-year-old’s half-hour 1977 film The Rose That Bloomed – about the Wexford Opera Festival – paved the way for some RTE action, including the helming of the 1986 Eurovision Song Contest.
Which must have been invaluable when it came to shooting Ted and Dougal cavorting stiffly to My Lovely Horse ten years later.
Initially concentrating on music (working for the likes of The Velvet Underground, Take That, Tom Jones, Beyonce and Pavarotti), Lowney embraced comedy when he broke through internationally with Father Ted. Quickly in demand when it came to TV chuckles, Lowney has been behind the camera for such rib-tickling favourites as Little Britain, Happiness, The Grimleys, Moone Boy and Celtic Woman: A New Journey.
Now, at the tender age of 53, Lowney looks set to fulfill his childhood dream of working in Hollywood, the critical response to his big-screen debut, Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa, verging on the hysterical. And it’s not just the home crowd who are loving it; American industry bibles Variety and The Hollywood Reporter have joined in on the cheerleading.
Naturally enough, when we met up with Lowney in Dubin recently, he was one happy camper.
Movies.ie : For every success story such as In The Loop and The Inbetweeners Movie, there are a hundred TV-to-cinema disasters such as Ali G Inda House and Kevin & Perry Go Large. Was there a sitdown discussion with Steve and the gang about the pitfalls of bringing Alan Partridge to the big screen?
DECLAN LOWNEY: I suppose it comes down to the storylines. If there’s a storyline involving him going to America, or bumping into a big star, that takes you out of the sitcom world, but we decided to keep him there. That way, we could keep the purity of Patridge, the very essence of the man. The idea of a story that Alan wanders into, that happens in the radio station, that was the perfect way to do it. It’s another day at the radio station for Alan, but something goes very, very wrong…
Young Coogan, Ianucci and the Baby Cow gang work meticulously on every comic beat – was it easy for young Lowney to add his own groove?
[Laughs] They do work it out meticulously, but these guys are very inclusive. Steve does kind of direct himself. He’ll just keep going until he’s happy with a scene, until he feels that he’s got it. And he has a great memory. In the edit, he’ll always recall which take had which line, which reaction – and these will be from three months ago – and it’ll always be the best one.
On this side of the Atlantic, just about every great sitcom has at its centre a deluded beautiful loser, from Hancock to Brent, from Fawlty, Rigsby and Perrin to Patridge, Father Ted and Bernard Black. In American sitcoms, the protagonists are generally attractive and successful, and the worst dilemma they face is losing a favourite hat, or stumbling into some bad lighting. It means that the British sitcom star is often an unlikeable beast. Which is something that can really hamper box-office.
Well, that’s really the essence of Alan. He is a loser. He is deluded. We don’t want to make him suddenly likeable for a movie. The thing is, even though he’s a buffoon, you do warm to him. I think you warm to him in the movie more than you would in the TV show, because you spend a lot more time with him here. In TV, characters don’t really have time for an arc. Dougal has to always be fucking stupid, otherwise, it’s not funny to people. If he learnt to be smart, then that’s the end of Dougal. But, in the movie, Alan learns a lesson. He does a shitty thing at the start of the movie, and he has to redeem himself by the end. He doesn’t quite fess up, but he does have a moment or two of caring about someone else. Although you do leave him largely back where he started, of course.
And the important thing about Alan Partridge is he’s more coward than c**t. He’s not actually evil. He’s just pathetic, and selfish, and a complete and utter coward in every possible way.
True. Then again, there are times he’ll something outrageous and you’ll think, eh, he’s right. I feel that way about these things too. Basil Fawlty was the same. He was saying things found shocking at first, but there were truths buried in there. Same with Ted. They often say things that we think but wouldn’t dare say.
It’s the Curb Your Enthusiasm trick. You really want to say out loud, ‘How many people in this hotel am I suppose to tip exactly?’, but that’s just seen as bad manners to express such a doubt. The stuff that embarrasses those who happen to be with you.
It’s the very stuff of comedy, embarrassing those around you.
Do you tend to examine the nature of comedy much when it comes to your work. I remember Graham Linehan stating that he only realised after the show was finished that Father Ted was basically Only Fools & Horses as priests.
I don’t go into the machinations of the comedy as much as the writers do. It’s pretty much their job, and the area that they want to be author of. They have to, basically, to understand what they’re doing with these characters. If the script is really good, and they know what they’re doing, it’s just my job to capture that on camera.
That move from RTE oddjobbing to comedy, firstly with Smith & Jones in 1994, was that always your goal – to make sitcoms?
I was attracted to that idea, sure, but I had no real idea of how to make that happen. You just take the best job offered to you, and if you’re very, very lucky, something like Father Ted comes your way. I had no idea how special that show was going to be, but we did have a wonderful time making it. And that’s always a good sign. It was a show that changed all of our lives, each and every one of us…
Dermot finally found the sort of recognition he was never going to get here in Ireland. I know you named one of your kids after him…
And he had so many fucking plans. He was ready to take over the world…
Well, he fell asleep after a wonderful day…
That’s true. He went out on a high.
Alan finally has his Andy McNab day here, thanks to Colm Meaney’s Irish latenight jock having a meltdown and going full Rupert Pupkin on his radio station. It’s an excuse for Alan to throw a few asides about the Irish too. Did you worry about any of that?
No, because it’s all about showing up the dumb prejudices that someone like Alan would have about the Irish. Alan’s not a smart man, and so, when he has an opinion, there’s a very good chance that he’s wrong. I don’t think any Irish person would be offended by the Irish gags in the film.
Colm is the closest thing to a straight man here, and an important grounding factor in the movie.
It was great having someone like Colm in there, because he really does ground the movie. There are scenes – such as when he remembers his late wife – which is all Colm. You can’t put that kind of acting down on paper; it’s all in the performance, in what Colm comes up with on the day. Wonderful to have that depth in there alongside the more slapstick elements.
It all seemed to happen pretty quickly for you, getting gigs such as The Eurovision Song Contest and the late, lamented TV Gaga early on. Did you see each one as a stepping stone, or were you just chuffed to get any kind of gig?
I saw each one as a stepping stone, yeah. And it was all a great ride along the way, of course, being in the middle of all these shows. Having U2 on TV Gaga, that was a blast. It was all fun, all the way.
You now have the key to the golden toilet, given the glowing reviews for Alpha Papa. Do you feel as though you’ve moved up the food chain?
[Laughs] Yeah, I feel I’ve moved up the food chain massively. Someone said to me after one of the premieres in the UK, ‘This is a game-changer for you’, and it is. I’m bracing myself for the next step. I have agents in LA now, and the BAFTA screening of the Partridge movie in two weeks time in LA has already creating a huge buzz. I’ve had a couple of latenight conference calls with people, and I’m ready to jump all over it, to be honest. At 53-years old, to get a crack at it, I’m just thinking, yeah, just go for it.
Like Gervais, Coogan is BBC2, and here, you’ve got to make him BBC1. Was there any concession to that?
No, not at all. The fans were the most important to please, and everyone else came after that. Thankfully, I think we’ve got that covered – if you know Partridge, there’s lots to embrace here. But there’s also enough here for the uninitiated.
Do you feel the need to keep up with new comedy, given your standing?
I try to, but it’s almost impossible to keep up with every new voice. I go on recommendations from friends, and it’s always a thrill to find something new, but I’ve enough going on with my own work to not really spend my days trawling the internet for some fresh young hopefuls.
Have you got a gameplan for the coming months?
Just wait and see what happens. I want to give TV a break now and concentrate on movies, and that might mean LA. It’s all very exciting, but I’ve got to be careful, and pick the right project.
Finally, what is your actual date of birth? All the internet seems to know is that it was sometime in 1960.
It’s April 23rd. Shakespeare’s birth date. And his death date. And it’s Shirley Temple’s birthday too, which would explain the curls.
Words : Paul Byrne
Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa hits Irish cinemas August 9th