I’m Alan Partridge is 25 years old – isn’t it about time we finally let Steve Coogan’s alter-ego die?

A-ha: Steve Coogan as the vainglorious Norwich DJ Alan Partridge in ‘I’m Alan Partridge’   (BBC)
A-ha: Steve Coogan as the vainglorious Norwich DJ Alan Partridge in ‘I’m Alan Partridge’ (BBC)

Back in the early 2000s, it seemed like Steve Coogan might kill off Alan Partridge. He’d spent a decade playing the hubristic Norwich broadcaster in TV and radio projects like On the Hour, The Day Today and Knowing Me Knowing You, culminating in a second series of BBC sitcom I’m Alan Partridge. The series had brought him two Baftas, but Coogan would later admit that there was a time he considered the character to be an “albatross” around his neck. But 20 years later – after numerous TV series, a feature film, a book deal, a podcast, and two live shows – the idea of Partridge simply disappearing in the early Noughties is impossible to imagine. The character has become Coogan’s life’s work. Far from an albatross, he’s become an inseparable part of Coogan’s identity – like Rod Hull and Emu, if Emu was surgically grafted onto Rod Hull’s face.

And yet, for many Partridge fans, I’m Alan Partridge still represents the character’s apex, even after all these years. (The first episode of I’m Alan Partridge aired on the BBC 25 years ago today.) Many of the mimetic, endlessly parroted Partridge lines originate from within the series’ 12 episodes. Without I’m Alan Partridge there would be no “Dan!”. No “Monkey tennis”. No “Best of the Beatles”. But – can I just shock you? – maybe Coogan really should have done away with his alter-ego back in 2002.

The fact is, Alan Partridge has started to outlive his sell-by date. This was always part of the joke, of course – he was a man who wore his desperation on his sleeve, chasing after relevance like it had stolen his watch. There’s no doubting Partridge’s brilliance as a satire of British buffoonery and small-mindedness, but there was always a specificness to Partridge that made him more than just a two-dimensional caricature. His tirade against local farmers. His affection for Longstanton Spice Museum. But England has changed significantly over the past 20 years, and the satire underlying Partridge hasn’t always kept pace.

Since the days of I’m Alan Partridge, the country has become unprecedentedly polarised; years of economic hardship, political upheaval, infrastructure collapse and cultural resentments have left the UK in a radically different place. Can the social commentary of Alan Partridge ever hope to reflect this? Partridge’s latest TV outing, the two-series One Show send-up This Time with Alan Partridge, is more or less a re-skinned version of Knowing Me Knowing You, with a few contemporary jokes about social media and #MeToo thrown in for good measure. Even its biggest fans would surely concede the segments are a little hit-and-miss.

While web series Mid Morning Matters was a wonderful revitalisation of the character – for my money, the tightest and funniest Partridge has ever been – it was followed with a deluge of other projects. It’s inevitable that returns would diminish. The protracted fluctuations of Partridge’s fictional career also started to impinge on the joke: why would a man who was languishing in the doldrums of a North Norfolk radio booth suddenly land a plum BBC One TV gig? By the time it came to his stadium-filling live tour (which I found painful to watch at times), it’s hard to say exactly what “Alan Partridge” is even supposed to be anymore.

But the problem isn’t just with Partridge himself – it’s everything that comes with him. The devotees. The endless impressions. The “accidental Partridge” accounts on social media. Often, pages like this wind up missing the whole point. Of course Richard Madeley tends to “go all Alan Partridge” from time to time: it’s presenters like him that Coogan was lampooning in the first place.

It’s not like Coogan wouldn’t have other things to be getting on with when he does lay Partridge to rest. Whether it’s through the self-parodic comedy series The Trip, feature films like the Oscar-nominated Philomena, or TV dramas such as the forthcoming Jimmy Savile series The Reckoning, Coogan has established himself as a respectable dramatic actor and writer outside of the world of Partridge. He wouldn’t want for opportunities. But at this point, there may be no stopping Partridge. The character is approaching the kind of venerated “national treasure” status afforded to real-life broadcasting icons. Thirty years on the BBC will do that to you – but it strikes a rather discordant note with the third-rate no-hoper his character is meant to be.

Coogan as Partridge on the brilliant ‘Mid Morning Matters’ (Sky)
Coogan as Partridge on the brilliant ‘Mid Morning Matters’ (Sky)

I’m Alan Partridge feels like it’s from a whole other era, a time before the internet took hold of the world. The type of man that Partridge is parodying – a car-loving, James Bond-watching military fantasist – still exists, of course, but the satire no longer speaks to our socio-political reality. People like Partridge are, fortunately, no longer the dominant cultural voice. What is mocking them really achieving? It’s clear Coogan has too much affection for the character to ever really go for the head shot; eventually, Partridge is almost always re-framed as a sympathetic fool. But in a world where the real Alan Partridges are out there voting for Nigel Farage and rallying against “wokeness”, this soft touch doesn’t cut it anymore. To really satirise Britain in 2022, things would have to get a whole lot uglier.