TV Discussion

The Road to This Time With Alan Partridge #1… On the Hour / The Day Today

As This Time With Alan Partridge revs its engine expectantly in the BBC garage, we take a look back at the considerable canon (not a euphemism) of Norwich’s premier broadcaster.

For this first outing, we journey back to Alan’s time as a sports broadcaster…

On The Hour (BBC Radio 4)

On Friday, 9 August 1991 at 11:07pm, the halls of Broadcasting House in London echoed with the cries of its newest son. Weighing in at an already impressive 36 years, the proud wail that burst from his lungs was wry, understated, and not at all like the presenter we’d come to know and love…

“This is Sports Desk, I’m Alan Partridge. Formula 1 driver Nigel Mansell gave up motor racing this week as it’s ‘too dangerous, and anyway’ claims Mansell, ‘I can get the same sensation by sitting in a wind-tunnel with dark glasses on and a paper bag of agitated wasps tied over my head’.”

And with those words, Alan had arrived. BBC Radio 4 was the late-night home to On The Hour, a satirical news and current affairs programme, and this was its first episode. Produced Armando Iannucci and fronted by Chris Morris, the show didn’t so much parody contemporary events as they way they were being presented in the media of the time. If anything, the exaggerated tone of the show feels lessened 27 years later, as it effectively predated the worst excesses of rolling news coverage before they became commonplace. Because the items in each the episode were predominantly fictional, the whole thing feels deceptively modern, and it’s not until a newspaper roundup mentions the Today tabloid that listeners are reminded that this is a comedy time-capsule.

In front of the microphones were Christopher Morris (the only cast member using their own name as a character), Rebecca Front, Doon Mackichan, David Schneider, Patrick Marber, Michael Alexander St. John and of course Steve Coogan. This team provided the array of voices in-and-out of the On The Hour studio, as the format included headline roundups, roving report features, regular focused-segments (environment, sport, ‘Thought For The Day’) and faux-crossover broadcasts with other stations. The exception to these vocal performances came with prank phone calls and interview clips with real-life politicians used out of context for comedic effect.

Like all the best comedy, On The Hour‘s re-visit value comes from the sheer barrage of content squirrelled away in each episode’s 25 minute run-time. As well as the broader jokes, the intricately written scripts hide smaller gags, based on inflection and word-play, which don’t become apparent until the audience listen again. There are few ‘laugh gaps’ in either the performance or editing (indeed, this wasn’t recorded in front of an audience and features no laugh-track), and the rapid pacing of the show, and the deadpan nature of the script can leave the listener skipping a full examination of one joke for fear of missing the setup for the next.

And like all the best satire, this demonstrates that you can say pretty much anything in a serious voice and people won’t analyse it too closely at the time. In addition to the improvisation and workshopping of items prior to editing, Iannucci and Morris also headed up the writing team, with Andrew Glover, Steven Wells (the punk-poet), David Quantick (The Thick Of It), Stewart Lee and Richard Herring (Fist of Fun). The result was an edge that was closer to the content Radio 1 were putting out at the time (albeit without the mild bad language, although try getting an ongoing series of sketches about the ceremonial beheading of Prince Edward past BBC Compliance these days).

But enough of that, we’re here for Alan.

Oddly, Alan Partridge was not the best thing about On The Hour. He was a solid enough recurring character, but in the fast-paced news pastiche, the sport section only lasted for around a minute or two, on average. In some of the episodes we’re treated to two visits to Sports Desk, in others only one.

These sketches vary from short bursts of comedic bulletins to fully produced seasonal reviews and look-forwards, and interviews recorded with athletes and competitors after they’ve come back into the changing rooms. As these are predominantly ‘named’ sportspeople of the time (among others, Graham Gooch, Gabriela Sabatini and Linford Christie), they’re voiced by other cast members, rather than reverse engineered from actual interview clips. This allows for a greater interactivity as Alan repeatedly crosses the red-lines of broadcast, whether it’s demonstrating that he no real idea how individual sports are played, making increasingly inappropriate references to interviewees’ anatomies and enquiries about groin-strain (men and women alike), until at one point he propositions a doubles-team of female badminton champions into having a shower with him (spoiler: they don’t).

And so Alan Partridge was formed. His vocal mannerisms at this point were exactly what Iannucci had in mind, a classic sports reporter / commentator who is never stuck for words, and as a result keeps talking when there’s nothing to say which he barely thinks about either before or after (a trait he also continues when conducting interviews with sporting personalities). In his autobiography, Easily Distracted, Steve Coogan recalls being asked by Armando Iannucci if he could do a generic sports reporter’s voice that wasn’t an impression of anyone specific (at that point, Coogan’s biggest claim to fame was being a regular voice artist on ITV’s Spitting Image).

Alan’s not at ‘BBC radio announcer’ level in his diction (unlike Morris’ presenter character); there’s a touch of a Midlands regional accent, but the listener can never quite pinpoint its origin. His slightly bullish style continued into the TV iteration of On The Hour, although it had all but disappeared by the time Coogan took to BBC2’s plush sofas on our televisions.

The decision was taken by Coogan and Patrick Marber that Alan should be from Norwich, as it wasn’t an overtly comical location ripe for caricature. It’s not in the North, it’s not really in the South, but out in East Anglia, Norwich isn’t really on the way to anywhere and has a slight sense of isolation ‘otherness’. This is a theme which would return with Alan as the years went on. But there’s really little of the Alan we know in here other than his crass insensitivity. His wife is mentioned in one episode as having recently died, then in the next as having been somehow resurrected, but even the name Carol hadn’t been penned at this point, as she’s referred to only as ‘my wife’ and ‘Mrs Partridge’.

On The Hour ran for six, 25 minute episodes in 1991, and returned for a further half dozen in April 1992. Although the show still retains something of a cult status, it’s probably not inaccurate to say it changed the direction of comedy, ushering in a new style which wasn’t quite as abrasive as the alternative-comedy movement, but was far more acerbic than mainstream light entertainment. Alan Partridge went on to host his own radio chat-show the following December (which we’ll cover next time), but his brief as a sports correspondent wasn’t over yet. The small screen beckoned…

The Day Today (BBC2)

And so it came to pass that On The Hour took the path of many a BBC comedy favourite, making its transition from radio to TV. While radio is a perfectly respectable platform (art-form, even) in its own right, it’s also a relatively low cost, fast turnaround testing bench for the feel of a project and its development viability. And while Armando Iannucci and Chris Morris had made good headway taking potshots at current affairs media on the wireless, transferring their satire to TV would be like giving them a loaded machine gun…

The first episode of The Day Today aired on 19 January 1994 at 9pm on BBC2. Fronted once again by Morris, the programme is presented from a low-lit, stark and spacious studio with each feature item as short and punchy as it is surreal. Our anchor frequently hands over to other presenters in the studio, but they’re rarely captured in the same shot together, lending a tone of isolation to the already deadpan comedy (again, there’s no studio audience or laugh-track for this). The feeling is increased whenever Morris throws to a VT or outside-broadcast segment which also features him in another guise, underlining the conceit of pre-recorded segments interwoven to give the impression of live television.

With the writing now being produced for visual consumption, The Day Today‘s focus is more on news broadcast media than the ‘magazine’ format of its radio forebear. This weightier tone means that Morris can really dial-up the unlikeable traits of his on-screen persona, and his bullying and flirting with co-presenters are uneasy in equal measure. This is absolutely intentional of course, and it’s watching Morris appear as other supporting characters across the series that highlights what a hugely capable performer he is.

The show has become infamous for its overblown graphics. While outlandishly perfect at the time, they’re an aspect which perhaps hasn’t aged as well as the overall format itself. But on a far more subtle level, the segments featuring mock-vintage and US-cable footage are outstanding, both visually and audibly.

While there are no direct repetitions, several gags from On The Hour have been ported over and adapted/expanded for the screen, including a recurring sketch about a serial killer on death row (‘Daimler Jeffries’ on the radio, ‘Chapman Baxter’ on TV) which always ends with the convict’s prolonged yelling off-camera as he’s electrocuted in bizarre ways during reporter Barbara Wintergreen’s signoff.

But enough of that, we’re here for Alan.

As before, our hero makes his low-fanfare entrance around seven minutes into the first broadcast, as Morris throws almost casually to the sport.

“Sport now with Alan Partridge, and Alan you’re a keen fan of the law, aren’t you?”
~”I certainly am, I support the law fully, erm, not too keen on those that break it though!”
“How do you support it, then?”
~”…just generally, support it.”
“What, generally turn up on a Saturday afternoon and wave from the touchlines?”
~”…huh…wha… This is Sports Desk, I’m Alan Partridge.”

It’s this fractious relationship which defines Partridge’s TV debut in The Day Today. He’s clearly aspiring to be ‘A Sports Anchor’ above developing his own style (or better still, Alan somehow thinks the generic David Coleman/Des Lynam presentation is his own style). And it’s one of the very few angles of pathos we get as Morris subjects him to flippant, passive-aggressive bullying on camera. Alan’s a man who’s managed to achieve the very thing he’s been striving for, yet still finds himself out of his depth. Sometimes it appears he knows this, sometimes quite the opposite.

Although Alan is still sportscasting here, his voice is more ‘classic Partridge’ by this point, the character having been honed through his radio chat show (don’t worry, we’ll come to that). The only real disconnect is that Steve Coogan was born in 1965, and in early 1994 looks great for his 28 years. By the time Partridge appeared on TV, it had already been written that he’d been born a decade earlier, aspirant gravitas dictating that Alan is the product of a slightly earlier time. Coogan looks too young for the part (hence the prosthetics in later series), putting more pressure on his performance to sell the role.

So as with the rest of the show, the move to TV means this character has more room to breathe and more theatrical toys to play with. Shorter bulletins presented from the in-studio desk segue into commentary over actual sports-footage as Alan gives us an insight into his relentless internal monologue. This is opened more widely as he strolls across the studio at one point to demonstrate a huge and needlessly complicated “soccer-meter”, explaining the group stages and locations of the 1994 USA World Cup with a floor-chart, partially unlabelled location pointers and requiring two different camera angles. It’s beautiful floundering.

The fast pace of horse racing footage is the perfect platform for Coogan’s improvisation skills, his rambling interspersed with outlandish names for each participant, all utterly ridiculous yet still within the realms of real-world possibility. And as Alan runs the full gamut of sports in an attempt to sell himself as an all-rounder, it’s these excitable talk-tracks which have gifted us some classic Partridgian exclamations. Most notably “Eat my goal!” and “Twat! That was liquid football!”.

These sketches are rounded out with Alan’s outside-broadcast VT pieces, whether it’s delivering a to-camera piece in the pouring rain at a racecourse, or thoroughly patronising “lady rally driver” Susie Herper and then being thoroughly terrified as he sits in the passenger seat during a lap of the circuit.

All that’s left is for Alan to present an in-studio item about self defence during the final episode which involves him quickly being put into a headlock, and the audience has the full measure of their new favourite sports presenter.

The Day Today ran for six weekly episodes, after which Chris Morris went on to create Brass Eye and Jam. Steve Coogan, Armando Iannucci and the On The Hour team continued to work ensuring (among other things) Partridge’s legacy.

Join us next time as Alan swaps sport for chat, and finds himself as ill-at-ease on the sofa as he was behind a studio desk…

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