TV Discussion

The Road to This Time With Alan Partridge #6… The Man Who Thinks He’s It / And Other Less Successful Characters

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 sixth outing, we look at the times Steve Coogan has trod the boards as Alan and put out the result on home video…

Steve Coogan: The Man Who Thinks He’s It (VVL / Universal)

It’s only appropriate, fitting even, that Steve Coogan’s most notable creation should find himself the star of the comedian’s live DVDs. After all, Alan Partridge was part of the 1992 live show for which he won the coveted Perrier award. While Coogan’s first video, 1994’s Live ‘n’ Lewd, did not feature the sportscaster turned chat show host, by the end of the decade Alan Partridge was more of a household name than Coogan’s other established characters.

Filmed at the Palace Theatre Manchester in April of 1998 and released later that year as part of VVL’s the lucrative ‘standup comedy videos make great Christmas presents’ market, The Man Who Thinks He’s It shows Coogan capitalising on his success to date, developing ideas from Live’n’Lewd and adapting his TV work for the stage.

Rather than being a straight reproduction of the theatrical show, each segment is bookended with faux behind-the-scenes footage, portraying Coogan as an insecure, narcissistic diva adored by fans and loathed by his subordinates and colleagues. He’s joined in this by his onstage co-stars Simon Pegg (best known at this point for Big Train and a guest appearance in the first series of I’m Alan Partridge), Julia Davis (Jam, Nighty Night) and Steve Brown (band leader Glenn Ponder in the TV iteration of Knowing Me Knowing You, performing a similar role here but not in-character). With a stage show that requires the cast to be constantly changing outfits between acts, the manufactured ‘bonus’ footage (narrated by Partridge collaborator Peter Baynham) makes life slightly easier for the editing team in cleanly delineating routines, as well as breaking up the already-well-worn live video format.

The show’s first hour features Pauline Calf, Duncan Thickett, Tony Ferrino and Paul Calf, after which Alan Partridge takes the stage with a 25-minute set. By 1998, the character had already debuted and lost his own TV chat show, as well as inadvertently giving us a peek into his private life with I’m Alan Partridge. So the Alan we see here is still desperate to be taken seriously as a presenter. The crest-badged green blazer and stage furniture setup replicating a scaled-down KMKYWAP are an indicator that our host believes he’s still a contender for the chat-format. That shooting a guest live on television won’t permanently dent his rise to stardom.

Labelled by the host as the unwieldy ‘Alan’s Chat Forum (For ‘Em)’, the set comes split into three sub-sections. The first is a slideshow lecture (this format transferred from the Ernest Moss character in Coogan’s previous live video), with Alan giving suitably dreadful ‘Lessons In Life Management’. We can see here the seeds of what would become the Forward Solutions programme and the Bouncing Back book, with our host genuinely believing he has wisdom to impart. It also plays on the riff of ‘An Afternoon With Alan Partridge’ from the Linton Travel Tavern days as an informal self-improvement course, completely in-keeping with Partridge at this stage in his life. The routine is very broad and the setup for a couple of solid sight-gags involving the slides, but the potential for development is clearly there.

The (deliberately) chaotic audience question-and-answer session gives way to the middle section of Alan’s ‘fun sandwich’. A green leather swivelling armchair and matching small sofa are moved onto the stage, as we go into full chat-mode. Rather than interviewing an in-universe celebrity as per the days of KMKYWAP, our subject is a dry-stone waller named Wendy Bannercheck (played by Davis).

This step-down in the calibre of chat-ee is another subliminal nod that Alan’s interviewing is now a thing best left to memory, even though he greets his guest with the “A-HA!” catchphrase established by that show (which Wendy gets wrong naturally, as the exchange isn’t as iconic as Alan seems to think). And since the sole guest for this segment isn’t famous, Alan spends the interview belittling and interrupting Wendy, illustrating again the complete failure to gel with the public that we witness during his radio phone-ins.

With another section grinding to an awkward halt (again, deliberately), the finale comes in the form of Alan performing a medley of Kate Bush hits. It’s every bit as ham-fisted as its BBC2 Abba predecessor with Gina Langland, but all the more excruciating as there’s no co-vocalist to keep things grounded. Quite why in-universe Alan thinks this would be a good way to end the show is anyone’s guess, but it’s a fitting climax.

Watching now on the Universal’s DVD release from 2000, Partridge’s set perhaps doesn’t work as well as it would in the heat of a live theatre. Alan is at his best when interacting with others, so the first two routines are stronger than the medley, but the brisk structure means it never drags. There’s little in the way of character building going on here, but it’s unlikely that this was the intention and it’s still a tonally accurate snapshot of the man we know…

Alan Partridge Presents The Cream Of British Comedy (Sanctuary Visual Entertainment)

In March 2004, two years after the second series of I’m Alan Partridge and six after The Man Who Thinks He’s It, Alan took to the stage of London’s Royal Albert Hall. With badged-blazer and clipboard in hand, the evergreen presenter compered an evening of comedy in aid of The Teenage Cancer Trust. The show had a home video release the following year.

As is standard for this sort of event, Coogan’s character introduces the show with ten minutes of standup, a further ten after the interval, his own showcase slot and a couple of minutes between each act. It’s a structure which is arguably more suited to the character than splitting up a longer set into segments, as above. From a in-character perspective, it certainly makes more sense to have Alan on stage with standup A-listers of the time, yet still somehow removed. In-universe, Alan hasn’t been hired as a comedian but as a presenter.

After broadly setting up the evening’s schedule and revisiting the ‘vominoes’ routine from 2008, Alan introduces sets from Ricky Gervais, Rob Brydon, Rich Hall, Noel Fielding and Little Britain. The recycling isn’t limited to the show’s opening stretch, as comedians throughout the evening re-use bits of material from previous shows of theirs. This isn’t unusual for short ‘club’-sets of course, and certainly not for benefit gigs. There’s a much deeper dive to be taken looking at the professional ethics and artistic integrity of porting gags from one show to the next, and whether comedy audiences want ‘the hits’ in the same way as a music crowd. But this isn’t the place for that exploration, we’re here for Alan…

As with the DVD above, time perhaps hasn’t been kind to the gags which were originally assembled to be enjoyed on one evening. Each segment is characteristically consistent (Coogan certainly had that down pat after knowing Alan for a decade) but slightly over-accessible, never forgetting the members of the audience who conceivably haven’t come into contact with Partridge before.

Running through a comedically mundane list of items donated for a faux charity auction plays well in the room, as does the sketch where he reads a passage from his dystopian novel, ‘Angliageddon’. But as always, Alan’s best moments come from interaction, so a five-minute solo slot between other acts was never going to be peak-Partridge.

We get a flash of awkwardness when a police officer (played by Hugh Parker) enters the stage after our host’s ‘Alan Qaeda’ act (which seems even more ill-conceived now than it would have in 2004 – hardly surprising that this moment didn’t go on to be referenced in either of the otherwise in-depth books), but Alan’s main sketch in the second half is where he interviews Jonathan Pearce, the man who used to be The Milky Bar Kid in Nestle TV adverts (not the real one, he’s played by Simon Pegg).

Although they’re seated on regular, padded wooden chairs (rather than the plush leather furniture brought on for The Man Who Thinks He’s It), this is closest to the Partridge we know and feels the most naturalistic as a result. The interview is a solid callback to KMKYWAP as Alan clearly hasn’t prepared, rehearsed, or researched, and when Jonathan shambles onto the stage with a carrier bag and immediately opens a can of lager it’s clear that this will go south.

And so much like the Wendy Bannercheck segment from the previous show, it transpires our subject is barely recovering from a breakdown and thought they were here to be interviewed about that, while Alan simultaneously humiliates and nags them to ‘keep things light’. Pegg’s character is an intriguing foreshadow of his Gary King role in The World’s End, while also touching on ‘the girl who smelled of Spam’ from Fist Of Fun (whose creators Lee and Herring worked with Coogan early in Partridge’s development).

And yet even with these points of familiarity, this doesn’t quite fulfil its potential. KMKYWAP worked because Alan’s guests were themselves grotesques, caricatures which would rub against the host and cause friction while the audience couldn’t quite decide who is more awful. And while the ‘Milky Bar Kid’ interview never goes so far as punching-down for comic effect, much like Julia Davis’ dry-stone waller we’re presented with a character we don’t want to laugh at. Things never approach Gervais-levels of mawkishness, but feel slightly off-centre for Alan nonetheless. A ‘bombshell’ ending is engineered for the piece which rounds things up neatly (including a reprise of Parker’s police officer), but feels equally out of kilter.

The DVD release of the show is padded out with a couple of extra features. The first of these is Alan conducting a studio-recorded 15 minute interview with Roger Daltrey, patron of The Teenage Cancer Trust. The conceit is that Roger thinks he’s been booked to promote the charity, while Alan talks over him unprompted. Following the now-classic format, this is meant to escalate to the pair coming to blows, but because Daltrey isn’t an actor (although points are awarded for his poker-face, if nothing else) this feels too contrived. Perhaps most interestingly, Alan has his DVD-cover beard in this section (which he didn’t have for the live show).

Rounding things up is a series of stitched-together promo ads for The Teenage Cancer Trust, in which Alan freeform-rambles between songs from his youth. It’s on-track for the character, but the intended broad audience keeps everything relatively ‘safe’. It seems there’s no happy medium on this disc. Even more oddly, these were filmed at a point where Alan wears an open denim shirt, moustache (but no beard) and a light floppy hairstyle, meaning he looks more like Paul Calf than Alan Partridge.

Overall, Alan Partridge Presents The Cream of British Comedy isn’t a particularly great DVD. Pedestrian in both scope and execution, it’s eager to please the broadest audience with the least-focused content. Then again it’s all for charity, which is the important thing. Although you’d be forgiven for thinking that would press its stars into working harder, but there we have it…

Steve Coogan As Alan Partridge And Other Less Successful Characters: Live (2 Entertain)

Four years later and a decade after his live-video debut, Alan Partridge returned to small screens in the home video release of Steve Coogan’s clunkily-monikered 2008 sell-out tour. Recorded in October and released on DVD the following year, it’s a stripped-down affair compared to earlier entries in the live-catalogue. There are no behind-the-scenes segments, and any time allotted for changing between characters is edited out without transition or covering material. Steve is joined for on stage interactions by Alice Lowe and Steve Oram (from Ben Wheatley’s Sightseers, among other excellent things).

Like most theatrical productions, this is a show of two halves. The first features the characters of Pauline Calf, Tommy Saxondale, Duncan Thickett and Paul Calf. Each give ten-minute turns, almost to the minute, and three of those include a musical number. In addition to this, Pauline reads a passage from her new novel (a routine used in previous live sets, although the content itself is new), while Saxondale gets the comedy-slideshow. The four acts are reliably solid, but there’s a feeling of treading water throughout. Specific joke-recycling is at a minimum (although it does occur), but while the punchlines may contain different profanities and updated cultural references, the rhythm and format remains the same. There are plenty of chuckles to be had, but it’s clear these characters have been left undeveloped in the intervening years.

But again, this isn’t the place for a thesis on the pitfalls of character-comedy and audience expectation – we’re here for Alan.

After the interval, a relatively-flashy VT sequence (everyone before this had still-photos and static titles) introduces ‘Forward Solutions’ – the self-help programme devised by Alan and expanded so expertly in 2011’s I, Partridge book. He takes to the stage in casual attire – a rollneck sweater and varsity jacket – before launching into a Queen medley accompanied by backing dancers. This gives way to his motivational slideshow, which is in reality a meandering lecture interspersed with middle-range namedropping and spurious anecdotes. Obviously, we’d expect nothing less.

After 20 minutes of personal improvement, Alan helms a chat-section. This is a tried and tested format for Coogan’s character of course, but rather than lean on the KMKYWAP model it’s presented as part of the overall session. Lowe and Oram play Jackie and Jackie Tootle, ostensibly ‘satisfied customers’ of Forward Solutions. And while the interview is not quite as focused as it perhaps should be (for the non-celebrity reasons mentioned above), the sketch is lifted by an ongoing gag about a dodgy popup advert on Alan’s laptop, the display of which is projected on the wall-high video screen at the back of the stage.

This section of the set is a shorter 10 minutes, after which we get a live performance of a play Alan has written about Henry VIII and Sir Thomas More, centring around the monarch’s first divorce and the Reformation. As one would imagine, this is Alan’s attempt to inject a level of highbrow culture into his show, and it’s suitably shambolic with lighting and microphone failures, as well as Alan repeatedly forgetting the same line. There’s little-to-no context for why Alan wrote this play or what he hopes to achieve by performing it. Which makes the whole thing even more apt.

On an entirely pedantic note (because let’s face it, Set The Tape aren’t publishing a series articles on the canon of Alan Partridge to skip over details), Alan says on stage in this 2008 show that his father died in 1990. This was fine at the time of course, but 2016’s Nomad book places that event in 1995. And we only mention this because a) it’s already a point of some discussion after discrepancies in I, Partridge regarding funeral dates, and b) Rob and Neil Gibbons’ first Partridge-based writing work was producing additional material for this show, and they went on to have a significant hand in both books. It seems like an odd thing to keep changing, ‘unreliable narrator’ or otherwise.

And so after a 40-minute set, Alan leaves the stage to rapturous applause to be replaced by Steve Coogan as the exaggerated version of himself. In keeping with the vibe of the show, he ends on a song. It’s the one which would become better known through its recital in The Trip, although we won’t name it here for SEO reasons…

It’s telling that even before the Gibbons-fuelled rejuvenation of the character at North Norfolk Digital, Alan Partridge got the stage to himself for as long as the previous four acts combined. And while his earliest roots were in the live circuit, it’s only appropriate, fitting even, that Steve Coogan’s most notable creation should find himself – in due course – the star of the comedian’s live videos. But the stage isn’t the natural home of Norwich’s finest, with the admin of getting the character into the real-world arena often outweighing any comedic benefit it produces. It’s great that he’s there, but this isn’t Alan’s (or Coogan’s) strongest work.

Join us next time as we look behind the curtain and get a glimpse of Alan’s more candid side…

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