James Innes-Smith

The sad demise of Alan Partridge

The sad demise of Alan Partridge
This Time with Alan Partridge, Image: BBC
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One of my favourite Alan Partridge moments — and there have been many — is the now infamous scene from I'm Alan Partridge, where north Norfolk's most beloved DJ — Alan's words not mine — is chased down a remote country track by a psychotic stalker. On reaching a dead end our hero leaps over a fence and lands in one of those awkward forward lunges where in order to avoid tripping over you have to run to catch up with yourself. 

This brief but beautifully realised moment encapsulates everything that made this particular incarnation of Alan Partridge such an excruciating but enjoyable watch. Here we see the cowardly little man desperately trying to maintain a modicum of dignity as his world collapses around him. Indeed British situation comedy has always thrived on this simple but touching premise, think Captain Mainwaring, Harold Steptoe and Basil Fawlty — finickity little men with delusions of grandeur foiled by their own ludicrousness. For the comedy to work the situation has to remain rooted. Remove the man from his prison and the laughter falls away — I say 'man' because male ambition, so often fraught with tragedy, makes for excellent comedy.

Without the tawdriness of a low rent Torquay hotel and the squalor of a Shepherd's Bush slum the pompous Fawlty and intellectually frustrated Steptoe would have had nothing to rail against. And where would the deadpan dreamer Tony Hancock have been without the bland uniformity of suburban East Cheam? Transpose these vulnerable creatures to more salubrious surroundings and they lose the essence of what makes them funny: frustrated ambition. As a viewer, we feel especially cheated and whatever empathy we may have had quickly evaporates. This is why so many of those 1970s sitcom movie spin-offs simply didn’t work; the eccentric staff at Grace Brothers department store for instance completely lost their raison d'être when the writers decided to fly them off to Spain in the 1977 film version of Are You Being Served? Take away the reassuring familiarity of that shoddy shop floor with its polyester-attired mannequins and cardboard lift doors and the characters make no sense. Half the fun was waiting for Mr Humphries's weekly double entendre usually involving a warmed up tape measure and unsuspecting inside leg. We knew the moment was coming but that only made the doubleness of the entendre funnier when it eventually came (fnar). 'Costa Plonka' for all its comic possibilities was simply the wrong setting for David Croft's site-specific characters.

We expect predictability from our comic characters — John Cleese knew this, which is why we rarely encounter Basil outside the stuffy confines of his hotel, a prison from which he can never escape. It's notable that The Simpsons only started to go downhill once these laws of familiarity were broken. Alan Partridge has suffered a similar fate in his second outing as co-presenter of the glossy magazine show satire This Time, based on BBC1's The One Show. Gone are the ill-fitting Pringle jumpers, ghastly Travel Tavern duvet covers and sad petrol station mini-mart and with them the quiet tragedy of dashed hopes.

You have to feel for writers Neil and Rob Gibbons; why wouldn’t Steve Coogan, also credited as a writer, not want to keep reviving his most popular cash cow? Sadly for us, This Time's time and setting is all wrong and we are left with a tepid approximation of what was once a fully rounded character.

It's not entirely the writers' faults; the bleak world that Partridge once inhabited and the sort of mediocre man Coogan so brilliantly encapsulated no longer exist in quite the same way they once did. These days, local DJs, even ones from north Norfolk, are just as savvy as everyone else working in media. No presenter in his forties, however deluded, would be seen dead in a Littlewoods polycotton sweater. And who wears leatherette driving gloves these days? As for that carefully sculpted comb-over, fashion now dictates that any remaining tufts be shorn of their embarrassment. But without these important signifiers the character loses much of his spirit.

Even for those of us who lived through the 1990s, the era seems like another country; a slightly dilapidated shadow of a place where the whiff of 1980s naffness still lingered on through the likes of Terry Wogan and Noel Edmonds. Now that everyone in TV land has embraced irony, personal grooming and acute self-awareness, presenters no longer have the sort of rough-hewn looks and unreconstructed opinions that made Partridge such an endearing character.

This Time's Alan is just another smarmy, over-polished BBC drone in a smart suit. By making him self aware, the writers have killed off any sympathy and affection we might have had. Comments that would have once seemed cringingly embarrassing now sound calculating and cruel. Even his comb-over has lost conviction in its ability to make us laugh, looking increasingly like a normal head of hair. One of the things I loved about the 1990s Partridge were his horsey gravestone teeth — now we have to contend with Coogan's perfectly aligned Hollywood caps, something the real Alan would never have considered much less been able to afford. Indeed the actor's parallel life as a Hollywood B-lister permeates much of his performance — This Time's Partridge is way too cool, languorous and self assured. Gone is the awkward stride of a man with nowhere to go, replaced by Coogan's confident swagger. It's as though the actor has grown increasingly ashamed of the monster he has spawned, especially the more vulnerable, physically unattractive side of Alan. With one eye on his Hollywood career, I suppose it was inevitable that a certain amount of beautifying would take place but it has come at a terrible price.

While watching the first episode of the latest series I felt horribly short-changed. This newly sanitised Partridge would never have asked his assistant Jill, fifty, to go on a date with him to a 'cracking' owl sanctuary. Nor could I imagine him arriving at a funeral wearing a Castrol GTX bomber jacket much less trying to save his career by pitching 'yachting mishaps' as a possible programme idea. But it was these little gems of pathos, idiocy and heartache that gave Alan his humanity. Sadly This Time strips him of all his loveable traits leaving little more than a foil for awkward pauses and embarrassed looks to camera, a tired formula popularised by Ricky Gervais in The Office over 20 years ago. I fear it may be time to put This Time to bed along with the show's increasingly hackneyed star. I doubt there will be much 'Bouncing Back' from this one.

Written byJames Innes-Smith

James Innes-Smith is the author of The Seven Ages of Man — How to Live a Meaningful Life published by Little, Brown out now.

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