It’s very hard to express joy about Alan Partridge‘s return to our screens without turning into Partridge myself, so let’s just get it out of the way now. Alan’s back. Spice world! Jurassic Park! Dan!
So beloved is Steve Coogan’s comedy creation, who first appeared 30 years ago, that any new material is a huge event and might as well be a national holiday. A second series of This Time with Alan Partridge is here - and, if the first episode is anything to go by, it should keep us all very happy.
It’s a surprise to see Norwich’s most enthusiastic self-promoter back on the sofa – the last series ended with him hauled up to the producer’s office, after his co-host Jennie Gresham found out he’d said she would “suffocate her own grandmother to get on the front cover of the Radio Times”. In the series opener, he’s marking his territory like a terrier who just had a really big drink of water, but he still can’t quite relax. The tension between him and Jennie is high, and there’s a new producer on the show - “a young chap from E4”, warns Alan’s PA Lynn - who wants to make changes, having already jazzed up the theme tune.
Alan’s response to the looming threat is to come up with “a piece of television I’m very proud of... When I thought of the idea, I cried.” He’s planned a segment where two long-lost brothers will be reunited – one has shown up under the false pretence he’s getting a free caravan – and instructs Lynn to set off some languishing glitter cannons when the moment arrives. (You know Alan Partridge has something big up his sleeve when he’s tracked down a glitter cannon.) This set-piece – foiled, of course, much to Alan’s indignation – gloriously sums up all of his ideas about what makes good TV: tyrannically engineering moments of manufactured emotion under duress in order to make himself look good.
The idea to put Alan into a spoof One Show-like magazine show was a genius one. It’s the sort of show that demands the kind of impersonal, efficient blandness that fits exactly with his meaningless telly-speak - “here comes the camera!” he says at one point – but has no room for flab, straining under his relentless stream of anecdotes from the Nineties. There’s a brilliant cameo from Leila Farzad as a body language expert who has to endure her entire appearance being subsumed by his mansplaining. “Sharon, do feel free to jump in at any stage,” he tells her, trotting out woolly expertise from a corporate video he made for Norwich Chamber of Commerce at the end of the Thatcher era.
Thanks to writers Rob and Neil Gibbons, working together with Coogan, the material feels gentler but also more sophisticated and fresh. In This Time, they have brought in a cast of new characters who already feel like part of the Partridge canon, with their dynamics now developing deliciously. As Alan’s co-host, Susannah Fielding gives Jennie just the right level of patient professionalism and subtle, withering disapproval; that she apparently has a sign saying ‘never, ever compromise’ on her dressing room mirror is a perfect insight into her laser-focused high-achieving. Tim Key is consistently a joy as the perpetually flustered Simon Denton, now in a ‘slightly expanded role’ also taking live calls (it goes as well as you’d expect). And there’s Lolly Adefope as Ruth Duggan, relishing being Alan’s ultimate tormentor via live-link, and Simon Barnaby as Sam Chatwin, the posh Dan Snow-like TV historian who now has a travel show and infuriates Alan simply by using the word ‘Michaelmas’, and steamrollers Alan’s long-lost brothers segment by proposing to Jennie. Not to mention returning icon Lynn Benfield (Felicity Montagu), who has just had a new hip fitted and is sniffing around backstage for intel.
After inhabiting a character for such a long time, Coogan is able to give small, niche details that are ridiculous and leave me hysterical. From his little defeated nods whenever Jennie makes a sharp comment just a bit too quickly for him, to the faces he pulls after he realises he’s said something a bit too weird to an interviewee, it’s gold. And why does Alan have a picture of yachtswoman Ellen McArthur in his dressing room? Who did Alan force to edit one segment to make him, just briefly, look like Jesus? There aren’t many characters who could keep us all watching after 30 years, but Alan definitely can. Release the glitter cannons.
This Time with Alan Partridge is on BBC One on Fridays at 9.30pm