Back of the Net
By Julien Allen

Alan Partridge
Dir. Declan Lowney, U.K., Magnolia Pictures

Alan Partridge is, as its American title presupposes, practically a one-man-show, the likes of which its star has performed many times before. If you only really associate Steve Coogan with his roles in Michael Winterbottom films such as 24-Hour Party People and Tristram Shandy: A Cock & Bull Story you might be understandably puzzled as to why he occasionally crops up in semi-humorous roles in American comedies such as Tropic Thunder or The Other Guys. The reason is that a section of the U.S. comic fraternity (the likes of Ben Stiller and Will Ferrell) has seen something the vast majority of the American public hasn’t yet, and that something is what Coogan does better than anything else: Alan Partridge.

Radio DJ, sportscaster, failed chat-show host, and (if this is not too much of an Alan-ism) town crier for “little England,” Partridge is one of the rare comic characters to arrive on the big screen with not only a ready-made television following but also a genuine, full-fledged backstory, every deliriously painful moment of which has been intricately played out in British living rooms for over two decades. He debuted in 1992 on radio, as the gauche sportscaster for spoof current affairs show On the Hour, rebooted on television as The Day Today. Both shows were products of the blue chip comedy partnership of Armando Iannucci (creator of Veep and cowriter of Alan Partridge) and Chris Morris (Four Lions), while Coogan, an exceptional mimic who began his career as an impressionist, played numerous parts in each. Morris’s abrasive anchorman (who once barked at his own correspondent that he’d “lost the news”) was the undeniable star of The Day Today, but Alan Partridge (devised as a cameo, but gradually growing a personality with every segment) was awarded a spin-off. His BBC2 chat-show spoof (Knowing Me, Knowing You, with Alan Partridge) satirized the vanity and vacuity of a proud tradition of British television that had precious little to be proud about, a genre that made household names of average broadcasters like Michael Parkinson and Terry Wogan, names spoken even now in hushed tones in BBC circles. Here was television not only eating itself but also spitting itself out onto the carpet. It was a watershed experience of such mordant exactitude that its first episode—wherein Partridge becomes more and more frustrated waiting for Roger Moore to arrive—received a deluge of complaints from viewers (not realizing it was a spoof) to the effect that Partridge was behaving appallingly and insulting his other guests. This sudden mortar-shell of causticity exploded into the early 90s no-mans-land of moribund sitcoms and middling sketch shows and in turn triggered dozens of further projects (Brass Eye; Friday Night Armistice; Marion & Geoff, and ultimately, The Office) which gave British television comedy a sharpness and satirical finesse the likes of which had rarely been seen since the Oxbridge varsity comedy of the 1960s (Beyond the Fringe; Monty Python’s Flying Circus).

Meanwhile, none of Coogan’s other comic characters—Mancunian jobseeker Paul Calf, Portuguese singing sensation Tony Ferrino—ever gained the same kind of traction as Partridge. Coogan’s brief spell as a Hollywood lead produced only misfires such as indigestible money-furnace Around the World in 80 Days and the emetically unfunny Hamlet 2. Back in the UK, Coogan (with Iannucci) took Partridge into mock-doc territory with I’m Alan Partridge, removing the studio lights to reveal the tragicomic warts-and-all story of a failing broadcaster who refused to eat humble pie—a show that would be Cathy Come Home-depressing if it weren’t so hilarious. Moving with the times, Partridge has most recently surfaced on the internet, with Mid-Morning Matters, a set of twenty-minute bursts of his local radio show, whose humor at times touches the purified greatness that twenty years of practice might lead one to expect. So entrenched is his legacy that there is even a Twitter account, @AccidentalPartridge, which calls out celebrities whose painfully un-self-aware public pronouncements stray, as they all too often do, into “Alan” territory.

It is at this point in Alan's life that the long-awaited feature film picks up the action, creating a slightly arbitrary entry point for the American audience. Whether one gets the joke or not may depend on how quickly one warms to this cowardly, homophobic, self-regarding, almost childlike character whose super-ego was discarded at birth and who can’t even appreciate his devoted assistant Lynn (Felicity Montagu) because he can’t get over the fact that she isn’t young and pretty. Partridge is as familiar to British audiences as Homer Simpson or Archie Bunker is to Americans—they have had twenty years to feel everything there is to feel about him and back again, whereas the majority of U.S. audiences will have 90 minutes. Happily, Alan Partridge doesn't waste any time, kicking off with a burst of “classic Alan” at the radio mic (“Later on we’ll be asking, which is the worst ‘monger’…fish-, rumor-, iron-, or war-? Not especially hard, that one”) followed by one of the most joyous and perfectly judged title sequences since Catch Me If You Can.

Iannucci and his director, Declan Lowney, took the sensible view that there was nothing to be gained in trying to Hollywoodize the subject or widen the scope of Partridge’s world (e.g. by sending Alan to Las Vegas or to southern Spain as some TV adaptations have been wont to try). Opting instead for a Mad City–style siege thriller plot, set in the run-of-the-mill town of Norwich (Partridge’s birthplace and where he has ended up) it dramatizes the corporate takeover of North Norfolk Digital radio station by a conglomerate, Goredale Media (the name says it all). One of Alan’s sacked co-workers, Irish DJ Pat Farrell (Colm Meaney), goes loco at the relaunch party, taking hostages, including the new CEO, Jason Tresswell, (played with supreme dastardliness by Nigel Lindsay, the white muslim terrorist in Four Lions) and insists on continuing to broadcast. As the police hostage detail gathers outside, Pat will only speak to (and through) his “best friend,” Alan.

The comic formula here is both generous and ambitious: the entire structure and tempo of the action that unfolds is either derived from, or beholden to, the need for something funny to occur on screen approximately every five seconds. This is a reflection of the phenomenon that Alan Partridge has become—not one thing Alan ever does or says is not intrinsically comedic—and the skill involved in constructing a coherent feature film around it, with real live characters and a plot, is to be roundly applauded. Unlike Mr. Bean, whose laughs, when he doesn’t operate in a vacuum, come from the basic outrage he provokes amongst supporting characters, Alan ostensibly exists and interacts normally with his friends and co-workers, which is why reaction shots are selective instead of widespread—a lot of the time, the sheer silliness of what he is saying has to be simply ignored by the people on screen, leaving the reactions entirely to the audience. Every creative decision here has been taken with a view to maximizing the opportunity for solid, believable laughs (the meticulousness is apparent in the very first scene, with an in-joke concerning the words petrol and gas that feels for all the world like an introduction to the U.S. audience to how Alan thinks). The deepest laughs come from the Mid-Morning Matters material and the intrinsic ludicrousness of DJ humor (“You can keep Jesus. As far as I’m concerned, Neil Diamond is King of the Jews”) and the film bounces along on musical cues which, taken together as a soundtrack album constitute an international cheese festival, but individually, hit just the right tone of infectious pathos: Sting’s “Roxanne,” Bryan Ferry’s “Let’s Get Together,” and the absolute quintessence of Alan: John Farnham’s “You’re the Voice,” scoring an OJ-style slow chase around Norfolk with a BBC Radio Norwich broadcast van sitting in for the white Bronco.

While the film relies on the well-oiled technical craft with which Coogan (who could do this in his sleep but chooses not to) fleshes out the part—the nasal whine, the flick back of the hair, the inflections in his voice, clowning of the highest order—it also has the luxury of employing two exceptional actresses, Monica Dolan (who played serial killer Rose West in the TV drama Responsible Adult) and Anna Maxwell-Martin (star of the BBC’s towering adaptation of Bleak House), in the very unshowy roles of, respectively, Alan's love interest Angela (cue one of the most awkward sexual confrontations since Robert De Niro and Uma Thurman in Mad Dog & Glory), and the police officer in charge of the siege. Maxwell-Martin’s response to a constable reading out a police transcript of one of Alan and Pat’s more inane exchanges with her unremittingly dour delivery of the line: “Can we skip to the bit where they stop saying ‘Banged Up Abroad’?” might test the resistance of anyone in the theater with a severe heart condition.

If one is humorless enough to attempt some analysis, it could be said that the film has some problems. Foremost among them is that its middle section seems to operate in a dimension where everyone has stopped worrying about the hostages to concentrate on their own, vastly less significant issues. This doesn’t feel like satire, just uneven pacing. There is not enough of Stephen Boyd, Sean Pertwee, and Maxwell-Martin’s police, who are funny (for being dead straight), and perhaps too much of Alan’s opportunistic attempts to further his media career for having “hosted a siege”—a strong idea, but ultimately overdone. Furthermore (and Partridge fans will be at pains to admit this), Alan’s character now feels—due to the multiplicity of writers and the demands of the comic formula adopted here— stylistically a bit all over the place, trying to pluck laughs from every branch of the comedy tree to the detriment of consistency. Bumbling and prone to panic attacks, he can suddenly take charge of a situation with chest-puffing and platitudes, possibly due to his considerable experience at pharmaceutical conferences; he is clever (some of his put-downs are extremely witty) but un-self-aware to the point of derision; he is Clouseau-clumsy (witness one fairly divine moment of physical comedy as he tries to climb through a window) but thinks brilliantly on his feet at the most important time. You might say in the writers’ defense that he is “well-rounded,” but the reality is that he has become something of a vessel for the creators’ best jokes. The most jarring example of this is when Alan wistfully recalls a voiceover job he did for a local butchers’ shop: as he rehearses the slogan, Coogan’s voice is pure Coogan (cf: The Trip) and nothing to do with Partridge. Far from really detracting from the laughs on offer, this nevertheless recalls an incident that occurred in the late nineties, in preproduction for I’m Alan Partridge, when one of the original writers, Patrick Marber (now a playwright and the screenwriter of Closer and Notes on a Scandal) resigned from the writing team, citing that Alan was being made to do and say things that the character simply wouldn’t have done or said. Marber’s subsequent career may have proven too po-faced for words, but he did have a point there.

Both the appeal and the purpose of Partridge as a comic character have changed over the years. From a reactionary buffoon who should clearly never have been allowed on television (despite screaming resemblances to broadcasters who were doing rather well on British TV at the time: Alan Titchmarsh, Noel Edmonds, Richard Keys, Jeremy Clarkson, Terry Christian, Gary Lineker, Jeremy Kyle and Richard Madeley to name only eight) he became a slightly loveable, slightly tragic figure as his career bombed, he divorced, and he was forced to live in the “sordid griefhole” of the Linton Travel Tavern, off the M11. Notwithstanding the liberties taken with his character, a major achievement of Iannucci and Coogan is in how they have evolved from projecting their own progressive attitudes (through his ridicule) to embracing his popularity and lovability and relaxing their ire towards some of the quaint, outdated notions of Englishness Alan is desperate to cling to. Faceless modernity, in the shape of Goredale Media, is the main enemy now; some things were better before, even cheesy local FM radio. In so doing, the writers have followed the lead Partridge himself has taken, migrating from the alternative comedy scene—and their fixation with media satire—into the mainstream.

It is sometimes easy to forget, with jokes as finely crafted as those in Alan Partridge, that this film is the broadest kind of farce: a genre of comedy whose success requires excessive smartness from its creators, without ever demanding it from its audience. A prime cut of what the English call “end-of-the-pier” comedy finishes—literally—at the end of a pier. At times I laughed uncontrollably, which is emphatically no more or less than what is required, as the makers neither have, nor require any greater cinematic ambition than this. One of the things that particularly tickles Armando Iannucci is that his film is being premiered at the New York Film Festival, programmed right in the middle of what he presumes (for comic effect) to be “a season of Fellini films.” In press, he has compared his film (favorably) to the nadir of sitcom-film adaptations Holiday on the Buses, which he drolly refers to as “up there with Rashomon.” These pronouncements may betray a shaky hold on current art-house vogue (Fellini and Kurosawa would have been name-checked in this context in the 1980s, when Iannucci was at Oxford), but they set an apposite tone for where this film belongs and what it delivers: wall-to-wall jokes, bathed in the purest, noblest essence of English self-deprecation. To paraphrase Alan himself, it isn’t going to win the Palme d’Or—although it would be nice to be nominated.