Sunday 24 March 2019

David Quantick: 'Alan Partridge emerges from the fringe as a perfect Winston Churchill for Brexit age'

Aha!: The colossus of light current affairs Alan Partridge returns to the big time with Jennie (Susannah Fielding) on the BBC. Photo: Colin Hutton
Aha!: The colossus of light current affairs Alan Partridge returns to the big time with Jennie (Susannah Fielding) on the BBC. Photo: Colin Hutton

David Quantick

One of the points made in the hilarious recent debate about whether Winston Churchill was a good man or not was that, like him or not, Winston was a man who was in the right place at the right time: regardless of his past mistakes, Churchill was there when Britain needed him. And it is the same with another British hero, Alan Partridge.

For more than a quarter of a century, Partridge - like Churchill between the wars - had been a marginalised figure. His errors, while not quite like the enormity of Gallipoli, had seen Partridge pushed further and further towards the fringes of his industry.

When we last saw him, he was presenting a show on North Norfolk Digital radio, not so much a footnote to history as a footnote to an appendix to a deleted scene from history.

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But, like the British bulldog he always seemed to be, Partridge has risen from the ashes of his career, and now returns to our screens - at a time when, some argue, the UK most needs him - as guest presenter on the admittedly fictional BBC1 magazine show 'This Time'.

The reason that this seems to be Alan's moment - that the times and the man have moved together with an almost carnal simplicity - is of course Brexit. There is nobody more representative of these times than Partridge, a man whose views chime with those of 52pc of the British population who voted Leave in the 2016 referendum.

Alan and Brexit go together like Churchill and Toby jugs: politically, aesthetically and, to some extent, morally. Like Nigel Farage, Alan loathes Europe. Like Farage, he has had sex with European women. And like Farage, Alan knows that a blazer and a jumble of Anglo-centric phrases are all you need to make it in Britain.

Partridge has rarely discussed his views on Brexit itself, but they would arguably reflect his personality - frequently out of his depth, Alan relies on bluster and misdirection to avoid complex arguments. His love for Britain is like his love for cars: it's not about efficiency or ecological soundness - it's about the leather on the seats, the walnut on the dashboard and the reassuring sound of a bland FM radio station pumping out the hits of yesteryear. A driving glove smashing into a human face forever.

I first encountered Alan in 1991 when I was asked, with my writing partner Steven Wells, to contribute to 'On The Hour', Armando Iannucci and Chris Morris's first collaboration and the show that became the foundation of pretty much anything good in the next 25 years. In those days Alan, played by a younger Steve Coogan, knew his place: he was a sports reporter, locked in a frankly abusive relationship with Morris's patrician host, who subjected him to abruptly barked humiliations. On 'The Day Today', I watched as Alan developed into something more rounded, and went from strength to incompetent strength over the years.

And while Alan Partridge shares with other great British sitcom anti-heroes - Fawlty, Brent, Meldrew, even Mainwaring - that shabby lower middle-class sense of failed aspiration, it's hard to think of any other character who's been as superbly sustained.

Changing teams of writers over the years have ensured that Alan remains contemporary. He resembles not so much Churchill in this respect but rather Madonna, who also surrounded herself with younger writers and producers to keep relevant to the times.

The Alan Partridge of the modern era is written by Neil and Rob Gibbons, who draw brilliantly both on his past and their own ideas on how he should progress, further rounding out the character into arguably his greatest incarnation. They were responsible for Partridge's forays into the big (well, bigger) time: the movie 'Alpha Papa' and the documentary 'Scissored Isle', and now they are the men behind 'This Time', a series which promises to be more than a parody of early evening magazine shows.

Cometh the hour, cometh the man: this is Alan Partridge's world, and we just live in it (provided our papers are in order). There is no figure more suited to these desperate, divided times, and for once we can hope against hope that Alan will for once snatch victory from the jaws of humiliation. This time, indeed. (© Independent News Service)

David Quantick's comic novel 'Go West' is out now from Unbound

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