Beginners and losers: Alan Partridge ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 19, 2014)

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The drinkin’ I did on my last big gig

Made my voice go low

They said that they liked the ‘younger sound’

When they let me go

-From “W-O-L-D”, by Harry Chapin

Four score and seven years ago (OK…1974) I was a neophyte DJ working the midnight-6am shift at an AM station in Fairbanks, Alaska. The call letters, KFAR, were apropos; this was about as far fucking north as you could live on planet Earth and still have a radio career. I have never forgotten a nugget of wisdom imparted to me by a veteran jock, who, perhaps sensing my Pollyanna enthusiasm , took me aside one day. “You’re still young,” he said with a world-weary sigh, “So I’ll tell you something about small market radio stations, Dennis. There are  two types of people who work here: Beginners, and losers.” I was the beginner, so…I assume he knew of what he spoke.

No character embodies this axiom better than Alan Partridge, the creation of droll English actor-comedian Steve Coogan and writer Armando Iannucci (the comic genius behind the BBC political sitcom The Thick of It). A smarmy, egotistical “program presenter” of middling talent and perennially underwhelming accomplishment, Alan (played by Coogan) nonetheless persists in orbiting about the showbiz peripheral like an angry bee, despite continual failure.

This stalwart refusal to surrender dreams of stardom makes Alan oddly endearing, despite the fact he’s a self-absorbed asshole. UK TV viewers (and Anglophiles like yours truly) have become fixated on following Alan’s ever-downward career trajectory. It began in the mid-90s, with the one-season BBC series Knowing Me, Knowing You, which “documented” the eponymous ill-fated variety program created (and ultimately destroyed) by its prickly, passive-aggressive host.

Several years later, Coogan and Iannucci resurrected the character in I’m Alan Partridge, a two-season series that picks up Alan’s story as he moves back to his hometown of Norwich, in the wake of his humiliating failure as a national TV personality. He has managed to snag the graveyard shift on a local radio station (see paragraph 1) where he spins 80s synth-pop hits for residents of the sleepy little hamlet.

By season 2, he’s living in a trailer with his young Ukrainian girlfriend, picking up whatever gigs he can in between making desperate pitches to stone-faced BBC executives. Whereas Knowing Me Knowing You was more showbiz satire, I’m Alan Partridge has darker tones; Alan emerges more as a figure like John Osborne’s Archie in The Entertainer; or a quietly desperate character from a Ray Davies song. It’s a ‘cringe-comedy’; funny, yet discomfiting  (like Curb Your Enthusiasm).

The most recent chapter of the Alan Partridge saga was parlayed via the 12-episode series, Mid Morning Matters (2010-2011), which finds Alan wearily settling for his career as a radio personality at a small market station, hosting a slightly higher profile air shift on “North Norfolk Digital”. Coogan and Iannucci ease up on the pathos that informed I’m Alan Partridge and go for the belly laughs in this series. And the laughs are plentiful, mostly thanks to Alan’s interaction with fellow staff, particularly “Side-kick Simon” (Tim Key) and Alan’s inability to complete one single interview without somehow offending his guests.

Which brings us to the new feature film  Alan Partridge (released as Alpha Papa in the UK this past fall). In this outing (directed by Declan Lowney and co-written by Coogan, Iannucci, Peter Baynham and twin brothers Rob and Neil Gibbons) we find Alan (Coogan) still ensconced in the air chair at North Norfolk Digital, with Side-kick Simon (Key) covering his flank. Alan is waging his usual charm offensive, with song outros like “You can keep Jesus Christ. That was Neil Diamond…truly the ‘King of the Jews’!” and challenging his listeners to ponder and weigh in on the big questions like, “What is the worst ‘-monger’? Iron, fish, rumor…or war?”

However, it is not business as usual with upper management, who call Alan into a meeting  to inform him North Norfolk Digital is about to be absorbed by a media conglomerate, who want to make some staff cuts. Alan dodges the bullet, but his old pal Pat (Colm Meaney) is not so lucky. The new owners want to pick up younger listeners, and Pat is seen as too stodgy. Pat doesn’t take it so well; he comes back with a gun and takes hostages. Alan becomes the reluctant liaison between Pat and the police in the resulting standoff; hilarity ensues.

I know that may not sound like the setup for a riotous comedy, but it works as such, thanks to the sharp writing, smart direction and deft ensemble work from the cast, right down to the smallest roles. Meaney (a fine actor equally adept at dramatic and comedic roles) plays it fairly straight, lending the film an edge and genuine poignancy at times.

Still, this is ultimately Coogan’s show; he’s inhabited this uniquely weird character over so many years with such commitment that it’s nearly impossible to figure out where Coogan begins and Partridge ends, or vice-versa (not unlike Andy Kaufman and Latka Gravas). But you needn’t ponder that. Your job is to simply sit back and enjoy 90 minutes of laugh therapy…something we could all use.

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