At this point in his career, it’s almost impossible to separate Steve Coogan from his signature character, spoof local radio DJ Alan Partridge. He is the comedian’s most enduring creation, a fact acknowledged with typical po-mo self-awareness in his 2008 live show Steve Coogan as Alan Partridge and Other Less Successful Characters.
Also, as sometimes happens to actors who have been successful while associated with a single role, a certain Alanessence now creeps into most everything that Coogan does. An example of this turned up only last week with The Look of Love, a biopic in which he Partridges his way around the life of UK porn baron Paul Raymond. Look at any of his work though—particularly his films with Michael Winterbottom—and Alan’s always in there somewhere, quietly undermining any wayward urge the audience might have to actually like the character onscreen.
The history of British situation comedy is, at least in part—and there’s no kind or polite way to say this—a history of assholes. Unlike the US model, which positions its x-factor characters as generally pretty likeable, Britcom often revolves around a peculiarly British pomposity—something which has led to some spectacular, if faintly depressing, creations over the years.
Since first appearing on the BBCs radio spoof On The Hour in the ‘90s, Partridge has become the asshole par excellence. He is the cleverest, meta-ist Brit sit com creation probably ever, representing both a satire of old-school celebrity, as well as a commentary on our rapidly-shrinking deference when it comes to the media. At the same time, so accurately does Partridge depict a quintessentially British kind of brokenness, he’s practically achieved archetypal status on this side of the pond.
Partrimilgrimage shows him off in all his myopic glory, collecting two new mockumentaries in the shape of Welcome to the Places of My Life and Alan Partridge on Open Books with Martin Bryce. Both are perfectly fine—exquisitely conceived, well-acted and blackly funny. Watching them however, you have to wonder just how much irony a thing can bear before it collapses under its own weightlessness.
The main conceit at work in Welcome—a Partridge-presented travelogue around Norfolk—is that it was scripted by Alan himself, enabling the real writers take advantage of a subjectivity they wouldn’t usually have access to. The result is a pitch-perfect simulacra of a ‘documentary made by Alan Partridge’, from the Day Today-esque voiceover to the Peartree Productions copyright that appears under every amateurish graphic.
It’s entertaining for sure, with some sequences (the hospital scene; his impromptu confrontation of an old teacher) bordering on genius. There’s something more than a little waring about it too though, not least the sense that this most meta of environments knows exactly how clever it is.
The second feature is Open Books, a faux chat show in which we see him bring his barely-suppressed rage to bear on a discussion of his autobiography I, Partridge: We Need to Talk About Alan. This works in a slightly different way to Welcome, with the irony resulting from Alan setting out to wreck the chat show format that he’s best known for. Again, it contains some very funny moments, not least his fielding of questions from the studio audience. (“How did you celebrate when the book came out?” “Ten pin bowling. Next question”). But here too, there’s a tiredness; an almost palpable sense that the writers know that we know exactly what’s coming. It doesn’t necessarily sit right either that, for all the blank irony, Open Books is still obviously an attempt to promote I, Partridge which was published in the real world.
One of the central paradigms of the gloomier end of British situation comedy is a refusal to provide closure. Fawlty, Hancock, Blackadder—all classics; all reliant on their characters being stuck forever in a world of pain. (Perhaps the gloomiest—and greatest—of them all is Steptoe and Son, a programme so hopeless in its outlook it makes Beckett’s Endgame look like The Mighty Boosh).
With that in mind, one interesting question that Partrimilgrimage throws up is what’s ultimately going to happen to him as a character. After all, he wore out his usefulness as satire years ago. He is also clearly going mad, and has been since his nervous breakdown (see the second season of I’m Alan Partridge).
Things may become a little clearer this summer with the release of Alpha Papa, the long-promised Alan action movie. It’s an enticing prospect, not least because we might get to see how a global audience takes to something as singularly British as Partridge. More to the point, there’s also the possibility we might find out what happens when he finally kills someone and means it. What happens then is anyone’s guess. (Personally I’d like to see things go full blown American Psycho, but that’s probably not going to happen). Either way, the long-come-to impasse represented by this—special feature-free—disc will be broken.