Matt Micucci traces the evolution of Alan Partridge from his early days as a sports reporter to his current stint on North Norfolk Digital.
It has been a long journey for Steve Coogan and Alan Partridge. A long and successful journey which has recently culminated with the Norwich broadcaster’s very first-big screen feature film. This success, however, is not accidental. Looking at the long history of the character and his different re-inventions, we can see that he has taken a life of his own, to the point of being almost a real human being rather than a fictitious personage. “It’s as if his ups and downs have been played out in real time,” co-creator Armando Iannucci recently told Sight and Sound magazine. “Whenever Steve and I meet up, even if we’re not working on Alan, we talk about what he’s doing. We’re privately continuing the biography.”
Alan Partridge, in fact, has been one of the funniest and indeed most interesting comedy characters since the beginning of broadcasting. I say broadcasting in a general term because while television is the medium that brought him to fame and indeed the medium that causes the character so much distress, Alan Partridge is neither a product of television nor the place where he first appeared.
Steve Coogan and Armando Iannucci, created the character along with other writers of the BBC Radio 4 hit show On the Hour (1991-92). On the Hour was a memorable parody of current affairs broadcasting that featured Alan as a side character – an incapable, rude and overall incompetent sports correspondent. When On the Hour became a TV show called The Day Today in 1994, his presence was so imposing and charismatic that we would then find him on BBC 2 with a show of his own later that year.
In many ways, what Knowing Me Knowing You with Alan Partridge (1994) did was nothing short of groundbreaking. While there was no mistaking that it was a comedy show, it was a perfect ‘exploitation’ of the conventional TV chat show format, which ironically felt and still feels more real than most other chat shows around. This was mostly due to its use of a genuine air of impulsiveness and unpredictability that is associated with live television broadcasting. For instance, in the first episode, Alan has to deal with anything from noisy fountains and horse excretion right down to a no show of the night’s top guest Roger Moore. Right from the start, it is clear that we are watching a disaster in the making as we follow a man on a path of self-destruction mostly due to his own ineptitude. Alan cannot control his childish arrogance and short attention span. As well as that, he has an overall lack of regard or respect for his guests, with whom he openly fights with and contends for the spotlight. All this results in a great mix of humour and pathos, which culminates at the end of the final episode when he literally shoots one of his guests by mistake.
By the end of the series, it was plain to see that Coogan and Iannucci had created a monster. Indeed, it was as if Coogan and Partridge were leading separate parallel lives. Coogan himself would appear as Partridge as a guest in other TV shows and even present awards as ceremonies as him. The chat show format was revived shortly for a Christmas special in 1995. Slightly longer than an average episode of the 1994 show, in this special it became clear that Alan’s chances of getting a second series were slim to none. Here, we witness his disastrous attempts to convince chief programmer of BBC Tony Heyers (David Schneider), whom he ends up punching in the face with a stuffed partridge at the end of the show. This was bad news for the Norwich man but good news for the audience who, two years later, would see him on their TV sets again.
This time, he would be the lead character of his very own sit-com. I’m Alan Partridge was a behind-the-scenes look at the titular character years after his talk show fiasco. We meet Alan at a difficult standstill stage of his life. Relegated to the graveyard shifts at Radio Norwich, divorced by his wife, who left him for a fitness instructor and living in a travel tavern, there seems to be no hope lying ahead for his career as a TV broadcaster. In other words, he leads and empty lonely life. The only support he gets comes from his hard-working assistant Lynn (Felicity Montagu). Alan, however, has little appreciation of her work and releases his frustration and anger on her by insulting her with every chance he gets. I’m Alan Partridge is hilarious car-crash comedy, picking up from British TV comedy classics such as Fawlty Towers and predating The Office, the Ricky Gervais show which would be even more brutal in its depiction of arrogance and delusion.
In the years that follows the 1997 series, Coogan did the right thing and concentrated on his own career, between stand-up comedy, TV work and even trying his luck at cinema with a vehicle, which he co-wrote; the underwhelming The Parole Officer (2001). The following year, however, was arguably the year in which Coogan finally achieved another level of credibility with his lead performance in Michael Winterbottom’s 24 Hour Party People (2002). Chronicling the rise and fall of Tony Wilson’s music career as founder of the revolutionary Manchester record label Factory records, the film was an invigorating biopic halfway between the comical and the art-house approach that was very successful at recreating the spirit of music scene in those days.
That same year saw the return of Alan Partridge to the TV screen, with a second series of I’m Alan Partridge. Here, the show did not pick up from the last episode of the previous show and throughout the season there was plenty of background story hinted at – such as a chocolate addiction brought on by depression. However, he is in slightly better shape. He is still as discourteous and spiteful as before, but he has picked himself up a little boasting about his show’s minor successes and his military based quiz show on digital television, famously claiming that terrestrial TV ‘is a dead duck’. In many ways, this philosophy on TV reflects his future career, intended as the aforementioned ‘parallel career’ with his actor Coogan. Once again, the show was successful with audience and critics alike.
The year after that, in fact, Partridge returned with the excellent special Anglian Lives: Alan Partridge (2003), a mock retrospective on the career of Alan Partridge made for the BBC. This came across as yet another exploration of comedic character depiction, which added more depth to the character of Alan Partridge and would be used again in other similar ways in other specials.
With Coogan’s film career finally taking off, alternating lead roles in British comedies like A Cock and Bull Story (2005) and support roles in big Hollywood ones like Night at the Museum (2006) and Tropic Thunder (2008), along with the occasional stint in more art house films like Jarmusch’s Coffee and Cigarettes (2003) and Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette (2006). TV remained a constant refuge for Coogan’s creativity, with a new show called Saxondale (2006-07).
In the meantime, however, British TV had created two other ‘monsters’ in the form of Ricky Gervais and Russell Brand. It is particularly hard not to see Gervais as Coogan’s biggest rival. Gervais made it big with the genial TV show The Office as the annoying and hopelessly delusional David Brent. The Office too exploited a conventional format by convincingly mimicking reality TV documentaries. After that, everything Gervais has touched, at least in television, has turned to gold – from Extras to An Idiot Abroad, not to mention his incendiary stints as host of the Golden Globes.
Coogan and Gervais are both intelligent, talented and hilarious comics, yet the general opinion is that Coogan’s reputation as a party animal is what prevented him from making it as big as Gervais. Given that, it is no wonder that a few years later he was frontline with Hugh Grant in opposing the phone hacking tactics employed by the News of the World for their gossip columns. Furthermore, while Gervais is constantly on the ball being his funny and entertaining self when off set, Coogan is more serious and less outrageous in that sense.
While he moved on, however, the shadow of Partridge lurked over Coogan’s career. However, unlike most ‘shadows’ in the show business, this was a benevolent one. Also, it neither seemed to threaten or take over Coogan’s credibility as a comedian and actor, nor did Coogan show any need to shake it off him. Indeed, every now and again, Coogan returned to fill the shoes of the man that made him a household name. However, it did not feel as if he did it out of thankfulness or even respect for his own creation but rather out of fun. Partridge, in fact, re-appeared in videos for the Teenage Cancer Trust interviewing Roger Daltrey, presenting ‘the cream of British comedy’ and choosing five favourite songs from his teenage years. In 2008, Coogan even released a DVD of his stand-up comedy tour named Steve Coogan Live: As Alan Partridge and Other Less Successful Characters (it is a matter of opinion whether the title’s self-deprecation was a good choice or not), in which Patridge was re-invented as a life coach.
In the last season of I’m Alan Partridge, Alan promotes his autobiography ‘Bouncing Back’. This element in the show’s storyline anticipated another ingenious evolution in the character’s lifespan, which took place in 2011 and saw Coogan as his alter ego bounce back and forth between talk shows (as a guest this time), promoting another autobiography written by Coogan, Iannucci, Rob Gibbons and Neil Gibbons – or ‘with the help of…’ To promote the book, Coogan was even interviewed in character on The Jonathan Ross Show. A while later, he would return as his true self to promote Winterbottom’s The Look of Love and announce an upcoming Alan Partridge film.
But first, getting back to our timeline, things were once again exciting for Partridge. He was suddenly not only re-invigorated, but it also genuinely started feeling like his career was bouncing back. All of a sudden, his words of terrestrial TV being a dead duck started resonating as he became the subject of two specials on satellite TV and was being taken more seriously than he had his whole career. Furthermore, he embraced digital radio at his new post in Norfolk Digital Radio and starred in a series of videos. The result was an online series called Mid Morning Matters with Alan Partridge, funded by the Forster’s beer company and initially broadcast on Foster’s Funny website before landing on YouTube and eventually being airing on Sky Atlantic.
Mid Morning Matters was yet another successful experimentation. The web series was rightfully praised for its minimal approach, a stylistic choice that let the character of Partridge ‘breathe’. In fact, we could argue that Coogan has never been more comfortable playing him. While he still suffers from the same flaws which made him comically irresistible, he has also mature in his own way and we even see him sharing his broadcasting knowledge with Sidekick Simon whom he mentors, though sometimes too severely. Taking Partridge to a completely new modern medium was also a smart move. In the internet age, Mid Morning Matters probably reached a wider audience than Knowing Me Knowing You ever did when first aired.
Taking the character to new and unfamiliar grounds was also an intelligent move that further ensured his longevity. However, the key to the success of Alan Partridge is the connection with his interpreter. “There’s bits of me in it, there’s bits of my dad,” he recently stated. “The things he does are affectionate and kind of mad. Things I put in myself, that I know that are stupid and obsessive. Also, there’s things – I can’t tell which – that he might say and that are not politically correct. He gives me a chance to say things I’d sometimes like to say as well as things that you really hate that people say.”
The trials and tribulations of Alan Partridge inevitably led to his consecration to the big screen. His popularity, which always remained quite stable, called it and almost demanded it. Yet, it was strange to see him take such a huge step after the ‘claustrophobic charm’ of Mid Morning Matters. Furthermore, there was always that risk that cinema, where everything is grand scale and artificially structured, would inevitably betray the Norwich presenter as we knew him. Furthermore the storyline, which sees Partridge step in to save the day after a colleague (played by Colm Meaney) holds up the radio station after unceremoniously getting the sack, strengthened the fears that anyone may have had of seeing Coogan sell his soul to the box office devil, much like Sacha Baron Cohen had with Ali G Indahouse (2002). Well, there was nothing to worry about. Coogan and Iannucci knew what they were doing when they planned the drastic move. Despite the farcical macho title, Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa retains the intimacy of the previous formats while the gags unravel with the usual cathartic finesse.
The triumph of the film with audience and critics also shows that Coogan as Partridge really can do no wrong. Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa is particularly remarkable when placed alongside previous cinematic attempts at strengthening the legacy of popular TV characters like Ali G and Mr. Bean. Furthermore, it was revealed in the last few days Magnolia Films would distribute the film next year in the States. This means more exposure and a whole new mainstream audience. So now the question is will success spoil Alan Partridge? Will Coogan and Iannucci give into the glimmer of Hollywood and standardise their unique vision? Of course, more optimistically we may simply wonder what is next in store for us Partridge fans.
In the meantime, there seems to be nothing stopping anyone from giving credit where credit is due. While sometimes in a quiet manner and other times more uproariously, Coogan and Partridge have anticipated and even directly influenced many of the comedy traits that we see in a lot of the media today. For instance, Will Ferrell’s Ron Burgandy seems a very dumbed down version of Alan Partridge. They share most of the same goals and even some of the same character traits, but Anchorman was released in 2004 while the debut of Partridge dates back to ten years previous. Even Gervais, once again must have been inspired by the web renaissance of Partridge when he recently decided to shake the dust off his David Brent for a few short videos on YouTube.
All this can be summed up by Coogan’s own words. “You have to risk failures,” he told The Irish Times. “In America they have these machines like, say, Friends that can keep ticking for ages. We are more like a cottage industry. You have to risk failure. And you do that by changing the format.”