‘You’re a mentalist!’: what happened when Alan Partridge met his number one fan

Alan Partridge (Steve Coogan) is stunned when he stumbles into his stalker’s shrine-like spare room - BBC
Alan Partridge (Steve Coogan) is stunned when he stumbles into his stalker’s shrine-like spare room - BBC

“Jed, I’ll level with you,” says Alan Partridge. “I’m really scared.” It’s a reasonable response from Alan, who has just stumbled into his stalker’s shrine-like spare room. Alan’s own face is plastered across the walls. A Partridge effigy – a lifeless dummy wearing an Alan Partridge mask – sits slumped in the chair. It’s the décor choice of an Alan-obsessed mentalist: Jed Maxwell. “I’m just a fan,” Jed assures Alan, before whipping off his shirt to reveal a giant Alan Partridge tattoo across his chest and stomach. “It took 14 hours,” beams Jed. “I fainted three times!”

The scene comes from To Kill a Mocking Alan, the fifth episode of I’m Alan Partridge. The sitcom began airing 25 years ago – on November 3 1997. As always, Alan is the architect of his own desperation. He spends the episode trying to impress a pair of Irish TV executives and – too embarrassed to admit that he’s living in the Linton Travel Tavern – takes them to Jed’s house. Pretending that he lives there to save face, Alan unwittingly leads them into Jed’s spare room – a terrifying tribute to all things Alan – revealed to a big laugh as they flick the light switch.

Peter Baynham – who co-wrote the series with Armando Iannucci and Alan himself, Steve Coogan – remembers creating Jed’s room. “We had this whole debate back and forth with the production designer,” says Baynham. “They kept saying, ‘This is ridiculous, you’re going over the top with the number of Alan pictures!’ We kept thinking, ‘No, it’s got to punch you in the face the minute he turns the light on.’ They’d put up a bit more, a bit more, a bit more, and we’d look at it on the monitors. After four or five times, we joined in – sticking Alan pictures up everywhere.”

From a show which revels in the nuances of Alan-ness, the reveal of Jed’s room is one of Alan’s “Del Boy falling through the bar” moments. It’s another disaster amid a personal and professional nadir of I’m Alan Partridge – career on the skids, living in the Travel Tavern, and fruitlessly grasping for that elusive second series.

The sitcom came three years after Alan’s spoof chat show – Knowing Me, Knowing You. The chat show remains an underrated chapter in Partridge history – a meta idea that, as Partridge often does, blurs the line. The audience is real, the character is fictional. Alan, tragically, is the only one who isn’t in on the joke – that he’s a chat show host with appalling people skills. In the story, Alan seals the fate of his chat show’s second series with a couple of live-on-air mishaps: accidentally shooting a guest dead, and later – in his razor-sharp 1995 Christmas special – punching out the chief commissioning editor of BBC Television with a turkey.

Speaking in a 2017 documentary – Alan Partridge: Why, When, Where, How and Whom? – Armando Iannucci recalled telling a (real) BBC executive that they didn’t want to make any more Knowing Me, Knowing You. Instead, they wanted to make an Alan Partridge sitcom. “The man at the BBC just went, ‘Oh God,’” said Iannucci.

There was also resistance from Alan co-creator Patrick Marber, who had departed the Partridge writing team after Knowing Me, Knowing You. Coogan and Iannucci gave Marber a work-in-progress script of the sitcom idea, seeking his approval. “I didn’t give it,” said Marber, speaking on the same documentary. “On the page it seemed to me to be too obviously comedic and a bit of a sitcom, to be honest. It felt a bit jokey to me.” Marber had to admit that he was wrong.

Peter Baynham had gladly joined the Partridge writing team (“I was like Jed. I was a Partridge fan.”). He remembers some trepidation about the more traditional sitcom format. “The debate early on was, ‘Is it selling out to take Alan – this cool creation – and to do a sitcom?’” says Baynham. Though as he points out, the three-camera studio sitcom with audience and laughter track wasn’t yet considered old hat. “At that time there hadn’t been many non-audience sitcoms,” says Baynham. “We just decided to do it in front of an audience. That felt a little bit scary. It could be cheesy, definitely.”

I’m Alan Partridge was part of a generation of comedies that pushed the parameters of what a sitcom was – along with Father Ted, The Royle Family, Phoenix Nights, and The Office. I’m Alan Partridge looks so unlike a studio sitcom, in fact, that one actor who joined later refused to believe it was actually filmed in front of an audience.

“But in a way it’s a classic sitcom setup,” says Baynham. “You trap your character in a specific world. It’s very much a British tradition – putting him as the underdog at the heart of it. We felt it’s almost like he’s in prison at the Travel Tavern, and the staff of the Travel Tavern are his prison guards.”

Alan Partridge (Steve Coogan) tries to impress the Irish TV executives in episode five of I'm Alan Partridge - BBC
Alan Partridge (Steve Coogan) tries to impress the Irish TV executives in episode five of I'm Alan Partridge - BBC

Indeed, if the classic British sitcom is about the tragedy of failed aspiration – characters who aspire to be more than they are, foiled by their own ineptitude and neuroses – I’m Alan Partridge puts that concept inside the Linton Travel Tavern. It’s a bespoke living nightmare for Alan – his lowest ebb made real. The Travel Tavern is handily equidistant between Norwich and London (“that is the genius of its location”), but it’s a sterile, miserable place for Alan to wallow. His only meaningful company comes from his wilfully long-suffering PA Lynn (Felicity Montagu), the hotel “work Geordie” Michael (Simon Greenall), and a signed photo of Jet from Gladiators.

The Travel Tavern staff are there to bear witness to Alan’s daily humiliations, while Alan is haunted by his own mind – a recurring daydream in which he lap-dances for BBC boss Tony Hayers (David Schneider), while Alan wears a peephole pringle sweater.

In series one highlights, Alan forces a hunk of cheese into the face of the Hayers (“Smell my cheese, you mother!”); has a Valentine’s tryst spoiled by chocolate mousse (“Mousse from a bowl is very nice, but to put it on a person is demented!”); and gets so bored that he resorts to traffic cone theft (“Read the small print on your cone-tract”).

The idea for Alan’s stalker may or may not have been inspired by comedian Stewart Lee. “I told the writer of the Alan Partridge TV series about something that had happened to me, then about nine months later I saw it become an episode of Alan Partridge,” said Lee in 2013. “It’s slightly irritating because I was writing comedy at the time and I might have liked to use that story about myself!”

Back in 1993, Lee was locked out of his B&B following a stand-up gig in Nottingham. Someone who’d been in the audience invited Lee to stay at their flat, but when Lee arrived, he found an odd scene: someone was watching animal pornography and the walls of Lee’s designated bedroom were covered in posters of comedians. “Enough of which were me for it to be disturbing,” said Lee. In an amusing coda, the comedy fan who’d invited Lee home was radio DJ Christian O'Connell.

Asked about it on Richard Herring’s RHLSTP podcast, Steve Coogan was surprised at the Stewart Lee story; also on RHLSTP, Peter Baynham remembered the Partridge storyline was already written when he first heard Lee’s story. Though the writers do reference Lee’s story on the I’m Alan Partridge DVD commentary, recorded back in 2002. Coogan also said he was interested in the idea of D-list celebs like Alan having fans.

Ian Sharrock as Partridge's stalker Jed Maxwell in To Kill a Mocking Alan - BBC
Ian Sharrock as Partridge's stalker Jed Maxwell in To Kill a Mocking Alan - BBC

In the episode, Alan hosts an “audience with” type afternoon at the Travel Tavern, with special guest Sue Cook. “It’s basically a TV show that’s not on TV.” Alan is hoping to impress executives from Irish national broadcaster RTE and flog some sun-damaged tie-and-blazer badge combination packs.

Jed Maxwell attends the show, pumping Alan’s hand enthusiastically and agreeing to ask for Alan’s autograph in front of the RTE executives – a cynical ploy by Alan to inflate his celebrity. But even Jed’s fandom is backhanded. “You haven’t lost it, Alan. I don’t care what they say.” Alan doesn’t know that Jed is also a crank caller (“a message from Mr P. Neshead”) and stalks him with a telephoto lens. Jed was played by Ian Sharrock, though the role almost went to Simon Pegg.

The Irish execs were played by Father Ted writers Graham Linehan and Arthur Mathews. Baynham recalls that Linehan and Matthews were stunned by the Partridge writers’ unwieldy scripts of 100-plus pages – the result of lots of improvising.

“We’d take these massive scripts into the rehearsal room and people were freaking out – ‘We’re filming this on Friday! It’s three hours long!’” laughs Baynham. “We’d pare it down and rewrite and put it on its feet and improvise and work around it. Even on recording night we’d be on-set, in the wings. Sometimes between scenes you’d think, ‘S---, I’ve just had an idea!’ You’d occasionally go to Steve and say, ‘What about this?’ That was really down to the wire.”

Baynham recalls “crying with laughter” when they improvised the scene between Partridge and Linehan and Matthews’ execs. Meeting over breakfast, Alan tramples through a barrage of offensive remarks about the Irish: the IRA, the potato famine, “toothless simpletons”, and misinterpreting U2’s Sunday Bloody Sunday. “You’ve got to read all the Sunday papers, the kids are running around, you’ve got to mow the lawn, wash the car, and you think, Sunday, bloody Sunday!”

Realising that he’s lost the room, he’s forced to unleash his gas-like bad breath – the putrid remnant of a still-not-broken-down scotch egg.

'I’m really scared': Jed reveals himself - Youtube
'I’m really scared': Jed reveals himself - Youtube

For the occasional farce of I’m Alan Partridge – having a dead cow chucked on him or piercing his foot on a spike – there are few substitutes for Alan chatting himself into an excruciatingly-awkward spot, through either pig-ignorance or petty-mindedness.

“Alan is seen as being unaware and arrogant,” says Baynham. “I don’t think he is. I think he’s terrified. He just can’t shut himself up. It’s a stream of consciousness. He’ll say too much. I think he knows it. He has a moment in his brain – ‘What did I just say?’ Steve does a little shudder.”

The pleasure of I’m Alan Partridge is its not-so-sweet spot in Alan’s life: he’s drowning in his own failures. But there’s still an edge to Alan – a streak of self-serving spite, of deluded ambition – which makes both his failures and small victories ever sweeter. To Kill a Mocking Alan is certainly a bad day: Sue Cook drops out at the last minute; the RTE executives are unimpressed and abandon him; and he’s soon trapped in a headlock by Jed (“Not my face, I’m doing a photoshoot for Vision Express!”) Alan is forced to make friends with Jed, promising to visit his brother-in-law in Leeds, before scarpering at the first opportunity. “You’re a mentalist!” cries Partridge (one of Alan’s many contributions to English vernacular).

Baynham insists they always had empathy for Alan – it wasn’t just about squeezing him into the most toe-curlingly awful scenarios. “Steve was always the guardian of that, more than me or Armando,” says Baynham. “You’d sometimes come up with ideas and Steve would say, ‘No that’s too much’. He walks that line. It’s a love-hate thing. I think it would be unwatchable if he was nasty. It wouldn’t be fun.”

I’m Alan Partridge won Baftas and British Comedy Awards. It was five years before he returned for the second series, by which time Alan was “bouncing back” and had upgraded to a caravan (AKA the static home). The first series, inside the Linton Travel Tavern, remains the better of them – arguably the most popular of all Alan’s series. Certainly it’s the one that made a generation of men talk with a Partridge-esque cadence. Lovely stuff.

As well as bringing in new writers (current Partridge is written by Steve Coogan and Rob and Neil Gibbons) the genius behind Alan’s longevity is his ever-changing formats, from chat show to sitcom to radio webcam, mockumentary, podcast, books, and his return to TV with The One Show spoof This Time with Alan Partridge. Each new take sees Alan from a different perspective, revealing more of the man. See the 2011 autobiography, I, Partridge, in which Alan retells the Jed Maxwell incident – this time boasting that he fought off Maxwell and “turned his testicles into a couple of b-----k pancakes”.

Over those 25-plus years, Alan has transformed from comedy character to cultural hero – an icon of British awkwardness. With every new perspective, Alan’s failures, foibles, and insecurities become more than pratfalls – they’re a window into his soul.

“I think the longevity is that it’s a brilliant, brilliant character,” says Baynham. “Steve never does the character because he has to. He has so many other things going on. He clearly doesn’t need to do Alan. It’s just an itch that he has to keep scratching. I think he found it early on. It’s a weird channeling of something inside himself.”