Last week, the BBC aired the final episode of “This Time with Alan Partridge,” almost certainly bringing down the curtain on the television career of someone who has been on British screens for the better part of three decades.
From humble beginnings as a sports reporter on BBC Radio, Alan Partridge overcame his inflated ego, his prodigious lack of talent and his inability to avoid calamity. He rose further than his obnoxious mediocrity should ever have allowed, driven by his utterly misguided faith in his own talent.
I would never, of course, write something so mean about a real person. But Alan Partridge is a character, created way back in 1991 by Steve Coogan and Armando Iannucci for “On the Hour,” a spoof news show.
The show was short-lived – only 12 episodes were recorded – but Coogan’s portrayal of the inept and haplessly hilarious sports reporter propelled Partridge to stardom. His lack of knowledge of every sporting discipline (“You must be delighted,” he tells one golfer, “to have more points than anyone else in the competition”) does not deter him. During play-by-play commentary, he screams inanities that sound vaguely like sports terms: “Liquid football!” and “Eat my goal!” have become part of Partridge folklore. Since then, he has starred on radio, television and the big screen; he has written two autobiographies and presented countless documentaries.
From the outset, Partridge was a work of comedic genius. He was instantly recognizable: he was, in equal measure, a parody of the very worst kind of broadcaster and, at the same time, everyman. His pettiness, insecurity and (paradoxical) arrogance came together in an alchemic moment, creating comedy gold.
His longevity is testimony to the loving and responsible way that his creators handled their monster. Throughout his career, Partridge has appeared only in spurts on our screens. Each time we are reintroduced to him, we find a character that has evolved. His creators cleverly brought in new writing talent to keep the character fresh and the care with which they built Partridge’s world is evident in each new incarnation. And there have been many incarnations, as Partridge rose like a bumbling phoenix from the ashes of his own career, only to crash and burn again.
When Partridge got his own radio chat show in 1992, it was totally in character that he would insist that his name was in the title. All his shows have been eponymous, in fact, and his over-repetition of his own name has become signature Partridge. There are Twitter accounts dedicated to humiliating any real-life broadcaster deemed to have pulled an ‘accidental Partridge.’
And – with all the predictability of such a narrow mind – he called it “Knowing Me, Knowing You with Alan Partridge,” taking the Abba song as his theme music and adopting “Aha!” as his catchphrase.
After just six episodes, “Knowing Me, Knowing You” was transferred to television and Partridge became the star he always knew he should be. The move to TV provided Coogan and Iannucci an opportunity to flesh out Partridge, to add to his backstory and to have some fun along the way.
“Knowing Me, Knowing You” ended with Partridge accidentally shooting and killing one of his guests with one of Lord Byron’s dueling pistols, presumably ending his disastrous career once and for all. And sure enough, when we reconnect with him three years later – in “I’m Alan Partridge” – he is in a bad way. He’s been kicked out by his wife, is living in a budget hotel and hosts the graveyard shift on North Norfolk Digital, a regional radio station in England’s rural rump.
By moving out of the studio setting of the previous incarnations of their character, Coogan and Iannucci – who, along with Patrick Marber, are the two constants in Partridge creative team – are able to introduce more characters into Alan’s life. This, in turn, lets viewers see how his artlessness on screen translates into real life. Predictably, Partridge is just as socially inept and blithely boorish in life as he is on screen.
Older, not wiser
After a dozen episodes of “I’m Alan Partridge,” which ended in 2002, the character disappeared from view, aside from a one-off BBC mockumentary called “Anglian Lives: Alan Partridge,” about his life and career.
Then, in 2010, Partridge made his big comeback. “Mid-Morning Matters with Alan Partridge,” a spoof radio show, started out a series of web-only mini episodes, but was quickly snapped up by Sky Atlantic. Again, the creators brought in new characters and writers. Edinburgh Comedy Award-winning writer Tim Key plays ‘Sidekick’ Simon, while twin brothers Neil and Rob Gibbons joined the writing team.
Partridge’s career was on the up again and, despite being involved in many other projects, Coogan and Iannucci found time for Partridge to write his autobiography (“I, Partridge: We Need to Talk About Alan”), another mockumentary (“Alan Partridge: Welcome to the Places of My Life”) and even a feature film (“Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa”).
And then, early this year, Partridge got yet another chance to appear on national television, as the stand-in host of an early-evening current affairs show on the BBC. Older but none-the-wiser, he rampages through the show, leaving a trial of shock and devastation in his wake.
“This Time with Alan Partridge” is the funniest incarnation of the character yet. His painfully obvious efforts to adapt to the times fall flat and his unbridled lust for exposure backfires time after time. Each of the six 30-minute episodes are packed with jokes, from visual gags like guests falling off the edge of the stage to constantly referring on air to his ex-wife as “an awful woman.”
The show combines all the best elements of the Partridge canon: on-screen awkwardness with off-screen pettiness. And, to top it off, there has been an outpouring of creativity from Coogan and the Gibbons twins. The scene in which Partridge meets his Irish doppelganger – who, hilariously, has never heard of Alan and who launches uninvited into a medley of pro-Republican anthems – is one of the funniest Partridge moments ever.
Whether or not we ever see Alan Partridge on our screens again remains to be seen, but experience would seem to teach us that he is as indestructible as he is destructive. Coogan, of course, has a successful movie and TV career, most recently starring alongside John C. Reilly in the delightful “Stan & Ollie,” while Iannucci (who was not involved in “This Time”) is still involved in “Veep” and is about to release his adaptation of Dickens’ “David Copperfield.” Whenever they decide to revisit Partridge, in a year or 10 years from now, I will be watching.