Steve Coogan created several successful comic characters in the 1990s, but none have had the same enduring appeal as broadcaster and committed Abba fan Alan Partridge, who pops his film cherry here. First heard on the Radio 4 news spoof On The Hour, Coogan (along with co-writers Armando Iannucci and Patrick Marber) developed the character further by letting him loose on his own chat show (Knowing Me, Knowing You). Here Alan flourished, a tragic figure guided only by his own small-minded, obstinate, middle-England attitude, clashing with a host of made-up guests. Most of these were caricatures of typical British chat show circuit celebs; KMKY mercilessly satirised the kind of fawning drivel and egomania that appeared regularly on the primetime British chat shows of the period, notably Wogan and Parkinson, and at its heart was its rude car crash of a presenter.
Both of these radio shows made the transition to the small screen in the early 1990s. On The Hour morphed into Chris Morris’s surreal, anarchic and utterly brilliant TV news spoof The Day Today, on which Partridge was responsible for sports reports, while Knowing Me, Knowing You was given its own run of 6 episodes (and a Christmas special) in 1994/1995. Presumably more episodes were in the pipeline, but in Alan Partridge’s world the show suffered from poor ratings and he was fired by the BBC after accidentally killing a guest on air and punching the BBC’s commissioning editor in the face (in two unrelated incidents). In reality Knowing Me, Knowing You was a massive hit for the BBC. Despite being broadcast in a Friday night slot when most of its core audience were in the pub, it still pulled in millions of viewers for BBC2 and was a critical success. At the time it was first shown, I was a student, and every Friday night the bar would dutifully empty just before a new episode aired and hundreds of people filed into an adjacent room to watch it on the big screen. It was as packed as a 1970s football terrace, but the room was reverently quiet, so that no jokes would be missed.
Coogan then went on to star in 12 episodes of I’m Alan Partridge, which followed the broadcaster’s “wilderness years”, living first in a bland business hotel after divorcing his wife and subsequently in a static caravan while his dream home was being built next door. Shunned by the TV networks, Partridge ended up working for the fictional rural station Radio Norwich, where he continued to insult guests and colleagues with abandon.
Despite continuing success, Coogan shelved the character for a number of years, focusing on other acting projects. When Partridge finally re-appeared a year or two ago in Mid-morning Matters he was working for another regional radio station – North Norfolk Digital – in several new episodes made specifically for the web. This is where Alpha Papa comes in – a long-mooted Partridge movie that will probably just about satisfy existing fans, though it remains to be seen whether new ones at home or abroad will be found.
Personally I think the laughs have been slowly dwindling ever since Knowing Me, Knowing You, though there are some superb jokes in I’m Alan Partridge and plenty of excellent lines in the low-key Mid-morning Matters (the despairing Partridge struggling with voice recognition on the phone while trying to book a ticket for an afternoon showing of Inception is one of Coogan’s finest moments to date). Consequently, because of this gradual and gentle decline, I wasn’t expecting too much from the film. Additionally, the process of turning popular comedy shows of the day into feature length films in the UK has been a money-grabbing undertaking for well over 40 years – from On The Buses and Are You Being Served? in the 1970s right through to The Inbetweeners Movie in 2011. For the most part the results have been dire; it would seem that the best a fan can hope for is that the film version of a cherished TV show isn’t complete and utter rubbish.
Part of the reason for this is the shift in format. The characters and storylines are written originally to fill – more often than not – thirty minutes of TV airtime. Many of the films – though rightly using the same writers – just feel too stretched, often just extended episodes transported to a foreign location (a holiday somewhere on the Mediterranean usually features), fleshed out with terrible plots in order to fill 90 minutes and to cash in on a little bit of popularity; then there’s the old trick of repeating jokes and catchphrases from the TV shows, which always make me feel a little bit cheated.
Crucially, there never seems to be as many good jokes in the films as there are in the 30 minute TV episodes, either, which completely baffles me; it’s as though the writers suddenly lose faith in what they are doing when considering the different medium, and begin to concentrate more on plots (which I’m not really interested in) rather than the belly laughs (which I am interested in) that got them in this position in the first place. The very, very best British and Irish comedy shows – think Fawlty Towers, Father Ted or The Office – have all mercifully stuck to the thirty minute format or, on one or two occasions, stretched out comfortably with the hour long Christmas special. There’s a lesson there.A well-crafted sitcom is a perfectly legitimate work in its own right. Why assume it needs more muscle for a cinematic makeover? Or, put it another way, can you imagine having to watch a sitcom version of The Godfather?
Still, after 20 years and some truly excellent writing, I probably shouldn’t be such a curmudgeon: Alan Partridge deserves his moment on the big screen more than most, and thankfully this is one of the transitions that isn’t complete and utter rubbish. When North Norfolk Radio’s new media conglomerate owners decide to re-brand the station Alan comes close to losing his job, and engineers the sacking of late night folk DJ Pat Farrell (Colm Meaney) in order to save his own skin. Farrell takes this badly, to say the least, and returns to the station with a shotgun, taking several prisoners hostage. These include the trendy new media station owners and the zany young breakfast show host, as well as Partridge’s on-air right-hand-man Sidekick Simon (Tim Key). Farrell tells the police that the only man he’ll deal with is Partridge, who reluctantly acts as a go-between. As the crisis plays out, Alan’s dreams of heroism clash with his rampant cowardice, but he spots an opportunity for publicity and the chance to re-launch his own career.
Alpha Papa is knowingly funny, a witty satire on public broadcasting, celebrity and our predilection for rubbernecking that keeps it light and avoids being too coruscating. The writers take great pleasure in poking fun at local radio, from the inane ramblings of DJs to the baffling phone calls made by listeners, and the jokes surrounding these are of a high standard (“What’s the worst kind of monger?” asks Alan. “Fish, Iron, Rumour or War?”)
Coogan has been playing Partridge for two decades, and the character must be like a second skin.for the actor by now. Here he’s on good form, constantly raising his eyebrows, singing along to the radio in his car, dishing out patronising remarks and insults to his long-suffering personal assistant Lynn (Felicity Montagu) and security guard friend Michael (Simon Greenall) and sucking up to both the police and his new paymasters. Partridge is a sad monster, the kind of man that can happily chat on air or give interviews to news crews while colleagues have shotguns held to their heads if it means his own profile is raised; but he’s also on a downward trajectory, unable to claw back any of his previous success and hampered by rampant egotism. He is as narcissistic as ever in this film (look for the little details – in Alan’s office the calendar on the wall, for example, is an official Alan Partridge calendar).
While most of the laughs come from Partridge himself – and thus the people that will probably get the most out of the film will be those already familiar with the character – there are one or two amusing sight gags and plenty of gentle wit that doesn’t require a vast knowledge of all things Alan (the use of the theme music for the 1980s Ski Sunday TV show at one critical moment is hilarious, for example, though it will probably be lost on international audiences). That said, there are a few weaker base moments that feel like padding, such as Partridge losing his trousers and being snapped semi-naked by a paparazzo. Still, there has always been an element of farce to Partridge.
Meaney, playing the straight man, is on good form here and acts as the perfect foil for Coogan’s scene-stealing; he is an actor that excels at roles that allow him to be menacing (see the brilliant Irish black comedy Intermission for more evidence of that) and Pat Farrell is a tragic character that evokes sympathy because of his treatment, but he is also convincingly threatening, a man on a knife edge who seems perfectly capable of cold-blooded murder.
Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa is another entry in the long list of successful comedy television shows or characters that have been shoehorned into the film format, and thankfully it can be added to the “not utterly terrible” list. In fact, the writing by Coogan, Iannucci, Neil Gibbons, Rob Gibbons and Peter Baynham is sharp, witty and makes as much use of the character’s utter ludicrousness as any fan could hope for. Familiarity should not mask the fact that Coogan’s creation is one of the best seen on UK TV, and it has now got to the point where it is becoming difficult for the viewer to separate the character from the actor. At times very amusing, but with a disappointing final act that feels out of step with the rest of the film, it’s hard to begrudge Alan Partridge or Steve Coogan this brief moment in the spotlight. But, really, these big screen outings always feel a little bit pointless.
Directed by: Declan Lowney
Written by: Steve Coogan, Armando Iannucci, Rob Gibbons, Neil Gibbons, Peter Baynham
Starring: Steve Coogan, Colm Meaney, Felicity Montagu, Tim Key
Running Time: 90 Minutes