TV Discussion

The Road to This Time With Alan Partridge #7… Documenting Alan

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 seventh outing, we look at what makes Alan tick…

Anglian Lives (BBC2)

Aired at the end of March 2003, just over three months after the second series of I’m Alan Partridge, this half-hour mockumentary poses as a regional television programme focusing on a different guest or subject every week. Anglian Lives acts as a retrospective of Alan’s career to date.

Produced by Talkback for the BBC, clips from The Day Today, Knowing Me Knowing You and Comic Relief serve as background, while new scenes have been filmed of Alan’s show on Radio Norwich. These are shot in a different studio from the one used previously, indicating again that although Anglian Lives is an in-universe documentary, I’m Alan Partridge was not.

All of this is centred around a studio-based interview, with host Ray Woolard (Peter Baynham). At first this focuses on Alan’s book, Bouncing Back, even though it’s been pulped by that point (which is mentioned in the conversation). We also cut away to pre-recorded segments of Alan reading passages from his autobiography, a format which would be picked up again for promoting I, Partridge. The interview is complemented (if that’s the word) by “Digital Dave”, an on-set laptop featuring a clunky speech-synthesiser reading questions from a text file (which can be seen open on the desktop). Ray Woolard is inordinately delighted about this feature.

The interview itself is as horrendous as one would expect, a series of disparate questions sparking no conversation, just brief self-indulgent anecdotes from Alan. The only plus-side (in-universe) is that the whole thing doesn’t escalate to a fractious ending, as is the case when Alan’s in the inquisitor’s chair. And it becomes more even clear why in the closing credits when Anglian Lives is revealed to be an Apache production – one of the chain of companies Alan had on the boil during his time in the static caravan. With his assistant Lynn credited as researcher and Sonja as associate producer, Alan evidently has ultimate control over the programme. Which goes some way to explaining why he gets such an easy ride, and also the level of banality in the questioning.

In the style of I’m Alan Partridge‘s non-setpiece scenes, the whole thing is quite understated. The deadpan performance style and expertly comic microexpressions reward re-watching rather than bombarding the viewer with heightened absurdism. While it always feels a little like a DVD extra (which it also is), Anglian Lives is the perfect coda to Alan’s first tenure at the BBC.

Alan Partridge: Welcome To The Places Of My Life (Sky Atlantic)

It would be nine years and several live shows before we returned for an intimate date with Alan. By June 2012, with Mid Morning Matters firmly established on Sky, the satellite channel screened a pair of factual programmes, made to complement the I, Partridge book release.

Welcome To The Places Of My Life is a 40-minute look at Norfolk and its cultural impact on Alan. Presented and narrated by the man himself, this is precisely the sort of informal, middle class and thoroughly self-indulgent broadcasting he thinks he’s earned in his late fifties.

Made in-universe by Pear Tree Factual Productions (so Apache is back off the table), as well as giving us the merest glimpse into Alan’s psyche, it’s his calling-card to the industry. A statement that sports reporting and casual chat are in the past, and gentle factual programming is now firmly within Alan’s capabilities. There are echoes of Who Do You Think You Are? as well as Countryfile and the formatting of the BBC’s popular history output.

Alan hasn’t got anywhere near the gravitas he imagines of course, and his interpersonal skills are equally lacking, as ever. Welcome To The Places Of My Life sees its host rubbing people up the wrong way throughout. From the collective traders of Norwich market, to an aqua-therapist at his local swimming pool, to a Range Rover salesman who’s somehow agreed to a televised test-drive (played by co-writer Neil Gibbons), Alan manages to baffle or aggrieve all who cross his path.

We also get to see him at work in North Norfolk Digital, with the set retooled from Mid Morning Matters. Although there’s no Sidekick Simon present, Alan interacts in a typically stilted fashion with radio producer Alex Benyon, played by fellow Partridge-mastermind, Rob Gibbons.

Despite short segments to comfortably accommodate ad-breaks, the pacing of the show is relaxed, with the funniest gags delivered in a deadpan fashion. At one point, Alan is spied reading a letter he’s received from the NHS. He’s then morose and on-edge for the next ten minutes of run-time until we see him bounding jubilantly out of a hospital, the heavy implication being that they’d called him in to let him know some test results had come back clear.

The point is that as writer, producer, director and presenter, Alan thinks that all of this content is still suitable for use in an easy-going programme. Either that or he hasn’t watched the footage back, relying instead on his memory of filming before handing it over to the editing team. And coming in nine months after the equally uncomfortable I, Partridge book, that’s a distinct possibility.

Welcome To The Places Of My Life acts as a firm expansion of the character, the studio set-up of a chat show now a distant memory. But perhaps most importantly, it also tells us surprisingly little about Alan Partridge that we didn’t already know from elsewhere. Which was supposed to be the show’s remit to begin with. Obviously, we’d expect nothing else…

Alan Partridge On Open Books With Martin Bryce (Sky Atlantic)

Aired a week after Welcome To The Places Of My Life in a 9pm slot, Alan Partridge On Open Books With Martin Bryce is closer in structure to Anglian Lives. Developed to promote the I, Partridge book, it’s another in-universe regional television programme, this time in the cultural discussion mould.

Written by Steve Coogan and the Gibbons Brothers, Partridge co-creator Armando Iannucci is credited as executive producer, while it’s directed by Declan Lowney (who went on to helm Alpha Papa the following year). Also worth noting is the channel-hopping presence of production designer Dennis De Groot, who had previously worked on The Day Today, Knowing Me Knowing You and I’m Alan Partridge (although not Mid Morning Matters).

Open Books consists of a studio interview interspersed with Alan reading passages aloud from I, Partridge. While this is a strong enough concept in itself, the immediate downside is that if the audience has already heard the audiobook, these sections feel a little like a rehash doubling as overt marketing material. Additionally, Alan’s pacing is rushed in these sections, dismantling Coogan’s natural comic rhythm. With a run-time of a lean 42 minutes once Sky’s ad-breaks are removed, it can feel like too many plates are being spun at once.

Despite the moniker in the title, it isn’t actually Martin Bryce who fronts this episode. Instead, a presenter named Chris Beale takes the chair (played by Robert Popper of Look Around You fame). Although he introduces himself at the beginning of the show, it’s Martin Bryce’s name that appears woven into the set itself. This causes Alan to use the wrong name to his host name several times in conversation, only to be immediately corrected. These aren’t presented as wink-at-the-camera jokes, more a maintenance of the awkward air which has been established. The fact that Alan’s mistakes have made it to final transmission is in indicator of the (in-universe) quality of Open Books generally.

The chat sections themselves are bumpy as we’d expect, although they never derail completely. But for once, the blame doesn’t lie with Alan for this. The bottom line is that Chris Beale isn’t particularly good at his job as an interviewer. Hesitant and timid, he’s constantly thrown off-track by Alan’s blunt, uncooperative and apparently unrehearsed answers.

Open Books feels very undercooked as a comedy, and not always intentionally so. There are some solid performance and sight-gags involving interaction from the small studio audience, but these run the risk of making the show seem even more shambolic than is probably intended. In terms of general Partridge material it’s fine, but by this late stage in the game fans were used to more than ‘fine’.

Unlike Anglian Lives, there’s no on-screen indication that this is a Pear Tree production or that Alan is anything other than a regular guest. Are we as an audience supposed to believe that Open Books is this disorganised with other authors? Because if it’s not entirely Alan’s fault that this interview is a shambles, then is it really on-brand Partridge at all..?

Alan Partridge’s Scissored Isle (Sky Atlantic)

Onward to May 2016 now, and rocking up four months before Nomad hit the bookshelves came Alan Partridge’s Scissored Isle. Presented under the ‘Pear Tree Factual Productions’ banner (produced, executive produced and co-directed by Alan), this is our hero with the hat of hard-hitting expose placed firmly on his head. Or so he’d like to believe.

This mockumentary spins out from the penultimate episode of Mid Morning Matters two months earlier. When a verbal altercation erupts with a group of teenage guests in the studio, Alan loses his cool and calls one of them “just a bloody chav”. Immediately knowing he’s stepped out of line, the host downplays this incident only to make an offhand comment about chavs the following evening during an after-dinner speech at the golf-club. A diner who was filming Alan’s oration uploads the footage online, and the outrage goes viral.

(The central joke which underpins the entire programme, and by far the most subtle, is that the clip we see of Mid Morning Matters where the incident takes place has the ‘chav’ line overdubbed during a stylised closeup of the teenager in question, Marvin. Alan doesn’t actually call him a chav in the original episode, he’s made this up for attention.)

Now, by way of penance, Alan sets out to create an uncompromising documentary on Britain’s class-divide – this scissored isle – and investigate what, if any, bridges can be built.

Alan’s cultural journey begins in Manchester, part of ‘the gritty North’ the character can rib with relative impunity as the area was Coogan’s childhood home. Visiting a supermarket, the presenter spends a day working on the checkouts. This gives rise to a fantastic sequence with an elderly customer, a shopping basket and a conveyor belt. It’s pure farce and plays to Coogan’s strengths as a comedic straight-man.

(In another under-the-radar gag, we see that Partridge’s house is a huge, detached affair named ‘Denton Abbey’. It’s not the home he was having built while he lived in the static caravan, and it’s not the one we saw him in during Alpha Papa. After all the effort of having his own house created from scratch, Alan lived in it for less than a decade. And after recounting a lengthy list of grandiose potential names for his dream dwelling in I, Partridge, he now lives in one which a) is a cheap pun on a TV costume drama, or b) sounds like it’s been named after his North Norfolk Digital co-presenter ‘Sidekick’ Simon Denton.)

From here we move to Alan chasing down a payday-loan shark (played by John Thomson in his first Partridge-verse role since 1995’s Comic Relief sketches), fawning over a member of the lower aristocracy (Miles Jupp), becoming locked in a food wholesale warehouse over a weekend when a freegan scavenger-hunt (with Karl Theobald) goes awry, and arranging meeting up with an inner-city gang in Manchester.

A bid to get to the core of the programme and connect with his young subjects, Alan attempts to impress the boys by bribing them with a carrier bag of cigarettes and pulling handbrake turns in a car park. He ends up at a house party, paying over the odds for “an ecstasy pellet”, before “nibbling a corner off” and being childishly hyperactive all night. This results in an atrocious interview with the mayor of Manchester (Smack The Pony’s Fiona Allen) the next morning, where the production team have attempted to disguise Alan’s visible comedown with a badly dubbed audio track of his voice, recorded much later.

After setting up a finale to the documentary by apologising personally to Marvin the teenager (who doesn’t show), we end with Alan leading the Manchester gang on an adventure-scout hike across the Peak District, where they continue to mock and belittle him. All of which he takes with a newfound good grace, naturally.

Alan’s closing voiceover claims he’s “found genuine redemption” and is “cleansed, absolved”. He isn’t, of course. Alan has achieved little other than a low-cost publicity vehicle, manufactured from a confected outrage that only he was paying attention to. It’s been attempt to reclaim the humility, relevance and dignity he never had in the first place.

And if that isn’t a note-perfect satire on the state of 21st century entertainment media, then what is?

Alan Partridge: Why, When, Where, How and Whom (BBC2)

Before we sign off on this series of lookbacks, we surface back into our own world for a behind-the-scenes look at Alan Partridge. The Why, When, Where, How and Whom documentary was screened on 27 December 2017, when This Time With Alan Partridge had been announced, confirming his return to the BBC.

A fairly comprehensive look at the presenter’s dallying around the altar of stardom, it’s an hour featuring clips, making-of and test footage, as well as a plethora of talking heads to give the inside scoop. We have Steve Coogan joined by Armando Iannucci, Patrick Marber, Peter Baynham, Rebecca Front, Doon Mackichan, David Schneider, Felicity Montagu, Sally Phillips, Phil Cornwell and Simon Greenall.

It’s great to get insights first-hand with the people who helped build Alan, from his foundations and core structure through to the final touches and ongoing development. Marber is a particular highlight since he’s been a rarity on our screens since the Knowing Me Knowing You TV series, and didn’t contribute to any Partridge projects after that.

Picking up at the genesis of the character for On The Hour, the programme spends its first 40 minutes documenting the BBC shows; The Day Today, KMKYWAP and both series of I’m Alan Partridge. Then for the final third, Rob Gibbons, Neil Gibbons and Tim Key enter to discuss Mid Morning Matters, Alpha Papa and the Sky mockumentaries.

It’s not that there’s necessarily less content to cover after the character left the BBC, but the origins are established by this point and there are fewer talking heads and anecdotes as a result.

In the closing minutes, the topic changes to Alan’s upcoming TV show, with very few actual details and just a smattering of backstage costume shots to tantalise the audience. It’s the televisual equivalent of a teaser trailer, and little more would be revealed in the year which followed.

But that’s not to play down the programme which preceded it. Even when sharing the more well known stories, Why, When, Where, How and Whom is a great out-of-universe roundup and retrospective on the character. In-depth yet accessible, it’s remarkable that it’s still entirely engaging even if you’re the kind of person who’s spent the last seven weeks watching little other than Alan Partridge content.

It’s a testament to such a well constructed character that elements of Partridge’s persona (both on and off-screen) continue to be fleshed out and there are still new aspects to uncover. Like all of us, Alan continues to evolve – sometimes in great strides, sometimes imperceptibly. And like all of us, it’s the past that makes him who is is today.

There are of course many other in-character appearances and presenting slots over the years, too numerous to cover here. It builds a ubiquitousness which Alan would be delighted with, and all part of the charm.

And here we are at the end of our retrospective! It’s been a long road, over a quarter-century in the making and the end isn’t in sight just yet. Our next stop sees Steve Coogan finally returning to the embrace of Auntie Beeb in This Time With Alan Partridge. What could possibly go wrong..?

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