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.