This Time with Alan Partridge - his long-awaited BBC TV 'comeback' is riotously funny
Creating an iconic comic character sometimes exacts a heavy toll. Harry H Corbett, a serious-minded actor and a follower of the Stanislavski system who in the late 1950s and early 60s was feted as Britain’s answer to Marlon Brando, could never escape from the shadow of Harold Steptoe.
When Corbett, who earned great acclaim in Shakespearean roles early in his career, played Hamlet in 1970, he complained that theatregoers and even critics couldn’t (or perhaps wouldn’t) take him seriously. Steptoe and Son made him a big star, but it destroyed his serious acting career.
Modern audiences are more open-minded and accepting when performers choose to change direction, yet an iconic character can still be tough to shake off.
Even though Rowan Atkinson underplayed commendably as wily, ruminative French detective Maigret in four ITV specials in 2016/17, a little part of you kept expecting Edmund Blackadder or Mr Bean to come bursting through at any second.
No matter what part John Cleese plays or however well he plays it, whether it’s the romantic lead in A Fish Called Wanda, the conspicuously English sheriff in Western Silverado or the cheery retiree in vapid BBC sitcom Hold the Sunset, in a corner of the viewer’s mind Basil Fawlty is always lurking, just waiting for the right moment to break into a goose-step.
It’s not the actors’ fault; it’s just that the characters they’ve created are simply so brilliant, so vividly drawn, they leave an indelible impression on the public’s memory.
Nobody can say Steve Coogan has been typecast. His acting career, particularly in the past 15 years or so, from 24 Hour Party People through The Trip and Philomena right up to his superb performance as Stan Laurel in the delightful Stan & Ollie, has been too rich and varied for that to happen.
In a way, this is astonishing, because in Alan Partridge, Coogan created one of the all-time great comedy characters.
Having made his debut in 1991 on BBC Radio 4’s spoof current affairs show On the Hour, the Alan we know and love seemed to burst, fully-formed, in all his glorious naffness and monumental ignorance and ineptitude, on to television in 1994’s The Day Today, which was quickly followed the same year by chat show parody Knowing Me, Knowing You.
If would have been perfectly understandable if Coogan had retired the character after I’m Alan Partridge. Over the course of its two series (one in 1997, the other in 2002), it hit the summit of comedy brilliance. Every one of its 12 episodes was a gold-plated, eminently quotable classic.
Rather than trying to escape Alan, Coogan embraced him and expanded his world. Since 2010, we’ve had the YouTube shorts (later shown on Sky Atlantic) Mid-Morning Matters, co-written with brothers Neil and Rob Gibbons, who have worked on every Partridge project since; the hilarious spoof memoirs I, Partridge and Nomad; the hit film Alpha Papa and the Sky mockumentaries Scissored Isle and Welcome to the Places of My Life.
Alan Partridge just emailed everyone in the BBC. pic.twitter.com/DM3POwgIDu— Tim Johns (@timoncheese) February 25, 2019
Most characters would have been exhausted of all possibilities after 28 years on the go, but Coogan and co-writers the Dobbs brothers and Peter Beyham have struck comic paydirt yet again with This Time with Alan Partridge, starting on BBC1 tonight.
Alan is back in the big time and back at the BBC, but more cluelessly adrift in the social media age than ever.
He’s the catastrophic stand-in co-host on This Time, a live (uh-oh) magazine show that’s a whole lot like The One Show. He’s sharing the sofa and tussling for supremacy with regular co-host Jennie Grisham (Susannah Fielding, a perfect foil). Familiar faces pop up too.
I’m not going to spoil your pleasure; all I’ll say is it’s riotously funny, some of the best class-A Partridge you’ll ever see, plucked from the very top branch of the pear tree.
This Time with Alan Partridge airs on BBC1 at 9.30pm on Mondays.