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 fourth outing, we journey back to Alan’s foray into digital radio…
Mid Morning Matters (Series 1, Online / Sky)
So Alan got his second series with the BBC (in a manner of speaking), but then what? For Steve Coogan, the time after 2002’s I’m Alan Partridge included a wealth of both televisual and cinematic work. From taciturn pest controller Tommy Saxondale and a self-analytical spin in The Trip, to roles over the pond in the Night At The Museum series and Tropic Thunder, an in-demand performer might not have much time to press on with a character whose best quality seems to be that of annoying people.
And yet Alan Partridge wasn’t placed completely into stasis. A smattering of video shorts complemented Alan’s place in Coogan’s continuing live standup sets (don’t worry, we’ll come to those). But for the most part it was a time of rest – for the character, if not the artist himself.
In 2010 Coogan’s production company, Baby Cow, produced a series of 11-minute web shorts in conjunction with Foster’s (the brand of lager whose UK division sponsored the Edinburgh Comedy awards from 2010-2016). Steve and long-time producer Armando Iannucci co-wrote the project with Rob and Neil Gibbons, fans of a wide breadth of TV humour. The brothers were already very familiar with the Partridge-verse and the evolution of the character so far, but clicked with Coogan and Iannucci to the point where the rest just flowed naturally (a key ingredient in successful comedy projects).
And so, Mid Morning Matters was born. The first six episodes aired via the Foster’s website from November 2010, with a further half dozen resuming the following February. Later that year, Baby Cow signed a deal to produce content for the Sky network, and the first series was repackaged into six, doubled-up, half hour episodes.
But onto the show itself. Whereas On The Hour and The Day Today gave us access to Alan’s limitations as a sports reporter, and KMKYWAP illustrated his failings as a chat show host, Mid Morning Matters finally gives us a full insight as to how erratic Partridge is in the arena of local radio, in a job he’s been doing (at this point of the timeline) for around 15 years. Alan’s show runs in a weekday slot on the fictional commercial station North Norfolk Digital, the corporate evolution of I’m Alan Partridge‘s Radio Norfolk).
This is effectively the intro/outro format of that earlier series – stripped down, scripted comedy – resculpted into its own package. There’s no real setup or exposition, nor an ongoing story as such. This is more a series of snapshots of where Alan is in 2010. And because it’s not a setup or coda to an external story, the comedy isn’t quite as pronounced as the BBC-aired segments.
Each episode takes place on a different day and is presented as a skip-over compilation of the programme, taken from the vantage points of static, in-studio webcams. It’s a very economical setup while still being in-character for its setting. Alan refers to the webcams on air, so he knows he’s being filmed (although on a fourth-wall-breaking, technical note, unlike actual radio station webcams the audience gets the in-studio audio rather than the actual output of the radio station, allowing off air dialogue to be heard during records). He’s definitely in ‘radio mode’ rather than TV, acknowledging the cameras but not playing to them. Alan’s presentation style is less forceful here, and he knows he’s the boss in that room (albeit only in that room). But he hasn’t quite realised he gets a relatively easy ride there because he’s so far down the ladder now that no one cares about one-upping him.
The studio is well lit to suggest the show’s daytime setting, but since no exterior windows are seen there’s a danger of the framing becoming claustrophobic. This is mostly avoided by the regular introduction of station staff and studio guests. Each of Alan’s interviews invariably goes off the rails of course, but nowhere near the extent of his previous chat show work. A recurring highlight throughout the series is Tim Key’s surprisingly layered turn as Simon Denton. ‘Sidekick Simon’ is intentionally under-used, and Key carries the awkwardness and subservient resentment of his character to perfection.
That said, Key’s excellent work is filling the hole left by the non-inclusion of existing characters. Although Lynn and Michael had only been around for the last two BBC series, the impact on the Partridge-verse means their respective conversational rhythms are sorely missed here (although Simon Greenall gives regular voice to various phone-in callers throughout). And while the pair’s presence is engineered for the next entry in our list, also notable by his absence in a radio station is Alan’s rival DJ Dave Clifton. Then again, all of this is perhaps explainable by the tight timeframe in which each episode takes place.
As is often the case with great comedy, standout moments are little ones inserted here and there, rather than fully engineered set-pieces. Alone in the studio during a track playing on air, Alan’s attempt to make a cinema telephone booking to see Inception is a fantastic piece of performance, as is his peeling an orange in one go then inserting it into his mouth whole, only to begin choking. Neither are plot points, but both end up being more memorable than the sketches which are. The latter in particular is a fantastic subliminal window into the psyche of Alan Partridge. Inordinately pleased with completing a relatively mundane task, our presenter then feels the need to top this, if only to prove to himself that he can. And with the orange in his mouth, Alan then realises he hasn’t thought this through. Metaphorically, we’ve all been there.
The final two episodes where Alan grows increasingly infatuated with his much-younger co-presenter Zoe (Pippa Duffy) sees the whole thing get a bit ‘David Brent’, as she pretends not to notice and gently rebuffs his advances in the most diplomatically nonchalant ways possible. It’s a sentimental and borderline mawkish touch which doesn’t really suit an Alan Partridge vehicle.
Thankfully, the short format means this isn’t dragged on for too long, but we’re essentially asked to feel sorry for Alan here, a request on the audience which crosses a line that had remained untouched over the previous two decades. If we suddenly need to start sympathising with Partridge, that puts a very different spin on the entire context of the character. He’s previously been a composite of the worst traits of others, not a person we could literally imagine existing (cf David Brent).
Mid Morning Matters gives Alan Partridge some great texture after being off our screens regularly for nine years, but it rarely plays to the strengths of either the character or the performer. It’s always engaging and as much fun as the deliberately monotone format will allow, but the episodes are really intended to be enjoyed in their natural element as shorts. Viewers coming to this for a binge-watch (especially after the locational variations of I’m Alan Partridge) are likely to struggle.
Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa (Studio Canal / BBC Films)
And so, after a very successful series of appearances elsewhere on the big screen, Steve Coogan finally found a way to marry this format to his most enduring comic creation, as Alan Partridge finally burst into our cinemas in August 2013.
This was always going to be a risky move, of course. The path from sitcom to silver-screen is rarely a one trodden successfully, least of all by British journeymen. 2011’s Inbetweeners Movie had a mixed reception, despite being much loved on its native television. But Channel 4’s flagship teenagers didn’t quite have the established longevity of Alan Partridge before making the theatrical transition, so that’s a formula for guaranteed success, right?
Well the good news is that Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa is far, far better than it could easily have been. Written by Coogan, Iannucci, the Gibbons brothers and seeing the return of Peter Baynham (by this point an established Hollywood screenwriter), this is pretty much the dream team for the project, all of whom having demonstrated by 2013 that they know Alan implicitly. The film is directed by Declan Lowney, a TV comedy stalwart with many episodes of Father Ted and Little Britain on his CV.
We meet Alan still at North Norfolk Digital, as the station undergoes a corporate buyout programme. The new owners are keen to prune away what they see as deadwood, rebranding the station as ‘Shape: The Way You Want It To Be’. As one of their more senior voices, Alan Partridge is lined up for possible removal opposite fellow station DJ Pat Farrell (played by Colm Meaney).
After a typically clumsy intervention from our hero, Farrell is let go by the management. He takes this rather badly, and during a party to celebrate the station’s relaunch returns with a shotgun to instigate an armed siege (his precise demands both unclear and unfeasible). As someone who has a history with the gunman, Alan is chosen as the police’s go-between negotiator, sent in to reach a peaceful resolution. Well, you can imagine…
So despite the project working relatively well in this new form, cinema isn’t really the natural home of Alan. By 2013, Steve Coogan was back from Hollywood with ‘fixed’ teeth and looking frankly better than ever, and as a result so does Partridge.
Tonally, this is probably closer to his 2001 turn in The Parole Officer, that most British blend of action movie and West End farce, and our star often seems to be acting as ‘Coogan in general’ rather than the squirmingly crass DJ we’ve come to love. There was always some degree of crossover between the two of course, but the screenplay for Alpha Papa requires Alan to be more breezy and casual than we’ve seen before, even in his most stressful situation to date.
The first ten minutes bring us the return of Phil Cornwell’s Dave Clifton, in addition to Felicity Montagu as Alan’s assistant Lynn and Simon Greenall as Michael The Geordie. Thankfully none of these feel particularly shoehorned into the proceedings, and their early inclusion seems to be a nod toward the audience, a reassurance that this film has connections to the past.
Tim Key reprises his Mid Morning Matters role of Sidekick Simon of course, but more curiously we also have Darren Boyd and Nigel Lindsay on the cast list, and in fairly central roles. It’s interesting because both actors portrayed interview-guests the 2011 programme and return here as different characters. That’s not the first time this has happened in the Partridge-verse (Barbara Durkin played beauty-contestant Lisa in KMKYWAP, then receptionist Susan in I’m Alan Partridge), but the location is usually changed, at least.
And because this is the cinematic-version of Alan’s life, obviously he gets the girl by the end too, somehow managing to woo station receptionist Angela (Monica Dolan) amid the chaos of a hostage situation. Dolan is great (although she’s rarely not), but the romance feels deliberately tacked-on to fit with the traditional big screen formula. What we see of the pair is nowhere near as excruciating as Alan’s dalliances with either Sonja or Jill, so this seems to break character a little.
As mentioned above, Alpha Papa works on the whole, although it spends most of its time more concerned with being The Alan Partridge Movie™ than a performance-based comedy truly worthy of its leading character. Sequences in which our hero loses his trousers while climbing through a window, and playing to the crowd while negotiating at gunpoint outside the studio building both feel like they were written first and then the story was tweaked to facilitate them.
At 86 minutes (including the end-credits), the film falls into the trap of feeling like a one-hour Christmas TV special which has been over-budgeted and expanded out as far as possible (this includes a few choice f-bombs, to secure an edgier 15 certificate). Alpha Papa never drags – it doesn’t have time – but the flipside of this is that the whole thing runs on rails toward its telegraphed finale.
But all it’s solid world-building for Partridge, and the events of Alpha Papa will go on to have a lasting effect on the universe they inhabit. Er, right..?
Mid Morning Matters (Series 2, Sky Atlantic)
To 2016 now, and around two and a half years after Alpha Papa. Following what had become one of Alan’s regular lengthy naps, Mid Morning Matters returned to our screens. This second series comprised twelve shorts once more (this time at around 13 minutes each), which were packaged directly into pairs and broadcast on Sky Atlantic in the UK, by this point the new permanent home for Partridge.
The writing team for this sequel was Steve Coogan, Rob Gibbons and Neil Gibbons, with the brothers also directing the episodes. And with the first series, the I, Partridge book, the movie and a smattering of mockumentaries already under their belts, the pair are well in their stride; confident now to play bolder material that’s closer to the tone of Alan’s past while still gently moving the character forward.
The overall format is the same as series one, with highlights of each day’s Mid Morning Matters radio show being shown from the two in-studio webcams, and occasionally pulling back to the ancillary suite next door.
That said, it’s not too clear where the second series of Mid Morning Matters sits on the internal timeline. The studio has been refitted since the first series, but it’s the 2011 TV layout rather than the more expensive (and markedly different) set used for 2013’s Alpha Papa. The station branding inside the studio says North Norfolk Digital rather than Shape, but that was a change instigated in the final moments of the movie. Nonetheles, the thought occurs that this series could take place beforehand. And yet Monica Dolan appears as station receptionist Angela, clearly in a relationship with Alan – a relationship which only began in the film. Fear not dear reader, continuity is a point we’ll return to in a further article.
None of this dents a fantastic return to form for the character though, as Alan and Sidekick Simon continue to bumble through daytime radio with misjudged phone-ins and playlists which management clearly aren’t monitoring (if only because nowhere else plays Gary Glitter in 2016, although you’d probably expect that from the DJ who also inadvertently slips into a Jimmy Savile impersonation not once, but twice on air).
Phil Cornwell also returns as Dave Clifton for an in-studio interview about addiction. This is a broad parody of celebrity attention-seeking, as Clifton’s confessional involves describing himself lying on the sofa drunk and watching Bargain Hunt instead of playing outside with his young son (although there is an allusion to a more seedy tale which can’t make it to broadcast in full gory detail). This provides some connective tissue not only to the days of I’m Alan Partridge, but also to Clifton’s subsequent appearance in Alpha Papa.
Elsewhere we get a fantastic turn from Julian Barratt as hippy folk singer Blackbird, where he’s able to channel the more self-indulgent aspects of his Howard Moon character from The Mighty Boosh. League Of Gentlemen co-founder Reece Shearsmith steps in as an outspoken author, political commentator and agent-provocateur who quickly regrets his choice of platform. The escalatingly grim interview with a well-to-do leader of a local foxhunt, as well as Alan’s dreadful erotic radio play, are callbacks to the awkwardness of the BBC era, and the general radio-work is much stronger than the first series of Mid Morning Matters.
Advancing years have caused Alan to loosen his fastidious grip on broadcast norms, and with mild swearing, eating whilst on-mic, and getting drunk mid-show all apparently tolerated, it seems that North Norfolk Digital has become the kind of station which doesn’t really care enough to upbraid him. Until, that is, he’s suspended toward the end of the series for being abusive to a group of teenagers in the studio (a point which will be picked up in the future with the Scissored Isle programme). But prior to that, Alan falls asleep during an on air massage, and later admits to Yewtree-esque shenanigans in chasing Pan’s People round BBC TV Centre with his underpants hooked over his shoulders.
In fact, Alan’s so relaxed this time round that we’re not always sure exactly what’s being broadcast and what’s occurring behind the scenes while a song is playing. An ‘on air’ light appears sporadically, but appears to make no difference to the quality of banter either way. All of this adds to the general level of controlled confusion, and shows that Partridge is ready to move on from local radio. To where and to what is uncertain here, but you know with Alan Partridge at the wheel it’ll always be an eventful ride.
Join us next time when we ask if the pen truly is mightier than the sword, then how much power does Alan Partridge wield when he sits down at a word processor..?