Knowing me, a-ha: Alan Partridge's nearest and not-so-dearest pay tribute
FOR the past 15 years, former Goodie and fervent bird-watcher Bill Oddie has had something of a cross to bear.
He has found himself the butt of a running gag on a seminal comedy show featuring Alan Partridge.
Across the two series of I'm Alan Partridge (1997 and 2002, respectively), and more recently on 2010's Mid Morning Matters, Partridge has repeatedly name-checked Oddie, citing the nature-lover as, alongside former Crimewatch presenter Sue Cook, one of his few remaining celebrity friends. But, Partridge being Partridge, he portrays him less as a confidant than an annoyance, claiming Oddie perpetually leaves messages for him (ignored) and inundates him with often ill-advised gifts.
Only fleetingly has he said something positive about the man. In his 2011 autobiography, for example, I, Partridge: We Need to Talk About Alan, Oddie is praised for teaching him, "how to remain still for long periods of time and go completely undetected in undergrowth and shrubbery" – a skill Alan employs to spy on his wife Carol, whom he rightly suspects of cheating on him with "a narcissistic sports pimp".
I contact Oddie to ask how he feels about this. His response is swift. "Anything I can do to discredit the idea that I have even heard of Mr Partridge, let alone befriended him, is most welcome," he writes in an email, encouraging me to call. I do. He's great fun as I quiz him further on what it's like to be cast as the irritant's irritant.
Laughing uproariously, he says: "Do you know, a good number of people have asked the very same thing! But why should I be upset about it? Some have suggested he is setting me up, but I don't think he is, actually." He pauses, as if only now reconsidering. "And even if he were, well, it's a compliment. Partridge is a good act."
Still, he was curious about the repeated references, so Oddie wrote to Partridge's alter ego, Steve Coogan, to find out his motives. "I wrote twice, in fact." And what was the response? "There wasn't one! Bloody typical, eh? When you call his bluff, Alan is not there to respond. I suppose he thinks he's staying in character…"
Steve Coogan has stayed in character as Alan Partridge, on and off, for 22 years now. Long after most comedy creations have been kicked into touch, and consigned to Dave for an eternity of repeats, Partridge lives on. His appeal says much about the collective British taste in comedy, that we like our small-screen heroes full of unpleasant foibles. When I speak to Felicity Montagu (Partridge's long-suffering assistant, Lynn), she tells me there is something appealing about "being in such a failed world".
Lisa Moore – who runs the Comedy Practices degree at the University of Salford, suggests that Partridge, or rather Coogan and his co-creator Armando Iannucci, are cleverly perpetuating something the 19th-century writer Edgar Allan Poe encapsulated in an essay entitled "The Imp of the Perverse". "It's the urge to do that which you know you should not do," Moore says. "Alan simply never stops. He is the buffoon's buffoon. But the character resonates because there is probably a little of the imp in all of us."
Oddie's reading is more succinct. "He's the ultimate sad fucker, isn't he?"
Early next month sees the release of "Alan Partridge, The Movie", which, after going through several mooted titles – among them "Colossal Velocity", "Live and Let Die with Alan Partridge" and even "Alan Partridge: Shitstorm" – goes by the name Alpha Papa. The plot is a loose reworking of Dog Day Afternoon, the 1975 siege-gone-wrong drama starring Al Pacino, re-imagined and recast in East Anglia, with fewer weapons, and no Pacino.
Partridge, now 57, is still ensconced at North Norfolk Digital, but the station has been swallowed by a larger company, which promptly enforces mass redundancies. One of the DJs let go, played by Colm Meaney, snaps, brings a shotgun to the studio and holds several people hostage. Partridge immediately spies an opportunity for national exposure, something he has been cruelly denied of late, and becomes, capital N, the Negotiator.
At the time of writing, there were no press screenings available, merely the trailer online. This is not, insists the film's producer Kevin Loader, because its makers are fearing a mauling from the critics – classic TV shows rarely make the transition to cinema smoothly – but simply because of a crazy timetable. "We're still in post-production," he says, "but we are all very pleased with it. I must have seen it a million times now, and I'm still laughing."
This last-minute frenzy, it transpires, is typical of the Partridge process. It's always tortured, and the film script was rewritten so many times they lost count. "Partridge is a lot of very hard work," Armando Iannucci will tell me. "It's the attention to detail, the angst over every word. In many ways, it's the hardest work we've done as writers."
However the reviewers greet it, the film seems likely to be the comedy hit of the summer. Partridge's second, if not third – or seventh – wind is largely down to its two new writers, twins Neil and Rob Gibbons, 36, both comparative newcomers to comedy. Picked up by Coogan's production company Baby Cow a few years ago, they co-wrote Mid Morning Matters, which started out as a series of 15-minute YouTube videos before transferring to Sky Atlantic, and also crafted Partridge's autobiography – a bestseller that fellow comedian David Baddiel suggested, with an entirely straight face, "should be nominated for the Booker", so postmodernly clever was it.
"It's all been a bit daunting, really," Neil Gibbons admits. "Ideally when you get your big break, you want to be the sole authors, so no one else can tell you that you got it wrong. But there was a real sense of standing on the shoulders of giants here, and a very high chance that we would fuck it up."
Acutely aware of this, he and his brother have shown portions of the film to friends. It is with great relief in his voice that he says, "And they laughed long and loud."
Alan Partridge made his debut broadcast to the nation in 1991 on Radio 4's On the Hour, a show whose fertile pool of writers and performers – Iannucci alongside Chris Morris, Rebecca Front, Peter Baynham, Patrick Marber – would go on to redefine the British comedy landscape. Two years later, the format transferred to television as The Day Today, a merciless satire on the modern TV news format. Partridge was its fledgling sports reporter, genial if somewhat dim. His unwitting speciality was the sort of slip-of-the-tongue that would seem wildly improbable of professional broadcasters had not so many of them – and John Inverdale is merely the latest – proved that they each perpetually teeter on the highwire of political incorrectness.
On a show overflowing with brilliant caricatures, it was Partridge that shone brightest.
David Schneider, part of the original On the Hour team, recalls his early genesis. "My memories of Alan's birth are of us all sat around a table, discussing him endlessly, and working out every last detail," he says. He explains that it was first suggested that Partridge hail from Milton Keynes, but that Milton Keynes was too obvious. The key to Partridge, even early on, was subtlety, and a determined avoidance of the cheap laugh. Norwich had more finesse than Milton Keynes. A similar example lies in the names of his two children, Fernando and Denise.
"They could have called them Fernando and Chiquitita, but again that wouldn't have worked." By having her called Denise, the viewer immediately conjures the marital arguments this must have caused – how his wife's ultimate good sense beat out Alan's eternally flimsy grasp of the exotic. "Alan always was irritating, but he was not two-dimensional," Schneider says. "He's a complex character; that's why he's endured."
By the time The Day Today came along, Steve Coogan was already established as one of our most promising comedy performers, a regular impressionist on Spitting Image, and a Perrier Award winner for his stand-up. But it was Partridge that would make him a comedy legend, and where Basil Fawlty before him, and David Brent after, would bow out early to preserve their immortality, Partridge continued, albeit in deliberate bite-sized chunks.
His ill-fated chat show, Knowing Me, Knowing You with Alan Partridge, ran between 1994 and 1995 before being cancelled. In 1997, he was on his uppers in I'm Alan Partridge, living in a travel tavern "equidistant", as he had it, between London and Norwich, and desperate to get back on to mainstream television. By 2002, he was resigned to his fate as a presenter on Radio Norwich, and eight years later he found himself compartmentalised further still on a digital station, whose scope was limited to a tiny corner of his native Norfolk.
Coogan himself, meanwhile, seemed to have a complicated relationship with his most famous character, often at pains to distance himself from anything Alan-related. His private life became a colourful one, for which the tabloids were endlessly grateful, and he went to Hollywood in search of a level of fame that was ultimately denied him but afforded to his bastard offspring Ricky Gervais instead. (When asked whether he was jealous of Gervais, Coogan replied: "Obviously I'd like an Emmy, a Golden Globe. He's got them; I haven't.") If his Hollywood output has been patchy – and 2004's Around the World in 80 Days very much so – then his British films, particularly 24 Hour Party People (2002) and A Cock and Bull Story (2005), have much to recommend them. His small-screen efforts, particularly Saxondale (2006) and The Trip, alongside Rob Brydon (2010), have been very nearly, if not quite, Partridge's equal. And he was terrific in the Leveson Inquiry, raging against tabloid excesses.
Comedy overlord Armando Iannucci once said of the second series of I'm Alan Partridge that it was "terrible". He smiles when I bring this up now. It's early morning when we speak, before eight. He is in New York on HBO business, and has been up since 4.30am due to jetlag and, one suspects, his work ethic.
"Ah yes, well…" he says of his Partridge slur. "Calling it 'terrible' may have been an overreaction, but it's just that we felt we got the first series so right, so there was a lot of expectation for the second. The process of making it was much tougher. In retrospect, maybe we thought about it a little too hard."
No wonder they returned to him only sparingly. It was Coogan himself, Iannucci suggests, who got the ball rolling on Mid Morning Matters, the success of which then prompted the autobiography, and now Alpha Papa. "After doing Alan, Steve always wants to do something completely different," he says. "But being judged alongside the likes of Monty Python is obviously great, and Steve is clearly very proud of that."
Film wrapped, they are now ready to go their separate ways again, Iannucci to the glorious Veep and beyond; Coogan co-writing and starring in Philomena alongside Dame Judi Dench, the true story of a girl in 1950s Ireland whose baby was "sold" by the church to America. So might Alpha Papa prove their Partridge swansong? Iannucci chuckles. "No, no. I think that, like James Bond, he will always be back. And the older he gets, the more possibilities we have to run with. That great middle-aged splodge," he muses, "really suits Alan, don't you think?"
'Alpha Papa' is in cinemas from 7 August
Nick Duerden, Independent.co.uk