Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge’s Parody Politics

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

“I evolve, I don’t…revolve.”
— Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early ’90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

The Twitter feed, Political Partridge (circa 2015) lines up iconic Partridge quotes and images with the words and photos of contemporary politicians. On the feed everyone from Theresa May to Boris Johnson, and Jeremy Corbyn to Donald Trump, is ridiculed as a Partridge proxy (the parallels are very funny; the echoes, eerily so).

Former UKIP leader Nigel Farage — dubbed the “Nazi Alan Partridge” by one witty English journalist — gets the Partridge comparison so often he may want to consider a second career as an impersonator. Politicians, however, are sensitive to the mockery. Ridiculed for a cheesy campaign video in which he performed a song with his band, MP4, in June 2017, Tory candidate Sir Greg Hunt defended himself by saying, “I never aspired to be an Alan Partridge.” That no one aspires to be Partridge is the joke, and forms the basis for the phrase “accidental Partridge”. (There’s even a popular Twitter feed by that name.)

“Often you’ll see on Twitter when someone in the media or some celebrity comes out with some particularly stupid, small-minded view someone will retweet it but with a picture of Alan Partridge,” says Leon Hunt, a professor of Film and TV studies at Brunel University in London, England, and author of Cult British TV Comedy: From Reeves and Mortimer to Psychoville (Manchester University Press, 2013). Indeed, that the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, and more democratizing than despairing in terms of effect. An examination of the character’s own nebulous political composition reveals why.

Steve Coogan’s Alan Partridge character spans more than two decades, and includes three comedy series, six specials, two faux memoirs and one mediocre film. The character first appeared in 1992 as a media parody, a hopeless sportscaster on the BBC Radio 4 series, On the Hour. The series, which was later adapted for TV and renamed The Day Today, was a Pythonesque spoof on news and current affairs programs common to the BBC, and was written by a then-unknown group of soon-to-be boldface writers and performers including Chris Morris, Armando Iannucci, Patrick Marber, Coogan, Rebecca Front, and Peter Baynham.

“Christopher Morris memorably described the mission of The Day Today as ‘authenticated bollocks,’ says Stephen Wagg, a professor of Sport and Society at Leeds Beckett University in Leeds, England, and author of Because I Tell a Joke or Two: Comedy, Politics and Social Difference (Psychology Press, 1998). “The idea was to talk nonsense in the authoritative way that newscasters typically use and derive a comic effect.”

The humour is rooted in irony — in the gulf that exists between the performers’ virtuosic imitation of the newscaster’s received pronunciation and the nonsense they’re spewing. One extended report details the IRA’s use of bomb dogs (that’s exploding dogs, by the way) in their campaign of terror. The show is both funny and radical, and implicitly asks the viewer to consider whether or not what we deem Cultural Authority often simply boils down to a voice and an appearance, that is; a performance.

Coogan portrays Partridge under that framework, so he’s a creature both familiar and strange. He’s got the sportscaster’s stagey bass and exaggerated side-part (think a Ken-doll version of Howard Cosell), but has none of the assumed knowledge to make the performance credible. The funniest moments occur when Partridge’s ignorance clashes spectacularly with what the audience is seeing. Here’s Partridge narrating American swimming star Greg Louganis’s infamous diving board injury during the 1988 Olympics: “Down, double back-twister, comes down, bangs his head and in. Textbook. Lovely!”

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That same year, Coogan and many of the writers of The Day Today used Partridge to deconstruct the locus amoenus of pop culture, the chat show. The spoof Knowing Me, Knowing You with Alan Partridge, which ran for one season, is a near-perfect facsimile of the genre. There’s a house band and fancy, a fake studio set-up, and the “guests” are amped up versions of familiar types — faux celebs, talking heads and the kinds of envelope-pushing personalities (sexy feminists and Cockney gangsters) that seem to dwell exclusively on the chat show circuit. Unlike its source material, which is so conventionalized it runs on autopilot, the spoof is set to self-destruct. The “entertainment” on offer is appalling and the “chat” is awkward with interviews that degenerate into conflict and humiliation even death. The series finalé has Partridge accidentally kill a guest. (It’s funnier than it sounds).

Like Partridge the sportscaster, Partridge the TV host is a proxy media type. “Partridge was silly in a way that so many mainstream BBC presenters are,” says Wagg. “To me, he’s always been what I would regard as classically BBC Radio 2 — that amorphous, unthinking, occasionally daft kind of right-wing Daily Telegraph even Daily Mail [type].” That conflation of seemingly disparate media types is notable. Alan is neither 100 percent BBC or Daily Mail he’s a hybrid jackass, absorbing the silliest and most destructive features of popular culture.

Partridge is the format’s jabbering id, and it’s through “knowing” him that we come to “know” something about the entertainment we’ve grown so familiar with as to take its artifice for authority. He tells one guest, a sexy feminist (played by Rebecca Front), that she’s on the show to be provocative and saucy but within reason.

Alan tells her: “You’re trying to shock, that’s fine. That’s why we’ve booked you… but if you get too shocking I’ll just hold up my hand and say, ‘stop.'”

If it’s a cringe-worthy admission, it’s also a fair description of the crass-with-a-bit-of-class ethos that underpins the genre, and pop culture generally. The nudge-nudge, wink-wink marketing-driven “chat” offered in place of conversation, the self-interested provocation that keeps the whole ball rolling. The Day Today and Knowing Me, Knowing You both reveal the performative nature of certain cultural institutions, something the institutions work very hard to conceal as a means of preserving their wholeness, or integrity. Some might argue parody has the potential to render meaning obsolete — to reduce everything to performance. It’s just as likely, however, that it stimulates a desire for a more tangible measurement of substance and value than simple seeming.

The flexibility of the Partridge character to act as a kind of cipher for pop culture vice and vacuousness is evident as the character ages. In the succeeding series’, I’m Alan Partridge (1997, 2002) and Mid-Morning Matters (2011), Coogan and the series’ writers concentrate less on the forms of popular entertainment as subjects for parody and more on sending up the character of the wannabe celebrity, a personality type that may have still felt vaguely unique in the late ’90s.

I’m Alan Partridge gives us the most extended look at offstage Partridge, and the view is comically bleak. With his show cancelled and his private life imploded — his wife has left him and his kids don’t want to see him — he’s living in a Linton Travel Tavern “equidistant between Norwich and London”. He’s had to settle for a radio DJ job in the regional market of Norfolk, but he’ll do anything to get back on TV. Celebrity is his raison d’être.

In a scene at the end of season 1, a desperate Alan furiously pitches some show ideas to BBC chief commissioner, Tony Hayers (played by David Schneider). Alan’s pitch starts out as just a bunch of hokey standard fare at first: How about “a detective series based in Norwich called Swallow, a detective who tackles vandalism, a bit of a maverick…” But it quickly degenerates into a Hail Mary pass of drek, with Alan pitching a show he calls “Inner City Sumo. We take fat people from the inner cities put them in big nappies and get them to throw each other out of the circle that we draw on the ground.” The pitch ends with Alan weakly querying Hayers’ interest in “monkey tennis”.

The scene represents Alan’s nadir, but it’s something of a collective low point being underlined. TV audiences would have recognized something of their own viewing habits in the hyperbolic re-framing of themed cooking shows, regional detective series’, and sensational reality TV shows. Nearly 20 years later, some of the titles thrown out oddly prevision much of viral video culture, too, where it’s entirely possible Inner City Sumo is currently in pre-production.

We’re invited to laugh at Partridge’s ache for fame despite his obvious mediocrity — a fact that’s always slightly undermined by Coogan’s obvious talent — but it, too, parallels certain features of contemporary culture. “Alan was actually ahead of the curve,” said the series’ co-writer Peter Baynham in a 2013 feature on the Partridge character that appeared in The Guardian. “There are so many reality shows now and a cult of people just wanting to be famous, and he really was one of the originals.”

That desire starts to look suffocating in Mid-Morning Matters, a beer-sponsored online series that was later picked up by Sky TV. The show is shot from the perspective of a webcam positioned on Alan’s desk in his DJ booth at Norfolk Digital. The idea that Alan is indivisible from mainstream media is reinforced by the aesthetics. For the audience, he literally has no existence outside radio.

This iteration of Partridge is angrier and more confused. He can’t seem to figure out what’s considered racist and what’s not anymore — he’s befuddled by the fact that he can get away with a mock-Chinese voice but not a black one, and is then apologetic for having said anything offensive at all. Much is made of Alan’s racism, and the series’ are punctuated by his politically incorrect ramblings. But his remarks aren’t Daily Mail-malicious or even consciously provocative in a Ricky Gervais-type vein— they’re unconscious. Partridge often seems perplexed by his own confused ejaculations, as if he’s not quite sure where he got these ideas in the first place.

The Partridge character is often termed a “Little Englander” by critics and fans, even Coogan. It’s a label that denotes a “sort of provincial arrogance that does not look beyond the borders of not even the UK, but of England,” says Hunt. His Little Englander status (and solidly entrenched middle-class associations) make the overarching inclusiveness of the Partridge parody easy to circumscribe, especially if you consider yourself a cosmopolitan Liberal with broad intellectual views (a creature more rare than leftist circles will admit). But what rarely gets said is that his regionalism is often the source of his charm and not his complication. His country rambles and local council-like knowledge of civic affairs is funny — even endearing. The origins of his implicit sexism, homophobia and blinkered ideas about race; his superficial definition of success and investment in fame above intellect; his belief in the “value” of a good-looking younger woman over an age-appropriate one; in the right of every straight white male to be held in high esteem, regardless of merit, is not regional. They comprise the universal lessons of Western culture. They are mainstream notions, which is to say they don’t just influence idiots, they wield influence, period, and on occasion, will make idiots of us all.

In a 2012 interview with The Radio Times, one of the writers of Mid-Morning Matters, Rob Gibbons, touched on Alan’s amorphousness, the way in which he absorbs the comic whole of culture at any given moment. “Alan is a gift to a writer because he can be contradictory: he can be liberal and right-wing, stupid and well-read. Almost anything you think might be funny.” He’s the BBC, he’s ITV, he’s The Daily Mail, he’s The Telegraph. He’s Theresa May, he’s Donald Trump. He’s the Every Idiot, a symptom of the follies and vices of Western popular culture, which are not contained by class or region, but airborne. To put the sum of its effect in a Partridgean context: Think, Flying Alan.

That a character who personifies what Wagg calls a “naff, degraded culture” now reminds people of their elected officials, too, represents the zenith of the Partridge parody, which, at bottom, always re-enforces the connection between a stupid, cowardly, sexist, racist, morally bankrupt mainstream culture and the people who must live and work in it, and who in so doing, are doomed to unconsciously regurgitate its teaching. Over the decades, Partridge reveals that ridiculousness is a performance, too, only one written by the unconscious mind, the repository of all that stuff that floods your brain when you assume you’re thinking.

The future of Partridge’s politicization remain to be seen. The connection, which feels broad and inclusive online, is about to be televised, codified. In August, the BBC announced that it will be bringing the character back next year as the voice of Hard Brexit. “Alan would have voted Brexit for sure,” said Coogan in a recent interview. “Hard Brexit, given the choice. He’s a Brexiteer because the Daily Mail told him to be.”

Coogan’s mention of The Daily Mail, a vice-exploitative tabloid, is entirely appropriate, given the paper’s propagandizing for Leave. But it suggests there may be a slightly delimited horizon for the Partridge parody going forward. This viewer can’t help but wonder if Partridge’s next iteration would reflect yet another mainstream folly: the factionalism that has come to define culture and politics, where the good and the bad, the sexists and the allies, the racists and the not-so-racist can be sorted so cleanly by political affiliation and cultural consumption, by the newspapers you read (or say you don’t), by the TV shows you binge-watch. To think there really are such impenetrable bubbles and bastions of ideological purity to shelter within, to think you’re never a part of the whole — it’s the kind of wishful thinking that makes accidental Partridges of us all.

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms