The secret behind the enduring appeal of Alan Partridge

Chris Tilly
Contributor
Partridge returns on Monday nights. (BBC Studios/Andy Seymour)

A Partridge flies home later this month. As Alan Partridge – legendary sports reporter, chat show host, regional disc jockey, and broadcaster – returns to the BBC following a 25-year absence, for a One Show-style current affair programme called This Time.

To celebrate Alan “bouncing back,” we’re taking a look at his long and varied career. Examining the way in which Steve Coogan and his writers, and collaborators, have continually reinvented the character over the course of nearly three decades. To keep Partridge both fresh and relevant.

And to make sure Alan always has the last laugh.

On the Hour (1991)

The brainchild of writer-producer Armando Iannucci, On the Hour was a spoof radio news show performed by the comedy dream team of Chris Morris, Patrick Marber, Doon Mackichan, David Schneider, Rebecca Front, and the then-25-year-old Coogan, initially hired because he was good at impressions.

The show was both abstract and innovative, with some sketches scripted, and others improvised. During the development process, writers Stuart Lee and Richard Herring came up with a sports reporter, Coogan started doing what he calls “a generic sport reporter’s voice,” and Alan Partridge emerged, pretty much fully formed.

Alan quickly became the show’s most popular character, largely because he didn’t know a great deal about the subjects he was discussing. As Coogan states in his autobiography Easily Distracted, “I’ve never been particularly interested in sport, but I know that commentators tend to sound very confident and simultaneously slightly stupid. They never stop talking, even if they’re stuck for something to say.”

As Alan’s popularity grew over two series’ of On the Hour, it was time for the character’s first reinvention…

Knowing Me Knowing You With Alan Partridge (1992/1994)

Aha! (BBC/Netflix)

Patrick Marber was so enamoured with Alan that he pitched a spin-off radio chat show for the character, with the cast of On the Hour playing guests. It had already been established that Alan liked Abba, so it was christened Knowing Me Knowing You. ‘Aha’ inexplicably became his catchphrase. And Coogan nipped to Lillywhites to purchase Alan’s attire. “I bought some slacks, slip-on shoes, a shirt, a tie and a nice pink-and-green Pringle golf jumper” Coogan reveals in Easily Distracted. “I parted my long hair down the side and combed it across my head as if it were covering up a bald patch.” With that, the sports-casual look was born.

Over the course of six episodes, Partridge interviewed a therapist, a child star, a gigolo, a fashion designer, a politician, a royal, and Tony Hayers, (fictional) Commissioning Director of the BBC. In spite of Alan managing to insult or upset pretty much all of his guests, Hayers must have been impressed, as in 1995 Knowing Me Knowing You made the move to prime-time TV, replete with a house band and studio audience.

So convincing was the format that scores of viewers were convinced that the show – and its deeply unprofessional host – were real. Including Roger Moore’s father, who berated the former Bond for missing his advertised appearance on Episode 1.

Watch Knowing Me Knowing You on Netflix.

The Day Today (1992)

Alan gets caughts in the headlights on The Day Today (BBC/YouTube)

Sandwiched between the radio and TV incarnations of Knowing Me Knowing You, Alan made his small screen debut in The Day Today. Itself an On the Hour spin-off. With 24-hour rolling news in its infancy, the show presented ludicrous stories with a straight face, using hi-tech graphics that seemed ridiculous at the time, but are now all-too familiar.

Chris Morris was the lead newsreader, who took great pleasure in messing with both Alan’s head, and his sports reports, the host interrupting, humiliating, and even kissing Partridge full on the lips.

Those reports ranged from the surreal to the hilarious, with Alan’s confused ‘Countdown to World Cup ‘94’ a notable highlight. Alongside his memorable interview with jockey Katrina Parfitt, who removed her bra mid-discussion. “He’s like a little lost boy who doesn’t know what to say” Coogan says in his autobiography. “I just played it for real, like a boy who can’t quite believe that a woman has unselfconsciously taken her top off in front of him.”

I’m Alan Partridge (1997/2002)

Felicity Montagu’s long-suffering Lynn watches Alan wooing Jill in I’m Alan Partridge S1 (BBC/Netflix)

I’m Alan Partridge was perhaps the most dramatic reinvention of the character, taking a fake presenter from a fake news show, and sticking him in an all-too-believable sitcom. But as Coogan explains in BBC documentary Why, When, Where, How and Whom, the idea was came from a “fear of getting lazy and just repeating ourselves.”

Having accidentally shot and killed a man at the end of Knowing Me Knowing You, Alan was now working the graveyard shift on Radio Norwich, and staying in a travel tavern in Linton. “We decided to have him living in a hotel because it felt like a kind of limbo” Coogan explains in the doc. “Someone who was not settled. Hadn’t resolved his life. Everything was in flux.”

We met Alan’s long-suffering PA Lyn (Felicity Montagu), his DJ nemesis Dave Clifton (Phil Cornwell), and hotel employees Michael (Simon Greenall), Ben (James Lance), Sophie (Sally Phillips), and Susan (Barbara Durkin). Who were all forced to put up with his strange habits, prejudices and insecurities. And it’s through their darkly hilarious interactions with the character that we truly got to know Alan Partridge, and discovered just how small-minded and petty he could be.

As funny as it was bleak, the first season was a ratings winner, and victorious at both the BAFTAs and British Comedy Awards. “I’m Alan Partridge was incredibly popular and liked by clever people” Coogan explains in his memoir. “Alan had matured to perfection. The reviews were staggering; it was probably peak Partridge.”

Those initial six episodes were followed by a second season that found Alan living in a static home and dating a Ukrainian 14 years his junior. And while it didn’t hit the comedic heights of its predecessor, S2 nevertheless had its magic moments. Including Alan piercing his foot on a spike.

And, of course: “Dan! Dan! Dan! Dan! Dan! Dan!”

Watch I’m Alan Partridge on Netflix.

The Man Who Thinks He’s It/Steve Coogan Live: As Alan Partridge and Other Less Successful Characters (1998/2009)

(Amazon)

Riding on the crest of a wave, it was time to take Partridge on tour via The Man Who Thinks He’s It. A show that featured Coogan as Alan, as well as several other less successful characters, including Paul and Pauline Calf, Tony Ferrino, and Duncan Thickett. There was support from rising stars Simon Pegg and Julia Davis, while the tour culminated in a sold out 10-week run at the Lyceum Theatre in Covent Garden.

“I was determined to create an intimate show on a large scale, with musicians, dancers, and a supporting cast” Coogan explains in Easily Distracted. “Simon Pegg and Julia Davis provided the best reinforcement available, and the Steve Brown Band, who performed the title music to Knowing Me Knowing You, provided live backing.

“I wanted to take the format that had once been embraced by the establishment and reinvent it as a proper show with well-observed characters. And it worked. Consequently, both old-timers and young people came to the show and loved it.”

Predictably, Partridge was the star, bringing the house down with a predictably bad business presentation. And he stole the show again 11 years later in Steve Coogan Live: As Alan Partridge and Other Less Successful Characters, wherein our erstwhile hero was now a (pretty terrible) life coach. The show wasn’t as polished as its predecessor, but Partridge nevertheless shone.

Mid Morning Matters (2010)

While Knowing Me, Knowing You and I’m Alan Partridge remain BBC shows, the hapless DJ and presenter made a big money move to Sky Atlantic in 2012 with his Mid Morning Matters show and a series of specials. (Pic: BBC)

Somewhat unexpectedly, the character’s return to radio came courtesy of Foster’s Lager, with the beer manufacturer funding a series of online shorts called Alan Partridge’s Mid Morning Matters. The 15-minute ‘webisodes’ were akin to the radio sequences that topped and tailed I’m Alan Partridge. Only this time the setting was fictional radio station North Norfolk Digital, and Alan was joined by a sidekick called Sidekick Simon, played by the brilliant Tim Key.

Shot webcam-style, they enabled Partridge to interact with the public via phone-ins, and guests through awkward in-studio interviews. While he spent most of his time bullying Simon. Coogan described them as “The purest, most mature and funniest incarnation of Partridge,” and their success saw Mid Morning Matters make the move to Sky via 30-minute editions.

The show also signified the debut of writers Rob Gibbons and Neil Gibbons, brothers who breathed new life into the character, and continue to help script Partridge to this day. In his autobiography, Coogan talks about them giving the character a more rounded personality, making the writing “more nuanced and complex.” With Steve adding “Had it not been for Rob and Neil, Alan would not have had a renaissance.”

I, Partridge/Nomad (2011/2016)

(Amazon)

“What we’ve always tried to do with Alan is take the logic of what you’ve seen and continue it,” Coogan explains in the BBC doc. “So we don’t contradict ourselves in terms of biography.”

In 2011, he and the brothers Gibbons took that attention to detail to the next level, striving for literary greatness through memoir I, Partridge, We Need to Talk About Alan. As much an excuse to settle old scores as tell his own story, the book is described on the dust jacket – seemingly by Alan – as “a work of heartbreaking majesty,” “deeply respectful of the autobiography genre” and “genuinely one of the best books of the last, what, 15-20 years.”

Nomad followed, a high-concept tome with the following premise: “Donning his boots, his windcheater and a high-end Arabian scarf bought in John Lewis only days before they announced a sale, Partridge sets off from his childhood home in Norwich to walk 160 miles in The Footsteps of his Father. His destination? Dungeness Nuclear Power Station on the Kent coast, a place that held a special significance for the man he simply called Papa.”

Both books are good on the page – especially I, Partridge’s account of Alan’s own birth – but truly come to life when he reads the audio versions.

Welcome to the Places of My Life/Scissored Isle (2011/2016)

After airing the second season of Alan Partridge’s Mid Morning Matters last year, Sky Atlantic is cutting to new documentary, Alan Partridge’s Scissored Isle.

Welcome to the Places of My Life found Alan tackling the documentary genre, or more specifically shows in which celebrities you barely know visit locations you’ve rarely heard of.

In this instance, we followed Partridge on a guided tour of his beloved home county, Norfolk. Or as he calls it, “East Anglia, the plump peninsula, home of the broads – although that sounds like a refuge for fallen prostitutes – Albion’s hind quarters, or quite simply, the Wales of the East.”

A travelogue, history lesson, and glimpse into Partridge at work (broadcasting from North Norfolk Digital) and at play (swimming – and very nearly drowning – at Riverside Leisure Centre) the documentary featured digs at the likes of Anne Robinson, Andrew Marr, the Dimbleby brothers, and Adolf Hitler. It was also helmed by Alan himself, and if you want to know what over-directing looks like, this is it.

Scissored Isle, meanwhile, found Alan endeavouring to atone for calling a teenager a sheep-shagging chav live on-air. He does this by exploring an unreported Britain inhabited by the very people he has offended, “To become a better citizen. A better man. And a better, more sought-after broadcaster.” Scissored Isle won Coogan an International Emmy in 2017.

Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa (2013)

Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa

Although Coogan and co spent years developing an Alan Partridge film, when it finally went into production, Alpha Papa was fraught with problems. Director Declan Lowney boarded in the final stages, the screenplay was unfinished as the film went into production, and because of that actor Colm Meany replaced Brendon Gleeson at the very last minute. Indeed Coogan says he was acting during the day and up most nights working on the script, while there were instances when shooting stopped so the team could rewrite scenes on the fly.

http://uk.movies.yahoo.com/video/first-look-alan-partridge-alpha-084811034.html

The plot – inspired by Sidney Lumet classics Network and Dog Day Afternoon – revolved around a multinational conglomerate buying North Norfolk Digital, and sacking DJ Pat Farrell (Meany). Resulting in Farrell entering the station with a shotgun, and taking the staff hostage. Alan happens to be mates with Pat, and ends up negotiating with the police on his behalf. Not because Partridge wants to help. But because he sees the siege – which quickly becomes national news – as an opportunity to re-launch his career.

The result is something of a mixed bag. The film fantastic when dealing with the culture clash tearing North Norfolk Digital apart. But weaker when it leaves those four walls, the humour becoming a little too broad as Alan turns action star. Alpha Papa nevertheless did well at the box office, grossing around double its budget. While it also reminded the world just how much Roachford’s ‘Cuddly Toy’ rocks.

This Time With Alan Partridge (2019)

Alan Partridge (Steve Coggan), Jennie (Susannah Fielding) in This Time With Alan Partridge. (BBC/Baby Cow/Colin Hutton)

2019 finds Partridge reinventing himself once again, as co-presenter of This Time, which the BBC describes as “a heady mix of consumer affairs, viewer interaction, highbrow interview and lightweight froth.” But it’s also something of a homecoming, being the first time Alan has hosted on the BBC since that accidental shooting a quarter of a century ago.

Partridge finds himself in the hot seat due to This Time’s regular presenter – John Baskell – falling ill. “It’s not my place to divulge the nature of his illness” Partridge told the Beeb. “But I believe it’s to do with his heart, brought on by good living, and an almost heroic refusal to ever exercise.”

In true One Show style, Alan has a female co-host in the shape of Jennie Gresham (Susannah Fielding), whom Alan calls “the thinking man’s thinking woman,” while This Time also feature the familiar faces of Lynn and Sidekick Simon. Who will doubtless find themselves bullied and miss-treated throughout.

As for whether you should watch the show, we’ll let Alan answer that question: “If you’ve got time to give This Time your time, then it’s time to let This Time spend time making your time a good time on This Time with me, Alan Partridge, and I’m sorry I’ve forgotten the woman’s name.”

This Time with Alan Partridge begins on BBC1 this Monday, 25 February at 9.30pm.

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