“Hayers had us scheduled for a 9pm BBC2 slot. I’m often asked if that miffed me. The natural home for a broadcaster like me would surely have been BBC1, 7pm. […] BBC1 was crying out for KMKY, and the decision not to place it there was a loony one…”
~ I Partridge, We Need To Talk About Alan.
Well, it may have taken a quarter of a century – and the path certainly wasn’t smooth – but Alan Partridge finally made it to primetime on February 25, 2019. Finally returning to the embrace of Auntie Beeb, the Monday night slot was the first subtle callback to the scheduling of 1994’s Knowing Me Knowing You as well as 1997 and 2002’s I’m Alan Partridge. The key difference of course is that this new show would air on the channel considered to be the cornerstone of UK broadcasting, BBC One.
Cryptically announced by writers Rob and Neil Gibbons in 2017, This Time With Alan Partridge (TTWAP) is a parody of current affairs and magazine-format programming, most notably BBC1’s flagship The One Show. A mixture of in-studio chat, VT segments and audience-at-home interaction covers a range of topics in each episode, from the lightearted to the socially-conscious. This isn’t a new thing in itself (readers of a certain age will be familiar with programmes like Nationwide and That’s Life), but the shift from Alan’s previous career pinnacle of a one-on-one chat show to a briskly paced pot pourri reflects the change in the televisual landscape over the years.
In-universe, Alan is airdropped into This Time when the show’s regular co-presenter, John Baskell, is suddenly taken ill. He shares the sofa with the incumbent Jennie Gresham (played by Susannah Fielding), and the one-set location is broken up by regular jaunts over to ‘the video wall’ manned by Simon Denton (Tim Key reprising his role from Mid Morning Matters and the Alpha Papa movie). Further continuity comes from Alan’s long-suffering assistant Lynn Benfield (Felicity Montagu), who bustles onto set in the off-air segments.
The core format of TTWAP is that the we’re watching the live, 30 minute ‘to-camera’ broadcast in realtime. When the broadcast show cuts to a pre-recorded VT piece we stay in the studio and get a glimpse of behind the scenes prepping, interaction and bickering. The cameras used for this are the in-studio ones, setting up for shots or being adjusted after previous ones. The combination of front-facing presentation with candid interludes is one that the Gibbons brothers honed to a fine art in Mid Morning Matters, and have perfected in This Time. Within the fictionalised continuity, the audience doesn’t see the behind-the-scenes content, effectively making this a stylistic combination of KMKYWAP and I’m Alan Partidge.
And although Steve Coogan has proved that the character can work exceptionally well in the isolation of two narrated full-length audiobooks, he’s nothing on-screen without the reactions of others. It’s here that the supporting cast should take their bows, with a standing ovation being awarded to Susannah Fielding. Her performance is an absolute masterclass in reaction-shots; not the horror, disdain or disgust we’ve seen in earlier vehicles for Alan, but the note-perfect microexpressions of panic punching through the consummate professionalism of a broadcaster, maintaining a calm facade while wondering how much further her co-presenter is going to go off-piste.
Many another comedian (Gervais, Kay) might line up a bittersweet, unrequited romance between the elder male host and his attractive younger colleague (indeed, Mid Morning Matters did paddle in those waters briefly). But here, despite Alan either sitting too close to Jennie or putting an apparently absent-minded hand on her knee, the vibe is just that he thinks he’s better than her. He’s not, of course. But Alan knows from the outset that Jennie is too professional, too feisty and frankly too smart to put up with his advances for a second. Nevertheless, she keeps her guard up throughout the series – another observation of working in the media in the 21st century.
Additionally, a lesser comedy series would have the floor manager’s call of “and we’re off-air” be met with a slipping of the mask, a cue for Jennie’s open hostility to her co-host. Instead, she retains her politeness albeit with a faint mixture of resignation and fury. Where Alan is initially a temporary co-host, this is an easy task. But Jennie’s patience grows accordingly thinner as the weeks wear on, leading to a surprisingly restrained showdown in the final episode. Because we’re effectively ‘locked-off’ as an audience, the fallout of this is limited to a tantaslising summoning to the producer’s office as the credits roll. Although we’re bound to get Alan’s filtered rendition of events in his next book.
While there are appearances from real-world television presenters such as Emily Maitlis and Monty Don, the main bulk of studio guests are in-universe experts and commentators. Unlike KMKYWAP, which used a rotating core of performers for each episode, here there’s a far broader spread of comic talent. Cariad Lloyd, Ellie White and Simon Farnaby all play interview subjects, while Lolly Adefope’s recurring turn as Ruth Duggan – a roving reporter refusing to drop a longstanding feud with Alan – leads to some of the best passive-aggressive oneupmanship you’re likely to see on TV this year.
The only call we have to leave the studio surroundings comes from VTs presented by Alan, as there’s obviously inherent comedy there. Whether it’s a bizarre battle re-enactment which concludes with Partridge in a full suit of armour, faux-slaughtering opponents as he narrates historical events to the audience, or a glimpse inside his ‘Denton Abbey’ home as he practices resuscitation techniques on a sex doll we see him retrieve from the attic, each is a terrifying insight into the mind of a man who still – after all these years – thinks he’s the best at what he does, in absolute denial of all the evidence against that.
Even more incredulous is the idea that someone at the BBC has approved these pieces for transmission (although they’re almost certainly subbed-out to Peartree Productions for filming). It’s not that Alan’s presenting style hasn’t developed over the years or that he isn’t aware of changing trends, more that by trying to add his individual stamp to a project he inevitably misjudges the situation, digging himself into a hole not easily escaped – especially while the microphone or camera is still running. In a tabloid-baiting piece around the subject of corporal punishment in schools, Alan spends 70 gloriously inappropriate seconds demonstrating the optimal way to administer a beating with a slipper using a single stroke, complete with replays, angle analysis and a child-sized mannequin which goes flying across a sports hall as a result. The laughs come from the comedy of repetition as well as the presenter’s insistence on accuracy at the expense of good taste.
From a broader, out-of-universe perspective, This Time sees the combination of Steve Coogan, Rob Gibbons and Neil Gibbons at the top of their game. Their (relatively) recently established ticks and foibles for Partridge blend seamlessly with the character developed since his 1991 debut in On The Hour. While his crass sensibility has been smoothed out over the years, Alan’s subconscious insistence that everything should revolve around him remains an excruciating constant.
Some sections (indeed episodes) work better than others, but one of the Partridge’s greatest gifts has always been going back and finding new, more subtly layered, jokes upon re-watching. TTWAP is no exception.
So what next? While another series of This Time seems unlikely (because nothing about the final episode suggests an extended tenure for the Norwich presenter), the Gibbons brothers have confirmed new Partridge projects in the pipeline, and still at the BBC.
In the meanwhile, we have these three hours of content to mercilessly dissect, laughing gleefully as we do so…