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 fifth outing, we look at Alan’s outings as an author…
A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Stadium To Alan Partridge By Alan Partridge (Pear Tree Publishing)
Although released around the time of Alan’s radio chat-show in 1992, Set The Tape regrets to admit it has been unable to procure a copy of this book. The publisher went out of business in the mid-90s, and no prints are to be found via popular online secondary-market sellers. If it’s any consolation, we hear the anecdote about George Best is particularly good.
Bouncing Back (publisher unknown)
Although released around the time of Alan’s ‘Norfolk Nights’ radio show in 2002, Set The Tape regrets to admit it has been unable to procure a copy of this book. All unsold copies have been deliberately pulped and no prints are to be found via popular online secondary-market sellers. Bouncing Back appears to have become something of a collectors’ item. Needless to say, Alan had the last laugh.
I, Partridge: We Need To Talk About Alan (Harper Collins / Audible)
So despite planting the seeds of a backstory since his first radio appearance in 1991, it wasn’t really until two decades later in September 2011 that everything fell together and the Alan Partridge-verse took on its now-robust shape. For chronological context, this was a year after the first series of Mid Morning Matters shorts had aired on the Foster’s comedy website, but a one before they were re-packaged for a wider audience on Sky TV. It was a full nine years since Alan had moved out of the static caravan in I’m Alan Partridge and two before he became the central figure in the armed siege at a Norfolk radio station.
And, as is hopefully apparent from the tongue-in-cheek nature of the two entries above this one, 2011 was when we finally got to read Alan’s first book. I, Partridge: We Need To Talk About Alan is the autobiography which collects those earlier seedlings, prunes back the few branches that don’t quite work and allows the rest of the garden to bloom as a result.
A collaborative effort between creators Steve Coogan, Armando Iannucci and Mid Morning Matters co-writers Rob and Neil Gibbons, the book parodies self-indulgent celebrity memoirs and takes equally cheeky potshots at ‘misery-lit’ on several occasions, too. It spans from Alan’s birth in 1955 (which our author describes dramatically in literal, third-person and entirely fictionalised terms), up to and including his time at North Norfolk Digital.
The purest experience of I, Partridge is of course the unabridged audiobook. As deftly in-character as the words on the page (or reader/tablet) are, nothing can match the intonations and emphases of Steve Coogan reading this as Alan himself, an unbroken seven hour comic monologue which gives us the best insight yet as to what goes on in this character’s head.
And it’s the personalised slant which is the key to the book’s resounding success. As the title infers, everything within is written from its subject’s viewpoint. Early chapters lay, without query, the foundation of the man we know and hate-to-love, Alan presenting the best version of his youthful self with no one to gainsay the details, yet still managing to come off as second-best in his own story (not that he realises, of course).
Covering all of the radio and TV outings to its date and crafting them into a single definitive (if opinionated) continuity, the reader/listener is given background to Alan’s friends and colleagues, from Glenn Ponder to Michael The Geordie, Sidekick Simon and Lynn (with a running gag that sees her never actually named, but referred to only as ‘my assistant’, even when the author is replaying conversations). His turbulent relationships with Carol and Sonja are examined, and the book even drops a subliminal hint that there may be more Partridge children than Fernando and Denise (we won’t go into that here, but raise it in the comments and your humble correspondent will be delighted to provide suitably geeky detail on the theory).
On The Hour and The Day Today are woven into the text, Alan’s relatively small amount of airtime bolstered by behind-the-scenes anecdotes and observations. But I, Partridge really hits its stride when we get the narrator’s take on events we’ve already seen. Segments of Knowing Me Knowing You (radio and TV) are presented from the host’s point-of-view. Often wrong, usually skewed and always with Alan’s heartfelt assertion that he was in the right (the entire chapter devoted to the shooting of Forbes McAllister in the final episode of the TV show is a particular highlight, not least since it gets away with not explaining how Alan avoided criminal prosecution after killing a man on live television).
But the true window into the ego of Alan Partridge, the absolute masterstroke, comes in the chapters describing confrontations we’ve seen in I’m Alan Partridge. As previously noted, despite its presentation format that show was not constructed as a public documentary. When the viewers at home watched Alan meet Tony Hayers in the BBC restaurant and spectacularly fail to secure a second series, or when they saw our hapless hero become trapped in the home of super-fan and stalker Jed Maxwell, the ‘in-universe’ Alan wasn’t being filmed. He thinks his inability to negotiate either situation followed by the frantic escape from both was only witnessed by whoever was present at the time.
This gives Alan narrative licence to engineer a very different version of these events for his memoir. One in which he’s assertive, in control and ultimately walks (or sprints) away with dignity intact. There are no glaring tells in Alan’s game here, only the subtext that the reader is already familiar with what actually happened.
And so when we come to the richly-detailed recounting of a Toblerone-induced, semi-hypnotic drive to Dundee in bare feet (the breakdown hinted at surrounding Bouncing Back), enough groundwork is laid that the reader doesn’t even need to have seen all of this on-screen. It’s classic self-aggrandisement from a man determined to ride out middle-age as a victory, his coping strategy being a succession of semi-fictitious confessionals.
After a suitably climactic clash between Partridge and his DJ nemesis Dave Clifton, we close with our hero firmly ensconced at North Norfolk Digital, the events of Alpha Papa and beyond yet to unfold.
With Coogan and Iannucci as day-zero collaborators and the Gibbons brothers by now firmly established as narrative standard-bearers, I, Partridge is quite simply sublime. A comedic rollercoaster that expands, adapts, fills in gaps and drives its protagonist into a new era, all the time being reverent of the past without being afraid to challenge it. A title so densely packed with layered humour that each re-read/listen unearths new, subtle details.
The book leaves the reader with only one question: that’s the history taken care of, what will Alan write about for his next book?
Alan Partridge: Nomad (Orion / Orion Audio)
Onward to September 2016, where modern times had been kind to Norfolk’s boldest son and seen his successful return to both the big and small screens (in our own universe, not his). Alpha Papa had followed well-received mockumentary works created to tie in to the release of I, Partridge, so where to go now?
Dungeness, as it happens. The nuclear power station nestling on the South coast of Kent is the macguffin for the second (actual) book, Alan Partridge: Nomad. With Armando Iannucci busy on his own cinematic and televisual projects, writing credits are assigned to Steve Coogan, Rob Gibbons and Neil Gibbons, this being Alan’s travelogue as he walks from Norwich in a bid he’s claiming is to honour his late father, but is in actual fact an attempt to secure TV work in the lucrative middle-class-hiking marketplace. Once again, the audiobook really is the gold standard here, this time clocking in at a still-impressive six hours of performance gold.
Because Alan’s past was outlined fairly comprehensively in 2011, the book needs a more firm structure than a sprawling autobiography, which is where the ‘Footsteps Of My Father’ walk comes in. The origins of this feat allow for a couple of retrospective delves, but most look-backs exist only to fill the five year gap between tomes. And with its foundations already scribed, Nomad presents a snapshot (albeit a meticulously detailed one) of how Alan sees the world in 2016. Everything on a character-level gels perfectly with the man we know, and drives (okay, walks) the story forward.
We’re treated to our author making an implausibly metaphorical discovery in his loft, which leads to his decision to walk the 160-mile journey and document it for all to admire. Alan’s training schedule and woefully scattershot preparation are covered before we dive into the first-person commentary of the hike, interspersed all the while with whimsies and reminiscences. And a particularly scathing chapter on his longstanding feud with Noel Edmonds.
So while Alan is still at North Norfolk Digital radio at the beginning of our tale (a chapter is dedicated to the events of Alpha Papa, again from Alan’s own blinkered perspective), the urge to present on television has returned in force. Aware that the clock ticks ever forward, Partridge knows he needs to accelerate his plans if his face is to be seen on the nation’s screens once more.
Naturally, Alan’s organisation is as focused as every other aspect of his life, leading to a number of parallels with the first book (most notably another injury to his left leg), and an equally melodramatic climax. Further to the caption-card at the end of the 2013 movie, it’s revealed here that Michael The Geordie was declared dead in absentia after leaping from Cromer pier, although there’s more than a subtle hint that he may not be gone for good just yet.
As with the previous volume, Alan’s in-character writing is full of comedic minor internal contradictions. It quickly becomes apparent that he won’t go back and edit what he’s just written, and his inconsistency often indicates that he won’t even go back and read it. This really is a brilliant (for the reader) stream of consciousness, as the author is more than likely still obsessed with hitting the publisher’s specified word-count. It’s easy to imagine the in-universe conversation where Alan is insistent that his entire manuscript should be published exactly as it was submitted.
Because of Nomad‘s obsession with Alan’s perception of the media, we’re treated to some fantastically British (and specifically generational) cultural referencing here. Vintage-themed nods go to the likes of Lionel Blair and Gary Wilmot, while contemporary ones bring up Clare Balding, Julia Bradbury, Eamonn Holmes and Nick Knowles. It shows that Alan occupies a sort of acceptably bland middle-ground that’s not too niche, but that readers outside the UK probably won’t fully understand. Yet this is never a slight against the audience, but Alan’s own aspirational sphere.
What we also get, however, is a bizarre (albeit minor) lapse in the continuity which allowed I, Partridge to work so well. It’s not unusual to expect authors of established characters to have a chart, folder, filing cabinet or spreadsheet detailing the main points of chronology. And while the Gibbons brothers have gone on-record to say that they weren’t obsessive fans of Alan before they began writing him, one would certainly expect their work in conjunction with Steve Coogan to get the details right relating to their own previous projects…
I, Partridge covers Alan’s reactions at his mother’s funeral, specifically mentioning that his father was “in no fit state” to read a eulogy. Yet in Nomad, a chapter talks about Alan’s behaviour at his father’s funeral, telling that “mother just tuts and looks away”. In other words, in one self-penned account of Alan’s life his mother dies first, in the next it’s his father. As a comedic conceit, the ‘unreliable narrator’ is one thing, but this slip isn’t engineered to facilitate a joke. Unless it’s a particularly dark callback of course, and “in no fit state” actually means “dead”.
But that’s not to detract from what is also a hugely impressive pillar of the Partridge canon. We close once more with the future an open road. Not because Coogan and The Gibbonses don’t want to formally commit to the direction of Partridge yet-to-come, but because the man has proved that he’ll walk his own path, in his own time, and in a style that no one dares to predict.
In the meanwhile, we await volume three with bated bookmarks.
Join us next time as we tread the boards and look at Alan Partridge’s live appearances…