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 second outing, we journey back to Alan’s time as a chat show host…
Knowing Me Knowing You with Alan Partridge (BBC Radio 4)
“I began to wonder if I was fulfilling my potential. My son was teaching me about quadratic equations at the time and although I convinced him that they were genuinely irrelevant in real life, it convinced me that I should look for a fresh challenge. Like so:
Alan asking sports questions = a bloody good sports interview.
Which means, if you divide both by ‘sport’:
Alan asking questions = a bloody good interview.
It went something like that, anyway.”
~ from I Partridge – We Need To Talk About Alan, 2011.
And so it came to pass that an incidental recurring character from a current-affairs spoof landed his own chat show, mirroring the often bizarre leap from one arm of broadcast media to another that we still see today. While Alan Partridge had by no means been the standout feature of On The Hour, Steve Coogan‘s appearances as the sportscaster were nonetheless consistent, which counts for a lot in the realm of character-comedy.
Even before On The Hour had broadcast the end of its second series in May 1992 and was picked up for TV development, Patrick Marber managed to convince his co-star Coogan that Alan Partridge shouldn’t just be confined to satirical sports reporting. As a recurring feature on the show, Alan was already building a modest fanbase and they both agreed it would be a shame to let that go to waste. Coogan already had a range of other characters used for his standup sets (Paul Calf, Ernest Moss, Duncan Thickett), and was preparing a show for that Summer’s Edinburgh Fringe with John Thompson. Marber was to be the director for the festival run, which also afforded him the opportunity to push Coogan into expanding Alan’s personality beyond what had already been pencilled in. Was he married or divorced? Would he have kids? What were his passions and peeves?
It was Marber who suggested the idea of a chat show to Coogan and their producer Armando Iannucci. After they’d finished laughing, the pair suggested Patrick outline a written proposal if he thought it was such a great idea. And it turned out it was a great idea. They already knew Partridge loved Swedish superstars Abba, so the title effectively wrote itself. A pilot episode was recorded in the spring of 1992, Coogan incorporated Partridge into the Edinburgh show on Marber’s advice (which went on to win the coveted Perrier award), and the following five episodes were recorded after the Summer.
Alan Partridge-proper was born.
The first episode of Knowing Me, Knowing You, With Alan Partridge (aka KMKYWAP) aired on Tuesday, 1 December 1992. At 6:30pm on BBC Radio 4, a light-entertainment rendition of Abba’s classic hit ushered in the presenter’s first words as a chat show host: “A-haaaa!”. It’s worth pointing out that while the radio version of KMKYWAP predates BBC2’s The Day Today by just over a year, the internal chronology laid out in I, Partridge (don’t worry, we’ll come to that) has the programme being produced afterward, so that Alan’s radio chat show was simultaneously a step forward in his own career while being a one back in his preferred choice of platform and audience-reach.
Performed by necessity in front of a studio audience, the format is a gentle lampooning of the chat show landscape of the time (BBC1’s Wogan being the flagship example). Coogan helms each episode in-character (including the audience warm-up before recording), interviewing a succession of guests in a supposedly relaxed environment. Alan’s subjects include an array of authors, performers and personalities of interest across the world of light entertainment. All of these are fictional but many are loosely based on well-known personalities or archetypes, and all of whom Alan repeatedly fails to either gel with or control, illustrating that there is apparently no-one he can’t annoy on some level.
Produced by Armando Iannucci, the cast is carried over from On The Hour, with the notable exception of Chris Morris. Rebecca Front, Doon Mackichan, David Schneider and Patrick Marber all rotate as the guests. In addition to the series being a three-hour platform for the character who would come to define Coogan, it also serves as a showcase for the outstanding comic timing of its supporting players.
Because the production schedule of the chat show was so close to On The Hour, the Alan who greets the audience in the first episode still bears the same, slightly brash, sports-commentator vocal delivery. And while it’s conceivable that (‘in-universe’) Alan is still adjusting to his career trajectory, this tone is all but gone by the third show, as Coogan brings the voice down to more personable levels. Well, personable from the audience’s point of view at least, if not the guests’.
It’s clear from the outset that despite his enthusiasm and outward confidence, Alan has no real control over his show. Still prone to verbalising the first things which pop into his head, he retains a fixation on the volume of chat (in every sense) rather than its content. Deeply territorial over his role as the headlining name, Alan constantly interrupts, hushes and harangues those he’s meant to be talking with, steering the conversation down awkward avenues he’s then unwilling or unable to continue. The first episode sees the host infuriate a Nobel Prize-nominated author by insisting that Sherlock Holmes was a real historical figure, and he then asks a therapist if her on-stage demonstration of relationship counselling is “barmy old cack”.
Part of KMKYWAP‘s comedic conceit is that (again, in-universe) the shows clearly aren’t rehearsed, as they wouldn’t otherwise be able to go so wrong at broadcast level. This is Alan interviewing people he’s never before met and, in most cases, failed to research. He’s massively out of his depth, but now believes that sports reporting is beneath him.
The participants in each section of the chat show are also usually flawed on some level of course, but the writing uses this as a way of provoking Alan’s own reactions, rather than taking a swipe at say lawyers or fashion designers. TV commissioners appear to be in for a harder time however, and this series sees the introduction of David Schneider’s Tony Hayers, a recurring nemesis for Partridge throughout his time on the BBC.
Further seeds are planted which would go on to be developed or retooled for the TV production. In the first episode, Alan lets slip that he suspects his wife is having an affair, a thread which unravels further as the years go on. In terms of characters, outlandish fashion designer Yvonne Boyd will be ported over wholesale, while the stage-hypnotist Tony LaMesmer is namechecked as Alan blithely lets American hypnotherapist Janey Katz know she’s been booked due to the former’s unavailability. Similarly, Rebecca Front’s Las Vegas entertainer Sally Hoff is noted as being the daughter of Hollywood legend Maimi Langland and sister of Lara Langland – this character is reworked as singer Gina Langland (and to a lesser extent, Tania Beaumont) for the small screen.
The radio iteration of KMKYWAP establishes the pattern of escalatingly fractious interviews, culminating in an “on that bombshell…” punchline to bring each episode to a close. And when the weekly incidents include Partridge assaulting nine year old prodigy, Simon Fisher, outing a bisexual lawyer and gambling away his wife’s car, then the on-set death of a guest in the final instalment (initially unnoticed by the host as he’s talking about himself, naturally) comes as no real surprise to anyone but Alan.
Coogan states in his autobiography that the BBC received a genuine letter of complaint after the character of Alan hit a child, from someone who didn’t realise they were listening to a comedy show. He has this framed in his toilet.
The development from his bulletin-based debut through this rapid character expansion is quite remarkable. Listening for the first time today, the audience knows instantly that this is the Alan Partridge they recognise. And appraised retrospectively, this vehicle was perfect for the move to television, of that there can be no doubt…
Knowing Me Knowing You with Alan Partridge (BBC 2)
If giving a verbose yet thoroughly inept sports reporter his own radio chat show could be considered a natural progression, putting the resulting debacle on TV is absolute common sense.
Retaining the title and broad format, Knowing Me Knowing You With Alan Partridge was first broadcast on Friday 16 September, 1994. In BBC2’s 9pm comedy-slot, this scheduling already telegraphed much of the vibe, bridging any gap for viewers who may not have caught The Day Today and weren’t familiar with Alan’s radio iterations.
As well as maintaining his off-screen role as producer, Armando Iannucci joined the main writing team of Coogan and Marber fully at this point, and it’s where Alan is really defined in the audience’s perception. No matter how fleshed-out or nuanced the character became through future projects, the prime-time television chat show is the high-watermark in Alan’s mind, the peak he’s always striving to reclaim. Alan Partridge believes he’s reached this point solely because he deserves it, and so when that’s taken away from him he reacts with according umbrage.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
A 25-second title sequence opens the show, garishly slick with computer graphics swooshing over the screen and a brash assurance of implied quality as Alan is pictured again and again, laughing and smiling. “Knowing Me Knowing You” is emblazoned in gold lettering and embellished with the autograph of its host. We cut to a studio reverberating with rapturous applause (this audience remains unseen for the most part, although like its radio namesake, Knowing Me Knowing You was filmed in front of one). A house-band play, positioned above an archway in the plush yet blandly nondescript set. As they reach the zenith of the Abba-tribute signature tune, a lone figure emerges triumphantly below, a beaming smile and maroon blazer complementing his finger-guns as he playfully shoots into the crowd.
This is it. The Partridge has landed.
By this point, BBC1’s flagship chat show Wogan had been finished for two years (having ran for 10). And while the format wasn’t quite finished off completely, the inherent joke here is that Alan is aspiring to something which has already run its cultural course. On a more technical level, the studio setup plays to Coogan’s strengths both as a standup comic and screen performer. The ever-changing array of guests performed by the core cast keep things fresh on a weekly basis while still lending a tonal continuation to the series as a whole.
And as with the radio show, this is a platform for Alan Partridge to show off his worst qualities as an interviewer. There seems to be no happy medium with the guests the show has managed to secure. At one end of the scale, participants openly mock and ridicule him (Doon Mackichan as punk singer Shona McGough, Patrick Marber as chef Philippe Lambert, Minnie Driver as Playboy agony aunt Daniella Forest), others grow furious with Alan’s attempts to undermine them on-camera (Mackichan and Rebecca Front’s TV presenters Wanda Harvey and Bridie McMahon, Marber’s DJ Keith Hunt, actor Gary Barker and PR guru Lawrence Knowles, Alan Ford’s boxing promoter Terry Norton). Even when Alan has a guest who won’t push back on him, he quickly resorts to bullying and then becoming incredulous at how easily cowed they are (Front’s showjumper Sue Lewis, David Schneider’s Conservative MP Adrian Finch).
Episode one establishes the rhythms which will run through the rest of the series. The finger-guns which Alan waves as he takes to the stage for the first time are subsequently upgraded to a pump-action shotgun, a hand grenade, a machine gun, faux-karate blows, detonator-plunger and bow-and-arrow. Similarly, the name of musical conductor Glenn Ponder’s house-band changes on a weekly basis through an array which never strays so far as to be implausible in the real-world. While its members aren’t individually introduced the line-up never seems to change, yet ‘Chalet’ become Debonair, Ferrari, Savoir Faire, Lazarus and Bangkok. It’s a fairly safe bet to assume that at least a couple of these are names the writers had seen ‘in the wild’ over the years.
Another running gag is Alan’s boasting of “a new, regular feature of the show”, which occurs for the first five episodes, four of which do not in fact continue. The only insert with any type of longevity appears to be where the host introduces someone else also named Alan Partridge. Even then, the third and final time this happens, Alan’s namesake-guest is carried onto the stage in a coffin, having recently died (and naturally, on this show that wouldn’t be a barrier to just carrying on with the segment anyway). Although this shockingly morbid theme is carried to its pinnacle when Alan accidentally shoots and kills a guest live on-air in the sixth instalment, a crescendo to the increasingly dramatic ‘bombshell’ endings carried over from the radio show.
After running for six episodes until October 1994, KMKYWAP returned over a year later on 29 December 1995 for a Christmas special. Repeatedly fixating on how much the set cost, Alan has had his house replicated in the studio to host a less formal festive get-together, which is obviously every bit as successful as the previous run. David Schneider brings the screen-debut of BBC Chief Commissioning Editor Tony Hayers, as Alan has invited him onto the show in an attempt to get a second-series. He’s ultimately unsuccessful (not least because he ends up punching Tony twice in the closing moments), and this is a point which runs over into our next lookback article.
As with Partridge as a whole, Knowing Me Knowing You works because it occupies its own comedic universe where crossover with our own is strictly limited. All of Alan’s attending guests are fictional characters, even if they’re often based on real-world celebrities. Roger Moore and Raquel Welch are arranged to appear as interviewees, but crucially never show up, so aren’t seen (and in later series, Alan makes frequent references to Crimewatch presenter Sue Cook and ex-Goodie Bill Oddie as being his friends, but any time he spends with them occurs off-camera). Although corporations and organisations are namechecked as a point of familiarity, the audience aren’t supposed to believe that Alan exists in the real-world, rather that this is a window into his. The one notable exception to all this of course is Mick Hucknall, performing in the closing moments of the Christmas special. The Simply Red singer was friends with Steve Coogan in real-life, and would go on to fill a similar role in Coogan’s 1997 Tony Ferrino TV special.
KMKYWAP is arguably peak-Partridge in every sense. It introduced Alan to the masses in a way which allows him to simultaneously showcase his best and worst qualities. But there’s still plenty of premium-grade Alan left in the tank.
Join us next time as we get up close and personal with a man still fixated on that elusive second series…