Steve Clarke celebrates the most cringeworthy, self-centred, pompous prat in broadcasting’s rich history of narcissists
Little did we think, when Alan Partridge first appeared as a sports reporter on BBC Radio 4’s incisive news spoof On the Hour in 1991 – his voice inspired by the late, great John Motson – that he would become a comedy icon, a national treasure even.
It seems appropriate that someone as terminally uncool as Alan, a man who, after all, is in no doubt that Wings were a better band than the Beatles, should have emerged during John Major’s premiership. Steve Coogan inhabits the character to a degree that is so brilliant as to be almost uncanny.
According to Armando Iannucci, who co-created Alan with Coogan and Peter Baynham, the character arrived “fully formed”. All the grotesqueness, gaucheness and lack of self-awareness was present from the start. “The moment he started speaking, we laughed because we all thought: ‘We kind of know this guy, we know his aspirations,’” Iannucci told Radio Times two years ago.
“We knew he felt paranoid that the journalists on the radio show looked down on him as not a serious journalist because he did sport. And, really, he had ambitions to go to television and all that. And we just couldn’t help talking about him when we weren’t making the show.”
Even so, Iannucci and his co-creators could not have imagined that Alan Partridge would still be making us laugh – and cringe – three decades later, most recently in the painfully sharp This Time, as our hero once again lays waste to a TV studio.
Coogan first played Partridge in a fully fledged TV series in 1994’s hilarious chat show parody Knowing Me, Knowing You; he had made his small-screen debut as Partridge earlier that year when On The Hour transferred to TV as The Day Today.
By the time I’m Alan Partridge arrived in 1997, Alan’s career had taken a sharp downturn. He had been sacked by the BBC, and his personal life was on the skids after his wife, Carol, had kicked him out.
These trying circumstances were catnip for maximising the character’s comic potential and I’m Alan Partridge is widely regarded as Coogan’s comic masterpiece. The Radio Times Guide to TV Comedy noted: “The previous radio and TV series featuring Partridge only skimmed the surface of the character; here viewers saw him in all his loathsome glory. The result was a dazzling comedy tour de force.”
Alan is living, if that is the word, full-time in a bland motel, the Linton Travel Tavern, and working the graveyard shift as a presenter for Radio Norwich. Inevitably, he is desperate to return to the big time and has chosen his place of residence because it is equidistant between Norwich and London.
In episode 1, there is an excruciating lunchtime encounter between Partridge and a BBC TV bigwig. Alan is beyond keen for the executive to rehire him, or are least commission one of his ideas. Monkey tennis, anyone? It is not to be, and the gaffe-splattered lunch ends when Partridge attacks the po-faced BBC boss by threatening him with a large piece of cheese.
Despite his endless insensitivity to virtually everyone he has a conversation with, audiences can’t help feeling at least a smidgen of sympathy for Alan. Baynham, Coogan and Iannucci’s writing is pitch-perfect, as are the performances.
The exchanges between Partridge and his PA, Lynn (Felicity Montagu), are – that word again – grotesque. Lynn, a dowdy, 50-year-old spinster who attends a Baptist church, panders to her boss’s every whim, attempting to win sponsorship deals with local firms for Alan and ensuring he has his medications for his flaking skin and fungal-infected feet.
A nice running gag is the Geordie odd-job man, Michael (Simon Greenall), employed by the motel. His accent is effectively a foreign language to Alan and leads to much incomprehension on the part of our hero.
Series 1 of I’m Alan Partridge was a multi-award winner. Season 2 – by which time Alan was living in a static caravan while his dream home was being built and had acquired a Ukrainian girlfriend – had its merits. But its creators have acknowledged that the series was much harder to write, partly because, by then, Ricky Gervais had shifted the grammar of TV comedy with The Office.
They shouldn’t have worried. Eight years after I’m Alan Partridge ended, he was back in Mid Morning Matters, refreshed by a new writing team. Alan Partridge is nothing if not irrepressible.
I’m Alan Partridge is available on Amazon Prime, ITVX and Now TV.