[7 March 2014]
In 1991, I was getting ready to go to graduate school. Since then, a lot has changed: my job, my location, my relationship status, my hair colour. I’ve made some mistakes, hopefully learned from some and undoubtedly didn’t from others. I’m not precisely the same person I was back then, but I’m not entirely different, either.
That’s what life is. That’s what people do—they live, they change, they stay the same.
Such is the case with Alan Partridge. In 1991, he was a sports presenter with a wife and two children. Since then, he’s changed jobs, saw the breakup of his family, had a bit of breakdown and then bounced back. He’s had good times and bad. He’s grown, but at the same time, he’s still Alan Partridge and always will be. Because that’s what life is. That’s what people do.
Except that Alan Partridge isn’t a person. He’s a comedy character, portrayed by Steve Coogan. He came to life in 1991, created by Coogan, Armando Iannucci and other writers working on Radio 4’s radio series On The Hour. For 23 years, he has been a recognisable and adored performer on British radio, television and, last year, cinema screens. His catchphrases are used around the country, he was once someone’s specialist subject on the quiz show Mastermind, and he’s even inspired a Twitter feed called AccidentalPartridge (@AccidentalP), which shares Partridge-esque moments in the media with its 135,000 followers. How has this non-existent man managed to stay both popular and relevant for so long?
First and foremost, of course, it’s because he is hilarious. On On The Hour, a spoof current events radio programme that eventually transferred to television as The Day Today in 1994, Partridge was the over-enthusiastic sports presenter, an idiot with a booming voice, ludicrous metaphors and an awkward suit. He didn’t really seem to have a grasp of the history or rules of any of the sports he covered. He was quite bumbling, being stripped of his trousers by England cricketers and giggling as he tried to get two women badminton players to repeat the word shuttlecock. His coverage of the Olympic featured this description of the Opening Ceremony:
All nations here, the peak of humanity, stalking the world of sport, as if they had rained from heaven in a golden shower of athletic rain, all of them, coming together in harmony at the Olympic feast. The Olympic feast of ancient sport. Where they can run around and jump over things, jumping very high into the air indeed and at what great speeds, too, believe you me, and throwing things into the air as well, sort of discs, I think they’re throwing, and big balls of iron like huge walnuts of stone, they are, flying into the Olympic sky. And some sticks as well, they throw them sometimes.
In December 1992, Partridge got his own radio chat show, Knowing Me, Knowing You with Alan Partridge, which ran for six episodes. His guests (primarily played by Rebecca Front, Patrick Marber, David Schneider and Doon Mackichan—all part of the On The Hour/The Day Today team) included showbiz people as well as interesting non-celebrities, such as Simon Fisher, a child prodigy (played by Mackichan) and his father. In that interview, Alan becomes frustrated and eventually threatened by the boy’s intelligence.
SIMON: Have you seen Beauty and the Beast?
SIMON: Jean Cocteau’s?
SIMON: Have you read Metamorphosis?
SIIMON: Who’s it by?
ALAN: No, I haven’t read it.
SIMON: Have you read any Dickens?
SIMON: Do you go to the ballet? Can you play chess? Do you know any Russian?
ALAN: No, no, no, what about you?
SIMON: Ask me anything.
ALAN: Right, right. You, have you got any public hair?
SIMON: No, I haven’t because I’m nine.
ALAN: No, I’m 37 and I’ve got plenty of it.
When Simon’s father attempts to intervene, Alan slaps the boy and immediately apologises saying, “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have done it. I’m not very good with kids, I’ve got a bad temper, but you… are a little shit. That said, thank you for coming on the show. Ladies and gentlemen, the Fishers.”
Knowing Me, Knowing You with Alan Partridge moved to television in 1994 and won two British Comedy Awards that year (Best New TV Comedy and Best Male TV Performer for Coogan). The television format gave the writers and actors a chance to go even more extreme with Alan’s missteps and mishaps. A Christmas special, Knowing Me, Knowing Yule, was shown in 1995 and ends with Alan being sacked once he punches the BBC Commissioning Director in the face with a turkey after his refusal to recommission the programme.
As in all good comedy, Alan Partridge comes with a dose of tragedy. After the cancellation of his chat show and the break up of his marriage, Alan was desperate to get back on the box. This part of his life was chronicled in the show I’m Alan Partridge. In the first series (1997), Alan is living in a hotel and hosting a late night Norwich radio show. His attempts to get himself back on television are met with disaster, and his attempts to get respect from the hotel staff are equally unsuccessful. He has his own failing production company, and even his seduction of an ‘up for it’ woman is pathetic. After taking her to an owl sanctuary, he treats her to a Valentine’s Day special at the hotel. “This is the best Valentine’s Day I’ve had in eight years,” Alan muses during dinner. “What did you do eight years ago?” the woman asks. “Just had a better one,” Alan answers.
Coogan and the show won two British Comedy Awards (Best TV Comedy Actor and Best TV Sitcom) and two BAFTAs (Best Comedy Performance and Best Comedy) in 1998.
Sometime after the last episode, Alan suffered a nervous breakdown but by Series 2, in 2002, Alan was Bouncing Back, the title of his (fictional) autobiography. He has moved out of the hotel to live in a static caravan while his dream home is being finished. His work life has improved slightly, and he now has a Ukrainian girlfriend who is 14 years younger than him. Ironically, although Alan envisions himself as on the rise again, some of the situations are almost too brutally awkward. While painful to watch, they are so funny you can’t look away. In one episode, Alan attempts to make friends with a successful businessman. After spotting him across a car park, Alan hopes to get his attention by shouting his name. Fifteen times. In less than a minute. It’s pitiful. But funny.
In 2003, Alan had a one-off television special, Anglian Lives, but then took some time off from the public eye. He returned in 2010 via a web series called Mid Morning Matters with Alan Partridge, sponsored by Foster’s and available on their comedy website. The series featured Alan in his new role on a digital radio station in Norwich. The show was eventually broadcast on Sky Atlantic.
As part of Alan’s comeback, he wrote a (real) autobiography, I, Partridge: We Need to Talk About Alan (HarperCollins), which achieved popular and critical success (comedian David Baddiel said it should be nominated for the Booker Prize, because “It’s a really funny book but it’s actually more than that . . . it blows my post-modern mind”).
In June 2012, Alan was back on Sky Atlantic with a special called Welcome to the Places of My Life. Radio Times reviewer Tim Glanfield wrote, “I must confess a certain level of trepidation every time a new Partridge project is commissioned… Each time, [Partridge fans] have drawn a deep breath; surely he will run out of steam this time? But every time, Alan’s shadowy puppeteer (who calls himself Coogan) delivers another quality programme… this is an intimate and deeply engrossing portrait of a complex Partridge. But most importantly, it’s very, very funny” (Tim Glanfield, “Sky Atlantic Delivers the Best Alan Partridge of the 21st Century”, RadioTimes, 25 June 2012). The show was nominated for a 2013 BAFTA (Coogan won Best Male Performance in a Comedy Programme).
Finally in 2013, Alan made the leap to the big screen in Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa. Written by Coogan, Iannucci, Baynham and Neil and Rob Gibbons, it’s set in Norwich, and Alan’s radio station has been taken over by a multinational conglomerate. When fellow DJ Pat Farrell (Colm Meaney) is fired, he reacts by taking hostages and will only communicate with the police via Alan Partridge. It’s classic Partridge—in many ways simply a 90 minute episode—with some familiar faces and very funny moments. Chris Tilly of IGN said, “It’s not easy to take a beloved TV character and replicate their success on film—just look at Ali G. But Steve Coogan and co have nailed it with the first Alan Partridge movie, a gloriously entertaining comedy that resembles a Hollywood blockbuster, albeit a somewhat silly one, while at the same time staying true to the roots of the character” (Chris Tilly, “Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa Review”, IGN, 30 July 2013).
Magnolia Pictures will release the film as Alan Partridge in the US On Demand and iTunes on 27 February 2014 and in theatres on 4 April 2014.
It’s hard to talk about Alan Partridge without doing so as if he’s a real person. It’s not just that he is a well-developed character, he’s a constantly developing character. Unlike other successful creations, Alan Partridge has changed and grown, but without ever falling into the ‘new and improved version to appeal to a fresh, new market’ trap. He has stayed true to himself while managing to move with the times, thanks to his writers and, of course, to Coogan’s brilliant portrayal. Armando Iannucci said about the current Partridge:
I actually think he’s the perfect broadcaster for these times, when there are 24 hours to fill and dead time is a crime—he has a unique capacity to fill any vacuum with his own verbal vacuum. And if he can ever be said to be at peace, I think he is. He’s happy to be a minor celebrity in a region within a region.
Twenty years ago he was like Icarus; he flew too high and got so badly burnt he could only be identified through dental records. He tells people he’s got over the London thing, the BBC thing. I think he now sees himself as a thrusting local entrepreneur type. And Steve’s grown into him, more or less literally. He can develop the ‘Partridge paunch’ much more quickly these days. (Stuart Husband, “Alan Partridge: The ‘A-ha!’ Moments”, The Telegraph, 5 August 2013).
Over the past two decades, Alan Partridge has become an integral part of British culture. As he himself wrote in “How I Became A National Treasure” last year in the Guardian:
So why me? Why am I clutched to the nation’s breasts? It’s because I’m normal. I’m one of you. I do what you guys do. Get up on a Saturday, make a batch of granola, put some toast on before doing a dozen lunges in front of Saturday Kitchen… And that normality, that common touch, that easy way of using slang expressions instead of big words when addressing workmen, has elevated me to national treasurehood. And for that, I thank each and every one of you. Thank you. Each and every one of you.
Long may he live.