THE BLOG

It Started With a Tweet

30/07/2015 17:55 BST | Updated 30/07/2016 10:59 BST

What are your experiences of Twitter? Maybe you're a member of the online establishment, with thousands of followers and regular chats with the likes of @caitlinmoran or @rickygervais. More likely you occupy the mode of tweeters: 81 followers (a third of them spam) your tweets are like helpless cries in the night. Worst of all perhaps you performed the classic one-two-three ("Hello Twitter!" "Is anybody out there??" "This is shit!") and promptly left.

When I began tweeted as myself in 2009 I fell firmly into the middle bracket: a few tweets, a few interactions, the odd follower but little to tweet home about. I certainly wasn't making any funniest tweeters lists. "Most Average Tweeter" was more the ticket.

I'd experimented with an alter-ego in the form of an illiterate therapist based in Luton who offers free fruit with all her sessions. Her Twitter handle (@therapistaudrey) caused more fuss than her tweets and I quickly lost interest.

Then three years ago on an especially wet afternoon in Norfolk I was sat around with two cousins joking about occupations that were going out of fashion when someone mentioned Nazi hunting. A light went on in my brain, I raised a finger and pompously announced, "watch this space".

Since quitting the world of sales a decade ago I'd written my share of "humorous" columns, penned the odd skit for BBC radio and contributed jokes for a well-known mobile phone provider but I was a long way from any kind of breakthrough. Radio Four is the most well-trodden route into new comedy yet for the last few years it had clearly specified "no spoofs" on its submission criteria. The way in, I was told, was via current affairs shows with an open submissions policy. Writing sketches about the news isn't really my forte, my natural inclination being to spoof and parody. Aside from amusing myself by sending idiotic questions to the Guardian's Notes & Queries I wasn't getting anywhere.

With my finger still raised my brain began to churn. The idea of an elderly man hunting Nazis across the plains of Bedfordshire amused me. I created a website, then a week later took my character Alan Stoob to Twitter. Through Twitter I was able to develop the character: Stoob has been asked to hunt Nazis near Dunstable at the behest of Simon Wiesenthal; the Nazis entered Britain via an underground tunnel linking Bremen to Biggleswade; he is a devout Labour supporter; his wife had an affair with Henry Cooper in the 1960s; his 42-year-old son lives at home.

Twitter is a meritocracy. If you've got a funny bone people will follow you, retweet and recommend you. There are countless examples of tweeters with no comedy background who consistently out-funny the "comedians". @getinthesea, @trouteyes, @biscuitahoy and @PigeonJon all spring to mind. Then there is @robdelaney, a man who has built an entire career out of pithy, surreal and often obscene 140 character observations. A once unknown stand-up he now sells out auditoria and is the star of Channel Four sitcom Catastrophe.

As Alan Stoob I quickly amassed a few thousand followers, including a raft of celebrities. People were responding to and engaging with what I said. For the first time I found myself on the other side of the Twitter fence. In particular I was enjoying wonderful repartee with singer Alison Moyet, spawning this blog by long-established tweeter @mooseallain.

My time spent tweeting in character quickly got out of hand. Fun time sure, but entirely wasted with no endgame. Whole mornings could be lost to Twitter. How could I benefit from my comic creation? I started writing a book entitled "How To Hunt Nazis" then quickly stopped, realising no one would want to read it. "Why not write a diary?" suggested my girlfriend. A second light went on in my brain, another finger raised.

Despite having finessed Stoob on Twitter I saw that for the book to have lasting success it couldn't rely on prior knowledge of the character, nor clearly would it be a series of tweets. This had to be a proper novel with a beginning, two middles and an end. OK, maybe one middle - but something more substantial than 140 characters, ideally a tale where the coalition gets a good kicking.

In June 2013 I sent the manuscript to my agent. He replied in bold, swore and expressed both surprise and joy that the elderly Nazi Hunter he'd been interacting with all these months was in fact me. A few weeks later he called to say he had found a publisher, then again to announce a production company fronted by director Brett Ratner wanted to option the novel. This was of course beyond anything I could possibly have hoped for. A few weeks later I stood by my phone awaiting a call from Hollywood. "1-800 Burbank" flashed up. I answered. "Hello?" I said. "Putting you through now," came a voice. They wanted to thank me for allowing them to buy my book. I on the other hand was only too keen to thank them.

I stood by my pledge of donating 10% of all profits to the Simon Wiesenthal Centre and after sending my first cheque received a letter of thanks back. Casting my eye lazily down the left-hand side I noticed that Ratner was on the board of trustees. This would explain the time and effort invested in bringing my book to the silver screen. Perhaps Stoob the Movie could yet become a reality, albeit one based in Florida and not Dunstable.

I never had a grand plan. All I ever wanted was to amuse myself. Perhaps that's the best place to start. I ended up being highly amused on Twitter, the ultimate space for adults to play. Or as Alison Moyet once tweeted, "it's like knocking for your mates after tea."

Alan Stoob: Nazi Hunter by Saul Wordsworth (£8.99) is published by Hodder & Stoughton. Follow Alan Stoob on Twitter @nazihunteralan.

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