Steve Coogan is back as Alan Partridge but frankly who cares? Like Ali G, I’ve long thought, he’s one of those ‘classic’ 1990s comedy characters funnier in recollection than ever he was in reality. He should have been confined to brief sketches — like Paul Whitehouse and Harry Enfield mostly did with their cheesy has-been DJs Smashie and Nicey — not cruelly exposed in endless TV series where you’ve got the joke in the first five minutes and the rest is pure cringe.
Actually, though, This Time with Alan Partridge (BBC1, Mondays) is genuinely funny, clever and enjoyable because finally he has scriptwriters who don’t hate him. For his original writers — Patrick Marber, Armando Iannucci and Peter Baynham — Partridge was little more than a spitoon in which to hawk all their metropolitan liberal prejudices about parochial, clumsy, racist, sexist Little England. As proper, successful, high-minded talents in grown-up TV and theatre, they looked down on Partridge, a loser in mere local radio who voted — ew — Tory. So there was never a need to understand him; he was there purely to be tortured like some disabled kid who has got it coming because he’s wearing a Maga hat.
The Marber and Iannucci approach to Partridge, Coogan told last year’s Edinburgh Television Festival, felt ‘a bit like pulling wings off an insect. It was fun but quite cruel’. But his new writers — Cheshire brothers Rob and Neil Gibbons, who’ve been developing the character since 2012 — have a much more sympathetic approach. ‘Although he’s a fool, they don’t want him to be destroyed, they don’t want him to fail completely. He’s well intentioned even if he’s wrong.’
This gives Coogan much more leeway to show off his acting talents. When Partridge becomes weirdly aroused by the sight of one of his studio guests soaping her slender hands in a public information video, the camera catches his tortured, pleading expression as he wrestles with his almost insuperable urge to say or do something excruciatingly embarrassing. There’s broad humour, there, yes, but also pathos.
Human events have been kind to Partridge too. Where once he looked like a dinosaur, the age of #MeToo, the ‘gender pay gap’ and all things ‘woke’ has transformed him from boorish reactionary into a sort of accidental hero. Certainly, when in this series Alan lands his new temporary role co-hosting a frothy magazine show (resembling the BBC’s The One Show), it’s him you’re rooting for and not his slick, ruthless, supremely professional co-host Jennie Gresham (Susannah Fielding).
Partridge’s tragedy — which many of those of us who’ve grown up with him will share — is that he’s a middle-aged man desperately trying to stay relevant in a shallow, youth-driven media culture whose values he can but barely comprehend.
There’s a wonderful scene where one of the female guests has made a documentary — Ice Pups — about leopard seals, including a delightful baby called Silas. Partridge tries to show off his knowledge that this species are vicious killers: ‘Teeth like daggers, top speed of 20 knots — a German U-boat commander would kill for velocity like that…’
But all the women want to do is gush about how cute the seals are. So Partridge desperately tries to readjust his position —inevitably straying too far in the opposite direction. Partridge (attempting a winsome voice): ‘You almost want to give them a name.’ Wildlife presenter: ‘This one’s called Silas.’ Partridge: ‘Yes a better one, though. Like Richard.’
I don’t think I’ve ever seen Coogan better or Partridge funnier. The character is more rounded and involving but still endearingly silly and oh-God-did-he-really-just-say-that? My favourite line is the one where Partridge introduces a guest as Alice Clunt. ‘It’s Alice Fluck,’ the guest corrects him. Partridge, muttering to himself as he studies his notes on a clipboard: ‘Right. I see what I’ve done…’
Still, I suspect this series only got past TV’s relentlessly PC comedy gatekeepers because Partridge is an established brand. There’s no way it would have made it otherwise because it doesn’t push any of the approved minority/diversity buttons.
Unlike, say, the BBC Three comedy series Jerk in which American comic Tim Renkow plays more or less himself — a cerebral palsy sufferer called Tim, who can’t resist exploiting his extreme disability by behaving at all times like a complete ‘asshole’. In episode one, he lands a job at a greetings card company and — suspecting he only has it because he ticks the correct victimhood boxes — he behaves appallingly, as though he were a superhero whose special power is that he is completely unsackable.
Renkow is likeable, the set-up is distinctive, and there are more than enough funny moments to keep you watching. Even so, I wish it had pushed its satirical takedown of our victimhood culture — what the US black conservative activist Candace Owens calls the ‘oppression Olympics’ — a bit more mercilessly. As it is, you do feel at times as though it’s not a show designed to be watched on its merits, but rather as a state-approved lesson in how to empathise with the marginalised.