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 third outing, we journey back to Alan’s return to the landscape of local radio…
I’m Alan Partridge (Series 1, BBC 2)
And so, almost two years after we see him punch the BBC’s Chief Commissioning Editor on television, we return to Alan’s world once more. Rather unsurprisingly, it’s shrunk in scope in the meanwhile. Continuing the story of our hero away from the bright lights of a TV studio, I’m Alan Partridge debuted on Monday, 3 November 1997 and ran for six weekly episodes. The series follows Alan literally as well as narratively, using intimate hand-held cameras as he trundles along with his perceived glory days behind him.
The team from The Day Today all return in one form or another with guest appearances. David Schneider reprises his turn as Tony Hayers of course, with a starring role in the first episode (still being pestered for a second series, then recurring in Alan’s homoerotic daydreams throughout). Chris Morris and Doon Mackichan have episode-specific parts, and even though Partridge co-originator Patrick Marber didn’t contribute directly to this, his photo appears on the wall of the Peartree Productions office, in the guise of DJ Keith Hunt in a publicity shot for Knowing Me Knowing You. Rebecca Front doesn’t make the cut this time, but appears in series two (below).
To promote I’m Alan Partridge, Steve Coogan appeared in-character (complete with badged-blazer) on the Clive Anderson All Talk show in 1997, one of the relatively few occasions where reality and the Partridge-verse collide. Anderson raised the subject of Alan’s new outing by referring to it as “a sort of fly-on-the-wall documentary”, to which Partridge responds “I was misled […] it’s come out not the way I would have wanted”, a conceit needed to sell the format of the programme when its subject is there in the studio.
But it’s important to note that this series isn’t an in-universe mockumentary. The fly-on-the-wall format had been popular for many years at that point, and the 1990s brought UK viewers a surfeit of ever more banal subject matter. This televisual trend was definitively parodied by Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant in 2001’s The Office, but even that wasn’t the first to do so (point of fact, The Day Today carried a mockumentary strand also called The Office in 1994, its heightened humour reflecting the shorter running time).
I’m Alan Partridge is shot in largely the same style as these, and the events depicted are what actually happens in Alan’s life, but crucially there’s no narration and no one acknowledges or even notices the camera crew. We get glimpses of Alan’s grotesqueness (alone, as well as in the company of others) that he wouldn’t display if he thought he was being watched (Alan is nothing if not presentation-conscious, even though he frequently fails at being his best-self). Apart from anything else, there are chapters in 2011’s I, Partridge book which replay events from this series in a very different light, often largely (re-)fictionalised at key moments, which in-universe Alan wouldn’t have written had he known the truth had already been broadcast on television.
Part of the brilliance of this series is that it’s what happens when the cameras are no longer rolling and the last person to have been annoyed by our protagonist has stormed out of the room. This is pure, unfiltered Alan.
Having been released from his contract after shooting a guest live on-air then lamping the sole individual who could have given him a grasp at redemption, Alan is now working for Radio Norwich (which, despite the naming format is not a local BBC station) where his show occupies the graveyard slot from 4:30-7:00am. We pick up in medias res, with Alan living in a motel after his ex-wife Carol moved her gym-instructor into the house after their separation. The Linton Travel Tavern is “equidistant between London and Norwich”, in a bid for Alan to be handy for working in both locations – even though he isn’t working in London. The exteriors were shot at Watford Hilton, with everything inside the hotel being a studio set (with an audience no less, hence the laugh-track).
Each episode opens with Alan in the studio, then follows him back to his hotel to establish the plot for that week. It’s a structure which provides the rhythm now that we don’t have a chat show format to rest on, because other than the regular framing, the plotlines reflect the hotch-potch nature of Partridge’s life now. Most episodes cover the events of a single day, but there are a couple of exceptions to this.
Other than our eponymous hero and Tony Hayers, I’m Alan Partridge brings in a sweep of new characters, some of whom become regular fixtures in the continuity from this point. Felicity Monatgu plays Lynn Benfield, Alan’s long-suffering personal assistant. A frumpy, religious spinster, Alan regularly bullies and belittles Lynn, although she occasionally counters this (and prevents the audience’s sympathy from building) by showing flashes of her own slightly spiteful nature.
Additionally, this is where we meet Michael The Geordie, brought to life by Simon Greenall. An ex-forces odd job man at the Linton Travel Tavern, Michael is simultaneously cynical and child-like. He doesn’t look up to Alan, but realises he’s one of the few people who doesn’t dismiss him as being thick (well not completely, at least). In return, Alan has found someone who will put up with his inane banter without challenge or taking offence. Alan can’t intimidate Michael as he does Lynn (not least because he’s slightly scared of Michael’s army-past), but feels that he’s superior on an intellectual level. Which in Alan’s case is quite a find.
Rubbing up against our hero on a weekly basis is Dave Clifton (Phil Cornwell), a more popular DJ with the much coveted breakfast show, whom Alan resents massively. Their verbal sparring, both on and off air, is peppered over the studio segments which bookend the shows.
Each episode is named after a well-known film, with ‘Alan’ substituting part of the title – not as a pun, just in the sort of clunky, self-congratulatory way that befits the star of the show. It’s also worth noting that this is the third Partridge-centric series in a row where someone dies in the final episode, except this time we get to see Alan at a funeral – every bit as socially awkward as expected.
As we’ve grown accustomed, Alan is always slightly larger than life, yet never less than somehow believable. But there are relatively few moments of empathy, here. He’s frequently the butt of other people’s jokes and disdain, but there are no pathos-baiting moments of mawkishness to be had (cf. Gervais in The Office, or his fellow stand-up turned actor Peter Kay). And although he often finds himself in the company of people who are in some way far worse (frogmarching a racist out of his hotel leaving party is a great high-point), there’s little fanfare in this one-upmanship. No, the writing team are happy for Partridge to remain a pain in the backside, and it’s the crowing achievement of the series that they carry this off without having the audience hate him.
But most tellingly of all, the first series of I’m Alan Partridge is a mine of the catchphrases, memes and reaction-GIFs that still fill social media to this day. While the format may not be as concentrated as the chat show, this follow-on has arguably had a greater impact on both popular culture and its subject’s lasting legacy, giving him room to breathe and to grow.
It’s faintly ironic that the show Alan didn’t know was being made would be the one which eventually landed him that much sought-after second series…
I’m Alan Partridge (Series 2, BBC 2)
Amazingly, it was a full five years before we managed to catch up with Alan once more. Still in its Monday slot on BBC2, the up-close-and-personal voyeurama resumed, with Alan still at Radio Norwich (but now in a late-night slot, rather than early morning), living in a static caravan on the building site of his house-to-be, while recovering from a psychological breakdown.
It’s to be assumed that the funding for this construction project has come from his stint hosting the (in-universe) military-based quiz ‘Skirmish’, on (in-universe) digital channel UK Conquest, or the presenting of tacky VHS traffic-accident compliations. It’s certainly not from his memoir ‘Bouncing Back’, which we learn has performed particularly badly at bookshops across the country. Alan also runs a network of consultancy companies named Apache, but from what we see of them they’re about as successful as his writing career.
The programme format continues from the first series, with hand-held cameras trailing the (in)action of Alan’s everyday life. Lynn returns in her PA role, still hugely put-upon by her employer but now with a broad ally in the form of Alan’s Ukrainian girlfriend Sonja (Big Train‘s Amelia Bullmore). Alan is willing to overlook this slight transgression of loyalty since he’s inordinately pleased to have a partner who is 14 years younger than him (a point he makes repeatedly to anyone within earshot).
Alan’s newfound confidence has given him a lease of life that he almost certainly never had in his actual youth. He persistently tries to be laddish with the builders working on his house, but frequently oversteps the mark in either misjudging the conversation or flat-out insulting them. In an ideal world, the workmen would share in Alan’s bawdy humour, and his safety-net is that he’s essentially their employer so they can’t really turn on him. However, Alan’s outnumbered in any situation inside the building site, so inevitably crumbles anyway.
Michael the Geordie also returns, now working at a nearby petrol station where Alan likes to stop by and chat, unwilling to admit this is realistically his only friend. Now that Michael’s role is largely self-managing, their conversations are no longer limited to the professionalism of a hotel lobby, which suits both down to the ground. It’s not so much that the pair’s banter intensifies, but that they can more quickly reach peak stupidity without being reprimanded.
At its comedic core, this second series is more firmly in traditional sitcom territory. Indeed the second episode, ‘The Colour Of Alan’ – in which our flustered leading man has the CEO of a gas fire company visiting his still-unbuilt home to clinch a lucrative sales presentation deal – is a classic farce straight from the Terry And June playbook. Although admittedly, not once in nine series did Terry end a show by impaling his foot on a railing-spike, then vomiting in front of a conference audience due to loss of blood. Add that to the wish-list for the reboot, perhaps.
This new chapter in Alan’s life has led to a marked drop in his bitterness, outwardly at least. With various business concerns on the go, working at the BBC doesn’t seem to be a point of aspiration or resentment any more, and Alan’s relationship with Sonja has similarly put his ex-wife Carol on a back burner.
This series is more about fleshing out the character, rather than driving him forward. We know from the outset that Radio Norfolk’s latenight show, the garage forecourt videos and poorly run vanity-firms are never going to lead to new levels of success, so instead we have the past slowly coloured-in over the six weeks. Old faces from Alan’s school days appear giving us virtual glimpses into his childhood. We’re also treated to a series of brief flashbacks to the time between series, where Alan became addicted to Toblerone and gained a massive amount of weight (the source of one of the best chapters in the I, Partridge book), and presented cheap straight-to-video productions that would make his chat show-era self weep.
We end with Alan’s new house in a state of completion and his unsold books finally being unceremoniously pulped by the publisher. What life gives with one hand, it takes away with the other. The future is once more an open road for Partridge, and it’s one which wouldn’t be travelled on the small screen for an other eight years. And on a different channel, to boot.
Join us next time as Alan embraces the digital age and emerges as
Norfo North Norfolk’s premier daytime radio presenter…