The Many Lives of ALAN PARTRIDGE: Exploring Britain’s most enduring comic creation

There is something unique about Alan Partridge, a comedic alchemy which transcends one moment and one space.

With the end of This Time, and Alan’s stint as an unlikely co-host parachuted into the BBC’s fictional prime time magazine drama, it feels like Alan’s journey has come full circle. He began life as a radio disc jockey turned news presenter, blossomed into a chat show host, suffered a spectacular fall from BBC grace, toiled in the doldrums of regional radio, and at the conclusion of This Time, looks set to never—never!—work in television again.

In reality, we know this won’t be the case. The Partridge will always rise (like the phoenix) when the time calls for him. Alan is both a product of his time and becomes the product of whatever time he finds himself in.

Steve Coogan, as the actor who disappears into the skin of Partridge every time he plays him, has done a remarkable job in transforming Alan into easily the most layered, complex, psychologically deft and enduring comedy character in British entertainment history. Alan and his particular brand of self-aware, sarcastic, ironically politically incorrect humour is not for everyone—he is a character passionately adored by fans but not embraced necessarily by the masses. He has been capable, nonetheless, of multiple reincarnations in the last three decades across half a dozen media platforms.

How many characters have truly made such a transition?

When Coogan was one of the emergent set of comedians who started to bloom in the early-1990’s, Partridge was a character you sensed could easily have ended up as a one-off sketch on The Fast Show (a series filled with his contemporaries) but similar to how The League of Gentlemen started off on radio before translating to television, Alan first appeared as an oddball take on radio, in shows such as On the Hour in 1991 and later his own show Knowing Me Knowing You, as a spliced variant of Tony Blackburn & Michael Parkinson; the painfully outdated, egotistic personality with one foot constantly in his mouth and almost no filter.

In truth, early Alan was a broad caricature. Whether he was presenting sports segments on The Day Today or later in full chat show host mode on Knowing Me, Knowing You, tapping the worst defensive instincts of a man completely lacking any self-awareness and utterly refusing to adapt to any form of criticism. With his naff cod-70’s hair, fashions pilfered from David Niven or Roger Moore’s back catalogue, and constant references to bands outdated even in 1994 such as REO Speedwagon, Alan was the comical epitome of the traditional British broadcaster – name dropping luminaries such as Nick Owen or Sue Cook.

Coogan reflected to Time Out how he feels that early Partridge may not have aged altogether too well:

Alan 20 years ago seems very crude and a little dated now. When I started writing it with Patrick Marber and Armando Iannucci, I would get angry. I felt they were being too cruel and mocking – like pulling the legs off an insect. I feel an affinity with Alan because there is quite a lot of me in him and I use him as a bin for anything that is bothering me. So I’m not satisfied with just curling your lip and sneering.

There was always without doubt an edge to the comedy constructed around Alan. Knowing Me Knowing You ends, after six episodes of toe-curling encounters between Alan and everything from Hollywood celebrities to ineffective politicians, with Alan quite literally killing a man; he shoots accidentally with an antique pistol Forbes McAllister, an obnoxious food critic who manages to make Alan seem quite mellow and measured as a result. Patrick Marber, one of the show’s co-writers who would often appear on the series in different guises, plays Forbes as such a loathsome creature, it ameliorates Alan’s culpability to some degree, but ending a spoof chat show with a man’s murder in 1994 took some stones, and even now it feels one of the edgiest choices in Partridge history.

It places in the coffin the career nail that Alan proceeds to hammer home a year later in Christmas special Knowing Me Knowing Yule, where he punches his smug BBC boss Tony Hayers live on air with a raw chicken carcass, and serves as the key foundation the enduring character of Alan is built on: failure. He is eternally doomed to sabotage his own success due to his completely, bewildering lack of self-awareness and non-PC, ‘little Englander’ mentality. In this aspect, Alan follows in the footsteps of a tradition of comedians and comedy characters who epitomise an entitled sense of misguided Britishness, finding themselves consistently practically and psychologically outmatched: Tony in Hancock’s Half Hour, John Cleese’s Basil Fawlty, and perhaps the heir apparent in the wake of Partridge would be Ricky Gervais’s David Brent of The Office.

British audiences seem to find real comfort and succour in failures, particularly in men, and it speaks perhaps to why so many of them do endure down the decades. Hancock encapsulates a post-war grumpiness at the death of Empire and the emergence of youthful counterculture, as did Warren Mitchell’s more overtly un-PC Alf Garnett from ‘Til Death Us Do Part (one character that simply hasn’t aged as well). Fawlty embodied a gauche, faux upper class sense of enduring Empire in his faded seaside hotel; a refusal to countenance people of differences races, sexual proclivities, and someone powerfully seeking validation from a class system he couldn’t truly match. That sense of needing validation is there in Brent; The Office strips away the class aspect for 21st century Britain and instead pervades Brent’s own insecurities with a deep seated loneliness and use of popular culture to try and bond with people. Hancock wanted to preach. Fawlty wanted to be superior. Brent just wants to be loved.

Gervais himself discussed just how different these characters are to the American approach for Time:

Americans are more “down the line.” They don’t hide their hopes and fears. They applaud ambition and openly reward success. Brits are more comfortable with life’s losers. We embrace the underdog until it’s no longer the underdog. We like to bring authority down a peg or two. Just for the hell of it. Americans say, “have a nice day” whether they mean it or not. Brits are terrified to say this. We tell ourselves it’s because we don’t want to sound insincere but I think it might be for the opposite reason. We don’t want to celebrate anything too soon. Failure and disappointment lurk around every corner. This is due to our upbringing. Americans are brought up to believe they can be the next president of the United States. Brits are told, “It won’t happen for you.”

For Partridge, this sense of indicative British failure is different, and it’s perhaps why the character has managed to straddle multiple decades and multiple mediums with greater aplomb than his forebears.

When the character returned in 1997’s I’m Alan Partridge, he was, to quote a line he says, “a rather sorry individual”. His marriage had fell apart, he had no home—living in a travel tavern equidistant between his hometown of Norwich and the London metropolis—and any attempts to revitalise his BBC career were swiftly curtailed. While Knowing Me Knowing You is fondly remembered and well regarded, I’m Alan Partridge is really the point Coogan, Marber and fellow writers Armando Iannucci & Peter Baynham—all of them part of the collective comedy intelligentsia formed around Chris Morris particularly in the early 90’s—truly take the first steps away from caricature and toward nuance with Alan. He’s not just a failure, he is a distinctly strange individual who finds it almost impossible to develop attachments, consistently fails to function in the societal circles he most craves, and finds solace in people he considers inferior. His PA Lynn, played majestically for two decades now by Felicity Montagu, is the Manuel to his Basil, particularly in this series; an eternal doormat who serves at his egocentric, paranoid and often quite vile whims.

When you look at the arc of the most beloved comedic failures in television, many are often fluid. Fawlty Towers existed in an age where comedies worked, essentially, as half-hour teleplays with a set of characters, a concept, and a comedic series of beats to play out. The show remains a masterpiece because the production is as timeless as it is hysterically funny, but every episode saw Basil faced with a similar problem; a new guest, be it a hotel inspector or a psychologist or a randy playboy, would tap into all the neuroses of Basil, leading him toward an ever-escalating series of catastrophic misjudgments and assumptions which built farce upon farce. There was no arc for Basil – no realisation he is in a loveless marriage with viperish wife Sybil, no understanding that he may need psychological help. Basil is a fixed comedic entity, caught in his own eternal loop of masculine underachievement.

Conversely, fast forward over twenty years to The Office, and David Brent *does* undergo a journey and a character arc, even if it takes a while to truly emerge. For a while he too is a fixed entity as the cringe-making office manager more interested in his staff loving his bad jokes and puns rather than being an efficient leader, but over the course of two seasons Brent’s own jealousies and bitterness are manifested in how he could lose his job and lose, indeed, the only real human connections he has, even if he lacks the self-awareness to realise what people truly think of him. By the heartbreaking penultimate episode of Season 2, where Brent has a lump in his throat begging for his employers to let him keep his job, there is manifest change. When in the Christmas special finale there exists hope that he may develop a real female relationship to fill the hole left by his absent job, you are rooting for a man who has spent two seasons being utterly incompetent, selfish and often downright ignorant of everyone around him.

Alan’s development sits somewhere between this fixed entity and emotional catalyst. Over the two seasons of I’m Alan Partridge, Alan grew increasingly bitter as a character. Rejected by the BBC, he penned a book describing his resurgence called ‘Bouncing Back’, when in reality he’d done nothing of the sort; yes he no longer had the graveyard shift on Radio Norwich and enough capital to build a house by Season 2, but what he really wanted was to shout “A-ha” on national television again. It’s telling that he undergoes a complete mental and physical breakdown between both of these seasons, Coogan and co playing for laughs Alan’s depressive descent into extreme weigh gain and paranoid, reactionary behaviour “I drove to Dundee in my bare feet”.

If anything dates Partridge, it’s how they approach his battles with mental health, proffering jokes you sense would be avoided today. Alan’s Toblerone-fuelled breakdown is funny but it’s broad and obvious, and almost cheapened by the fact Alan doesn’t really suffer for this serious moment in his life, bar the odd flashback at points of stress across the season. Alan doesn’t seem any different when the last few copies of ‘Bouncing Back’ are pulped than he does at the start of the season – though he has experienced an emotional catastrophe, he remains fixed.

Tellingly, this is where Marber, Iannucci & Baynham chose to leave the character, and Coogan himself—barring live shows and the odd performance here and there—largely detached from Alan after 2002 as he pursued a nascent Hollywood career and a colourful personal life. For a long time, Alan Partridge looked set to remain trapped in an entropic state of eternal, faded fame. His day was done, as Coogan suggested to The Guardian:

“I remember it was like a little epiphany when I went through the material because I was clutching round Armando, Pete and Patrick, thinking: ‘Which of you three will help me do something with this character?’ Not any fault of theirs, but Patrick and Pete clearly wanted to get out from under the weight of this big, heavy albatross and go away and do their own thing. It’s a kind of millstone of sorts. There was no one around to help me write Alan. I was sort of left holding the baby.”

Then came 2010’s Mid-Morning Matters, one of the softest reboots for a well known comedy character probably in history. Under the stewardship of new writers, brothers Neil & Rob Gibbons, Alan returned as part of North Norfolk Digital in a series of 10-15 minute, live-cam segments on the Fosters Funny website built around his radio show, which in I’m Alan Partridge we always only saw brief snippets of. You sense that the Gibbons, clearly long time fans of the character, understood that Alan on radio was always one of the funniest aspects of those two series and that you could get much more out of his on-air descent into weird rabbit holes, difficult conversations and bizarre guests. Created as part of a promotional deal with Fosters lager, Mid-Morning Matters for its second season ended up on Sky Atlantic, with many of the segments fused together to form half-hour programmes. Though launched eventually on YouTube, Alan for the first time was not solely a BBC property.

Apart from revitalising interest in Coogan’s most beloved comedy character, Mid-Morning Matters showed that Alan, crucially, could age and develop naturally in a way many other comedy characters of his ilk always struggled to do. Alan was adaptable, not just in terms of his circumstances but in the vehicle for how he appears. Matters was a web series first and foremost; bite sized chunks designed to appeal to audiences as much reared on YouTube as broadcast television. While the show only gave us glimpses of Alan not on mic (without any trace of Lynn this time around), under the Gibbons’ pen he was noticeably mellower, perhaps more at ease with his lot as a regional Norfolk broadcaster in a slot where he could be as downright weird as he wanted without much in the way of repercussion. This most definitely wasn’t the Alan of the ‘KMKYWAP’ years. This was an evolution of the man post-depression we saw in I’m Alan Partridge.

The Gibbons seem to have understood how malleable Alan is in terms of format. Over the course of the 2010’s, with Coogan they have written two autobiographical tomes under Alan’s name, ‘I: Partridge: We Need to Talk About Alan’ and ‘Nomad’, both of which were incredibly funny, utterly fantastical, myopic takes on Alan’s life from his warped perspective (they’re even better on audiobook narrated by Alan himself). Alpha Papa saw Alan’s long-mooted transition to the big screen; there were plans during the Iannucci/Baynham years to make a Partridge movie but they never seemed to be able to find a story that wasn’t in line with the cliched, sitcom extensions to film prevalent in the 1970’s particularly. They didn’t just want to do ‘Alan goes to America’.

Alpha Papa did the inverse; it uses a bigger canvas to tell a relatively intimate, homespun story about corporate hegemony, friendship and Alan’s knack for broadcasting, entangled in a take on the siege action thriller Alan—as a fan of a good action romp—would himself have appreciated. Yes there was a shootout but not on the streets of LA, rather the old Norfolk pier of Sheringham. Alpha Papa works so well, and remains so weirdly Partridge, precisely because it grounds Alan in a provincial normality. This is also a major key to why the character endures and is so successful.

Neil Gibbons talked to The Skinny about how important it is to keep it real where Alan is concerned:

The thing about Partridge is that if you’re determined to sort of just make him a collection of greatest hits, buzz words from the past, then he stops to feel like a real person. He’s more of a sort of frame of mind than a checklist of hobbies and interests; he’s got a skewed way of looking at things and a sort of desperation to be respected. And that just broadens your scope massively because you’re not ploughing the same furrow all the time.

It’s also the inherent paradox with Alan because, in many respects, he has never really changed. He is still a little Englander, he still is driven by his own egotism and insecurities, but his embarrassing failures seem as much driven these days by his attempt to be relevant and understanding of modern social and political issues. Look at his Sky documentary series, Welcome to the Places of My Life and Scissored Isle – they see Alan travelling the length and breadth of Britain trying to get under the skin of society; whether he’s spending nights with youngsters on E, ‘freganing’ and ending up trapped in a warehouse, or working on the Tesco checkout, Alan is painfully unaware of how little he grasps the issues of the day. The difference is that in days of old he wouldn’t have even tried. Middle aged Alan wants people to believe he cares, he’s ‘down with the kids’, and that he may be quite liberal – when in reality he’s anything but.

Oddly enough, though, both of the writing eras for Partridge have avoided making the character too overtly political one way or the other. He is clearly a Conservative, driven by a baby boomer mindset with an ingrained intolerance and suspicion of anything outside of his world view, but perhaps down to Coogan’s influence, Alan has never really directly made anything that places him in one partisan area or another. This is yet another reason why the character has aged better than his antecedents; Alf Garnett is rooted in the xenophobic bigotry of the 60’s & 70’s, Basil Fawlty is trapped inside a latent British restraint before the real dawn of Thatcherite capitalism and American influences on British culture. Even David Brent feels distinctly New Labour in his creation, the kind of boss with the space to muck around in an environment you now sense would be far more target driven and restrictive than under a left-centrist government – perhaps another reason why the character didn’t quite work as well in his own continuation movie from 2016, Life on the Road.

Alan himself has evolved as a person but his politics no doubt have remained fixed, but by not dwelling on those aspects, he has avoided the perils of being defined by a particular decade, era or political movement. If ever this was going to change, it could have been with This Time; initially pitched as Alan’s return to TV in ‘Brexit Britain’, the project seemed a distinct reaction to the rise of TV personalities who are almost revered by many for their frank speaking, abhorrent views and their swaggering claim to be ‘of the people’ in a world increasingly suspicious of authority and establishment intelligentsia. For years, Alan’s closest real life compatriot was Richard Madeley. Nowadays it’s Piers Morgan, and this was never more evident than in how This Time is deliberately a fusion of The One Show’s magazine eccentricity and Good Morning Britain’s unlikely dynamic – Susannah Fielding’s Jennie Gresham is very clearly moulded, in terms of appearance, on GMB’s long suffering Susanna Reid. This Time, as Alan’s big BBC second chance, was designed as a response to how people are now on TV who ten or even five years ago would never have had the platform they do now.

The magazine format of This Time moved it away from being a mere re-tread of Knowing Me Knowing You and rather a crystallisation of every Partridge project to date. We saw Alan on air with Jennie or his Mid-Morning Matters confederate, the even-more-out-of-his-depth-than-Alan, ‘Sidekick’ Simon Denton (played so well by Tim Key); we saw Alan briefly off air with Lynn, who herself has quietly transformed from meek assistant into a Lady MacBeth figure goading Alan’s impulses; and we saw Alan’s own pieces along the line of Scissored Isle, tackling all kinds of bizarre topics in a straight forward, informative and serious way.

If anything is a surprise, it’s that Alan didn’t become more savage during This Time; there are flashes of the old monster with fame at his fingertips (he at one point shouts “where’s my fucking glass of water?”), and he does manage to insult the people closest to him that he really needs on side, but there is no fatal denouement to This Time along the lines of his first TV series. There is just Alan consistently displaying that he is punching massively above his weight in the modern era of broadcast television. That’s the joke and the consistent tragedy of his eternal failure. Of course he’ll end up sacked. Of course the establishment will hate him. The joke is that Alan is not, and never could be, one of them. The joke is that he will never truly understand that.

The appeal of the character, however, has never been higher. Any Partridge project is greeted with feverish speculation. Social media groups have thousands of members who constantly swop ‘Alanisms’ or place real world events or images in a Partridge context, often with hilarious results. Steve Coogan feels entirely at ease playing Alan now he is catching up to the character in age, growing and maturing and mellowing with him. The Gibbons brothers completely understand, craft and nurture the character to consistently entertaining effect. Podcasts about him have popped up – and indeed the Gibbons recently suggested Alan doing a podcast might be an avenue they explored with the character in future, given the growing monetisation and popularity of that medium. Alan is now almost 30 years old but few feel the character is tired or old hat; This Time reviews did polarise to an extent but you suspect fans will warm to the show on rewatches, allowing the level of depth and detail, and many of the new Alanisms, to really soak in. People were not sure about I’m Alan Partridge Season 2 at the time – now it’s considered classic Alan.

Alan Partridge is a cat with nine lives, it seems, and perhaps even more. He is both fixed and capable of evolution. He represents a tired, latent British mentality yet comedy is constantly found with him trying, and failing, to break out of that shell. He is in some ways metafictional, able to exist both within his fictional constructs yet amongst real people in the real world – book signings, presenting Comic Relief, appearing on the Jonathan Ross chat show. He is also able to adapt to whatever vehicle is devised for him – sitcom, documentary, web series, radio show, chat show. He is probably the most malleable character, free of a particular place or time, in British comedy history. With rumours his next series will see him giving his particularly Partridigian views on a history of Britain itself, Alan may go away for a while, but he isn’t going anywhere.

In a fractured, uncertain world, the certainty of Alan Partridge is almost comforting. He is without doubt the comedic hero we may not deserve, but we absolutely need.

Author of books: Myth-Building in Modern Media / Star Trek, History and Us | Writer of words on film/TV/culture | Rotten Tomatoes approved critic: Twitter: @ajblackwriter | Podcast chief: @wmadethis | Occasionally go outside.

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