The Partridge has been set amongst the pigeons over the last week since the debut of This Time, the new vehicle for Steve Coogan’s thwarted radio disc jockey and erstwhile one hit wonder TV presenter. The knives have been out – some from fellow broadcasters like Piers Morgan (cut a little too close to the bone, mate?), others from fans who claim This Time just “isn’t Alan” or “it’s not Partridge”. This is a strange problem to have with a character who defines himself by changing formats and direction every time Coogan chooses to bring him back into the limelight, but episode 2 of This Time especially feels hard to level those same negatives toward.
Mainly because this is the episode where This Time most resembles Knowing Me Knowing You, Alan’s first foray into BBC prime time broadcasting way back in 1994—after the successful radio series of the same name which launched the Partridge character. ‘KMKYWAP’, as it became immortalised by Alan himself, was a frequently horrific and hilarious piece of television; six half hours of Alan preening, massaging his ego, giving way to horrendous stereotypes and prejudices, giving opportunities and airtime to complete weirdos, and delivering segments which baffled and beggared belief. It was car crash television before the digital, social media age Alan was born for, and This Time—on the evidence of this episode—is evolving that same concept with propitious cleverness and nuance. This Time has already cemented itself as a show where the gags are in what you don’t see and what is not said.
Alan hasn’t been this awful as a human being for a while, this driven by his own insecurities and egos that he makes the sad death of a long time presenter about him, and later spits an undercurrent of jealous bile at the more successful BBC presenter who typifies what he both worships and loathes about the organisation in one fell swoop. Writer-directors Neil & Rob Gibbons (naturally in tandem with Coogan) have nurtured Alan across Mid-Morning Matters, Scissored Isle and even movie Alpha Papa to be a less outwardly self-serving, vindictive man.
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Alan is a dinosaur who still says all the wrong things at the wrong times but his weirdness is likeable, and the comedy often comes from his own misfortune or the rambling, shambling gibberish he descends into across the indulgences that he presents. North Norfolk Digital is so small fry that Alan just gets away with madness like “what is Alan firing his friend’s air rifle into?”. This Time shows that the old Alan, to some degree, is still lurking inside. He just rarely gets the chance these days to show it.
Here lies the skill in this episode of This Time, particularly. Divested of the set up, of having to place Alan inside this new (or indeed old) presenting paradigm, episode 2 really allows Alan’s cringe making balance of terrible comments, bad one liners and weird conversations to take hold. Just look at the dark rabbit hole he descends when asking Geordie audience member Ted (a little wink you suspect to the missing, presumed deceased Michael) about travelling to see late host John Baskell so often – it’s both funny and distressing.
The fact Alan refuses to acknowledge comments that This Time will never be as good without John, unable even to let a dead man have critical respect at his benefit. And, in the coup de grace of the episode, how Alan takes calculated joy in humiliating co-presenter Jennie Gresham (Susannah Fielding) and history presenter guest Sam Chatwin (a brilliantly smug Simon Farnaby) by reading tweets which suggest John was, inevitably, a big old perv.
If anything, *this* is the Alan Partridge people loved from the 90’s, the Alan for whom regional success as a fair sized fish in a tiny pod sawed the edges off (this is no disrespect to the comedy since I’m Alan Partridge, because it’s been sublime). Alan is now a tiny fish in a huge pond again and all his strangeness, bitterness and eccentricity is boiling up to the surface and manifesting, except in this day and age This Time’s format and the intersection of social media are giving him the platform to communicate it.
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Sidekick Simon (Tim Key) works much better this week in this context, as he & Alan turn tweet comments into an imagined apocalyptic British war scenario “oh my god, there’s 50,000 kids down there!!!”, in a great example of how unchecked Alan with a platform will descent into pits of dark, weird madness. The fact his PA Lynn (Felicity Montagu) is rapidly turning into a Lady MacBeth at his side, stoking his ambition as the BBC opportunity presents itself, only adds to the possibility Alan could grow increasingly more grotesque as this series progresses.
Let’s hope so. This would be less of a regression for Alan but more of a natural progression as he embraces the chance that a large proportion of the psychology of his comedy is constructed around. It won’t be the same as KMKYWAP, for the fact we’re living in a much difference age of broadcasting, and Alan is more of a seasoned and nuanced character than in those days, but This Time already has a visible ongoing narrative arc in Alan replacing John and his brittle dynamic with Jennie, which you sense could just grow and grow. At the most basic level, however, this is brilliantly careful, concentrated and deeply clever comedy working on a number of levels.
It is also, very much, Alan Partridge. At his best. A-ha!
This Time With Alan Partridge airs weekly on Mondays on BBC1.