The man said it himself: Alan Partridge, beloved dinosaur of TV and radio, does not revolve – he evolves. The nation’s most treasured comedy creation has been played to perfection by Steve Coogan for thirty years, and returns to our screens this week for a second series of This Time (in your face, Tony Hayers). Somehow, the inventor of monkey tennis has managed to stay funny for three whole decades and counting. Where other characters have run out of mileage over time, the man who put Norwich on the map still always manages to hit the back of the net. What makes him so consistent? It can’t just be that his PA Lynn Benfield keeps him organised.
Alan Partridge started life as a dogged sports reporter on Radio 4’s delicious current affairs parody On The Hour, back in 1991. He was a broadcaster who was always comfortable in front of the microphone; mere matters such as not really knowing what he was talking about never held him back. “Lucinda Green: you stayed on your horse all the way round. You must be chuffed!” he says in one early segment. Back then, he had a hint of an Australian accent and talked about groins a lot, but the defining parts of his comedy DNA came to life: his endless ability to fill dead air with nonsense, his barely concealed need to prove his masculinity, a niche curiosity as an interviewer and a unique turn of phrase. “Well, if you think the temperature was a bit hot there, things got even more frosty when it all hotted up… for the boat race,” was another brilliant early line.
Everyone knew it was gold: Patrick Marber, who also appeared on the show in roles such as shambolic economics correspondent Peter O’Hanraha-hanrahan, told Coogan early on: “this character is going to change your life”. When On The Hour graduated to television, retitled The Day Today, Alan got funnier. His football commentary, with lines like “THAT... was a goal”, “liquid football” and “the goalie has got football pie all over his shirt”, is still quoted endlessly today, and his dispatch from the races still makes me cry with laughter. “Not sure what that is… I hope it’s not a dead horse. They’re not gonna fit it in the back of a Volvo 340,” he says over a shot of what is clearly a dead horse under a tarpaulin.
As Partridge grew into a phenomenon and was given his own show, his helmet-like comb-over and fixed grin, shielding the tiniest hint of panic in his eyes, became instantly recognisable. As a child of the nineties, I found him a slightly disturbing figure, having no awareness at the time that he wasn’t a real person. In 1995, the BBC aired Knowing Me Knowing You, a fictional chat show in which Alan had a house band, a live studio audience and an array of trendy guests at his command. In the mind of Alan, this was a career peak that should have secured his place as a British broadcasting legend; the writers, smartly, made this the start of a very public downfall from which he’s been trying to claw back self-respect ever since. It cemented the idea of a helplessly uncool, bouncily enthusiastic and relentlessly self-aggrandising style of male broadcasting into our national consciousness, and added another dynamic to what makes Alan so funny: his collection of petty grudges and the belief that he is always the real victim.
After two series of the sitcom I’m Alan Partridge, written by Coogan, Armando Iannucci and Peter Baynham - where Alan found himself living in a Travelodge, and later a static caravan, doing local radio in the dead hours and saying things like “ruddy hell! It’s Soft Cell” - the character was put on a hiatus. The second series had not been an enjoyable writing process (”I’m haunted by the memory of making the second series,” said Baynham), and Coogan wanted to focus on other projects. That decision to step away was important: it ensured that Alan Partridge wasn’t wheeled out just to satisfy public demand, but used sparingly, when there was a genuine creative desire.
It wasn’t until eight years later that Partridge returned to our screens, for the YouTube series Mid Morning Matters, with Alan hosting a show on North Norfolk Digital alongside ‘Sidekick Simon’ (played by Tim Key). And he had been refreshed thanks to the arrival of new writers, Rob and Neil Gibbons, who intuitively understood how to do Alan Partridge in the 21st century, keeping him relevant without losing his spirit. This collegiate approach is a reminder that, from the very beginning, the character has never belonged to one person alone. Although Coogan inhabits him with such effortless charisma that I sometimes find myself thinking “do I fancy Alan Partridge?”, he was born in a writers room, alongside Marber, Armando Iannucci, Chris Morris and others. In contrast, Ricky Gervais wrote and directed David Brent’s big-screen outing, Life on the Road, on his own; the script suffered from all of his worst writing habits - crude jokes, dated cultural politics and cloying sentimentality.
Alan acquitted himself well in his 2014 big-screen outing, Alpha Papa, a mix of comedy and action film that was closer to Edgar Wright’s Hot Fuzz than the early chat show days, and was all the better for it. Since then, there have been books, mockumentaries on Sky - because if you don’t do it, Sky will - a podcast, and Alan’s prime time regeneration on This Time. Each time, the situation itself becomes part of the comedy. How do you make an Alan Partridge podcast funny? Simply show Alan Partridge trying to work out how to do a podcast. The result was a cross between an absurd, occasionally quite dark stream of consciousness and a parody of Alan’s devotion to product placement.
He’s now become such a part of our cultural language that ‘doing a Partridge’ is the best way to sum up a cringe Middle England-y gaffe. The Accidental Partridge Twitter account, which has 382k followers (and only follows one account - the official Toblerone one), provides live updates of Partridgisms as they happen, and wishes happy birthday to Sue Cook each year. And Alan has a living spirit animal in Richard Madeley, whose GMB zingers have included telling his daughter that she was an accident, on live TV: “sorry Chloe, but you were.”
In our post-Brexit age, it feels like we’ve never lived in a more Partridge-y time. But that makes writing Alan even harder; it has had to reach a new level of sophistication to ensure that a white middle-aged man with a shaky grasp of the zeitgeist doesn’t just sound like a moron - or worse, a villain. Alan is no longer your friend’s cringe Tory dad who channels his masculinity into manning barbecues and buying hi-fi players, but something gentler: a man conscious of cultural and social mores, who wants you to know that he’s conscious of them. Viewers still root for Alan because, at heart, he’s just doing his best - a tangle of finely calibrated dated references and confusion at the modern world. And there’s a bit of Partridge in all of us: desperate to please, trying to bridge the gap between where he is and where he wants to be.
Three decades on, needless to say, he’s had the last laugh. Let’s raise a glass of Blue Nun to Alan, TV’s most relevant irrelevant man. And keep giving him another series… you shit.
This Time with Alan Partridge starts on BBC One this Friday (30 April) at 9.30pm