Wednesday 18 July 2018

Dave Diebold: 'If this was a final goodbye to Alan Partridge, it couldn’t have been a better one'

REVIEW: Alan Partridge: Why, When, Where, How And Whom? (BBC 2)

Steve Coogan as Alan Partridge
Steve Coogan as Alan Partridge

IT MIGHT have been a tough sell, had we been promised we’d feel all warm and nostalgic at the end of last night’s 60-minute 25th anniversary special about one of television’s most seemingly irredeemable characters.

But then plenty of TV’s comic actors have managed to win our hearts with on-screen character creations that have been tactless and inept, from Basil Fawlty to Black Adder, and generations have grown to love them, even if perhaps what we loved most was to watch them digging themselves into a hole and then drowning, invariably, in well-deserved comeuppance.

But another thing these sorts of characters have had in common, other than firmly stamping their mark on the TV-watching cultural conscience, is they became inseparable from their creators.

“This character is going to change your life,” Steve Coogan last night recalled co-writer Patrick Marber telling him in the early days. “People will be shouting ‘aha’ at you from across the street.

“It’s one of those ‘careful what you wish for’ stories,” added Coogan — a refreshingly forthright way to kick off what was billed as a sort of celebratory retrospective.

From the first, we learned, the idea was simply for characters “to say stupid things in as straight a way as possible”, something that clearly became Coogan’s modus operandi, first on radio show On The Hour in which he parodied a generic sports reporter. But he wasn’t entirely convinced at first, we were told, and there was something insightful about him revealing that “Patrick was fascinated by the character in a way that I just wasn’t”.

“I found him to be surly,” recalled co-creator Armando Iannucci of Coogan, who recalled him sitting behind his hand at initial meetings and responding with the occasional disinterested, “uh-huh, yeah, whatever”. “But when he started improvising, it was extraordinary.” They immediately knew they had something special. An ‘aha’ moment if there ever was one. It was 1991.

No one seemed to be able to remember who initially came up with the name. Someone just said: “He’s a Partridge.” Someone else said: “He’s Alan.” From there, what Coogan himself recalled was only supposed to be “something sketchy”, quickly became a fully-fledged character with an entire back story.

“Comedy awkwardness, wanting to look away but being unable to, is commonplace now,” Coogan told us, “but back then, it was something new.” And so on foot of On the Hour came six-part Radio 4 spoof chat show Knowing Me, Knowing You with Alan Partridge — a light entertainment show, described revealingly last night by Coogan as “subverted, but done with affection”.

The character of Partridge “seemed like this old man to us at the time,” Coogan went on to explain, “in his 40s.” Coogan was 26 at the time. Two radio series, five TV series, four specials, two books and one movie later, he’s able to laugh and shake his head about the fact he and all of his co-writers are more than 10 years older now than the character they set out to parody.

As we followed the development of the Partridge persona from radio to TV’s Knowing Me, Knowing You in 1995, which ended with Partridge shooting a guest (the series was subsequently nominated for a BAFTA), we were treated to occasional grainy behind-the-scenes videotape of some of the improvisation sessions, where Coogan would riff with writers and flesh out scripts.

Nice. But even better was the way last night’s documentary makers didn’t roll out the usual raft of rent-a-celebrity talking heads, relying instead wholly on the input of Coogan, his collaborators and the cast of actors from successive series.

Between the requisite clips, there was unexpected honesty, with Marber telling us that when Coogan and Iannucci brought him the script for a Partridge sitcom, as opposed the chat show spoof format up to then, he told them not do it, that it was too gag-heavy and ran the risk of sending their creation off in a direction too far from its roots, but they decided to go for it anyway.

At the end of it all, Coogan told us: “If I had to say goodbye to Alan forever, I’d be genuinely upset. He’s... my friend.” At that, Coogan couldn’t help laughing in a way that seemed to say it all — as though surprised at how emotional he was at this admission. “All that’s left is for me to say goodbye”, he voiced over the last few clips in full Partridge mode as The Who’s ‘Baba O’Riley’ played, “or should I say au revoir”.

If this was what it seemed — a final goodbye to Alan Partridge — it couldn’t have been a better one.

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