The Prince of Panic: ‘Alan Partridge’

[4 April 2014]

By Bill Gibron

PopMatters Contributing Editor

If there is such a thing as grace under pressure, he’s never heard of it. Instead, this longtime radio DJ and TV presenter only knows one thing when the odds are against him and the skit is hitting the fan: Panic! No, not in the traditional arms flailing and body twitching kind. Instead, Alan Partridge (a delightful Steve Coogan, who originated and co-created the role) uses his undeniable gift of slightly off-kilter gab to lie on his feet with quick, anxious dexterity. He can almost always talk his way both out of and into a scenario, sometimes in the same moment, often with limited overall success, but he’s a wizard while doing it. Mention a trip to the seaside and he’ll ponder on the sure to be fond memories - until it turns out you were there to spread the ashes of a dead loved one into the surf. Discuss a favorite film and he’ll offer his two cents worth, even if it turns out he’s mentioning another, less appropriate movie all together.

A huge hit in his native England, Coogan’s creation is the ultimate media mediocrity. He’s Ted Baxter with more brains and less ability. He’s Tom Grunick without the network savvy or the sense to simply shut up and listen. Over the course of the last few decades, Coogan has turned Partridge into a cottage industry, the star of numerous radio and TV stints which almost always illustrate the same surreal fact: place an egomaniacal wannabe in almost any situation and his dread-driven responses will almost always be amusing. For the first film to feature the Alan Partridge character (given the post-colon subtitle “Alpha Papa” when it was released abroad), Coogan and the gang decide to place the helmet haired man in one of the most subversive settings ever - a ‘postal’ office siege. The results are just as ridiculous, and comical, just like that time a guest actually died during one of Partridge’s patented interviews.

The scene is Norfolk, a sleepy seaside village where Partridge is part of a small time radio outlet. When a corporate raider (Nigel Lindsay) steps in to take over the station and change it’s “brand,” there’s a real chance that our hero could be fired. Learning that another DJ—Pat Farrell (Colm Meaney)—is also up for the sack, Partridge pleas for his job, and keeps it. A few hours later, that disgruntled ex-employee shows up at the relaunch party with a shotgun in his hands. Within seconds, it’s a siege, and Partridge escapes…only to be picked up by the police and informed that Farrell will only talk to him about releasing the numerous hostages. Thrown back into the tense situation, our clueless negotiator only makes things worse. With his assistant (Felicity Montagu) worried sick and a female co-worker (Monica Dolan) cozying up to him, Partridge helps/hinders Farrell while plotting to use the suddenly high profile scenario to advance his lagging career.

Alan Partridge is a very funny and often quite clever film. Of course, you have to understand what Coogan is commenting on, as well as the often arcane intricacies of British humor, in order to get the full impact of the point. With his bumbling motor mouth, cowardly compliance, and total lack of shame, it’s clear this character is meant to represent a kind of personality/prostitute who does whatever it takes to keep his otherwise limited talents above poverty. It’s all about an audience for him. Coogan puts a bit of a spin on it, however, winking at said listener/viewer to let them know that he, and for the most part, the Partridge character, realizes what a sad sell-out he is. You can see it in the delivery, the liver lipped lying and jiving that seems to spew from an unending pit of pretentious drivel. This is a man who has a story for everything, even if the listener has to yell at him about getting the bloody point.

While Coogan is known on these shores for his work in indie comedies (Our Idiot Brother, Hamlet 2) and the occasional big budget effort (Tropic Thunder, A Night at the Museum), he’s recently struck awards season gold by co-writing and starring in the well-received Philomena. It was a huge professional step for him. In the UK, however, there is a considerable cult for this pathetic personality, one that’s been growing exponentially since the early ‘90s. For stateside comparison, there’s a bit of Steve Colbert here, a man of muted vision with only one real approach to the world. For Partridge, it’s all about him and his found successes and frequent failures. At any moment, he can reduce his assistant to tears while getting a gal to shag (or at the very least, kiss) in the handicapped toilet. It’s a complicated personality and Coogan executes it near flawlessly.

The rest of the cast is equally impressive. As the rather laid back gunman, Meaney makes the most of a derivative part. His Pat Farrell is a sad man, missing his late wife and realizing that a late night radio show for the “older demographic” is his last shot at survival. Getting fired is the final nail in his personal coffin, though his sudden desire to shoot up his workplace kind of comes out of nowhere. Similarly, individuals like Sidekick Simon (Tim Key) and rival DJ Dave Clifton (Phil Cornwell) enter and leave with little explanation, functioning as either plot fodder (the former) or deliverer of the occasional punchline (the latter). Fans will “get it.” Many won’t. About the most mileage given to any other character is Felicity Montagu’s Lynn Benfield. She’s had so many differing adventures with Partridge that the actress can call on said past to prop up her part, and she does so with ease. 

Over time, we become comfortable with Partridge’s panic, his seeming inability to do anything right on purpose (he is quite the master of accidentally hitting upon the proper approach at times) providing a wellspring of witty weirdness. Those unfamiliar with the character of his core concept may be lost at first, but like the best media medicine, laughter can cure that. Sure, for those who’ve followed his hijinx since On the Hour first gave him a forum to froth, Alan Partridge will be much more dense and meaty. For newbies and novices, this expert in the fine art of apprehension will eventually win you over. Even in the middle of hostage crisis, his dim DJ is hilarious.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/post/180543-the-prince-of-panic-alan-partridge/