Who’s Alan Partridge? A primer on a British comedy great

Steve Coogan brings his longtime character to the big screen in the film "Alan Partridge." Credit: Magnolia Pictures
Steve Coogan brings his longtime character to the big screen in the film “Alan Partridge.”
Credit: Magnolia Pictures

This week brings forth “Alan Partridge,” the latest British comedy import, starring Steve Coogan as a loathsome, bottomlessly egotistical DJ. What you might not know — that is, unless you’re a British comedy nerd or an actual Brit — is Partridge has been a comic superstar in England for over 20 years. In fact, he’s arguably the father of all the loveable-hateable comedy anti-heroes whose terminal obliviousness makes for enjoyably awkward television and film. If you love “The Office”’s David Brent (or his American equivalent, Michael Scott), then you’ll really love Alan Partridge.

Alan Partridge was born on radio. He was one of the main characters on “On the Hour,” a BBC Radio 4 fake news show that ran from 1991 to 1992. The show was kind of the Avengers (Marvel, that is) for future U.K. comedy legends — not just Coogan but Chris Morris (“Brass Eye,” “Four Lions”), Patrick Marber (the future playwright of “Closer”), Rebecca Front (“The Thick of It”) and producer/writer Armando Iannucci (“The Thick of It,” “Veep”). The show was successful enough to storm TV, where it became “The Day Today.”

Partridge was the sports guy, a position Coogan took because he had no real love for sports. In his earliest incarnation, Partridge is a dense but ultimately meek figure of fun, who strode into sporting events with his massive hair helmet and Cosby sweaters, making inane commentary (“The goalie has got football pie all over his shirt!”) when he wasn’t invading locker rooms for men and women.

Partridge was so popular and interesting that Coogan and his fellow writers began wondering more about his personal life. These inquiries led to him getting his own spin-off show, 1994’s “Knowing Me, Knowing You With Alan Partridge,” a chat/variety show, on which Partridge — exploiting a stipulation that the BBC has to air regional “talent” — managed to insult untold guests, almost get killed by a scary English gangster, eat animal testicles, enrage his house band and accidentally shoot a guest in the heart with one of Lord Byron’s firing pistols. He also did a terrifically terrible medley devoted to ABBA — one of the clueless Partridge’s favorite bands, as you’ll note from the title of his show. (He also later called Wings “the band The Beatles could have been” — not that there’s anything wrong with Wings.)

The show-within-the-show’s ratings started off okay, then nosedived. In real life, “Knowing Me Knowing You” was a big hit, and Partridge came back for two separate series of “I’m Alan Partridge,” which followed him around in the real world, surviving in the wake of his television career’s fiery demise. In the first series, he’s newly divorced and torturing the staff of a travel tavern. In the second, from five years later, he’s more or less accepted his lowly position in a mediocre time slot in a nowhere Norwich, England radio station. He’s also shacked up with a younger Ukrainian girlfriend, whom he hates except for the fact that she’ll happily have sex with him (and that he’s able to brag to others that he has a younger girlfriend).

The character’s survivability has both boosted and haunted Coogan’s career, who’s often felt pigeonholed. That’s not so in the United States, where Partridge has never taken off beyond a strong, passionate cult following. Thus Coogan has been able to gain a following for other characters: Factory Records honcho Tony Wilson (“24 Hour Party People”), a Jackie Chan sidekick (“Around the World in 80 Days”), snooty journo Martin Sixsmith (“Philomena,” one of his now frequent dramas) and as a jerkish version of “himself” in “Coffee and Cigarettes,” “Tristram Shandy” and “The Trip” (and its forthcoming sequel, “The Trip to Italy”).

Instead of embracing Alan Partridge, America fell for Ricky Gervais’ David Brent, who is so close to Alan Partridge that “The Office” co-creator Stephen Merchant often had to shout to Gervais, “Too Partridge! You’ve gone too Partridge!” In his defense, Gervais’ Brent is far more giggly and vulnerable than Partridge. Brent is a need-monster who demands the love of an office; Partridge wants all of England, maybe the world. Brent is crushed by defeat; Partridge may have moments of depression, but he rebounds, hungry for the next comically minor gig, like hosting a local farm show. Of course, this means his falls are much more precipitous; between the two “I’m Alan Partridge” series, he even suffers a nervous breakdown and gains a mass of weight thanks to an addiction to Tolberones. But he always finds his way back to himself. Brent happens upon a bit of self-awareness by “The Office”’s end, whereas Partridge is a master as self-delusion, spinning every disgrace, even if that means outright ignoring it.

As he’s headed deeper into middle age — as seen on the web series “Mid Morning Matters” and read in the faux-memoir “I, Partridge: We Need to Talk About Alan” (though one should spring for the audiobook to hear Coogan-as-Alan’s signature drawl) — the character has slightly softened. He’s still out for number one, but he’s less evil, less right wing and no longer noticeably homophobic. Gone are the days when he would be caught watching a hotel porno called “Bangkok Chickboys” — not, he would sternly point out, because he found them erotic, but because he found them “fascinating.” In the film “Alan Partridge” — awarded the subtitle “Alpha Papa” in England, where it beat out “Grown Ups 2” for the top box office spot on its opening weekend — he tries to use a radio station hostage situation for his own personal gain, but does wind up learning a minor lesson, if one he quickly forgets. If Alan Partridge ever remembered a lesson, he would no longer be funny.

There are many reasons why Partridge has endured, and why he may, with this movie, even find a new life in America. He’s not just a guy who obliviously blurts out inappropriate and unpopular beliefs, or makes an ass of himself for our amusement. Parts of all of us are in Alan Partridge. Coogan himself has called him a dumping site for his worst qualities. We all have at least moments, if not more, of acting out of venal self-interest. We all have those times when we prattle on endlessly about topics that interest no one but ourselves. We can all be boring or boorish, or try to play cool about our failures or blurt out terrible ideas, as Partridge’s famous pitch for a show called “Monkey Tennis.” We’re all Alan Partridge — hopefully to lesser extents than most.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge



News
Entertainment
Sports
Lifestyle
National

Mutant worms stay sober, even on alcohol

U.S. researchers have developed "mutant worms" that do not get drunk by alcohol, a breakthrough that could lead to new treatment for people trying to quit drinking

Local

K-9 nose helps capture $150K in cocaine at…

A furry, four-legged security agent helped authorities stop an illegal cocaine shipment from sneaking past JFK customs.

National

Minnesota man asked to leave Southwest flight after…

A man and his two sons were asked to leave a Southwest Airlines flight after the man sent a tweet complaining about being treated rudely by a gate agent.

National

Man sues hospital after surprise penis amputation

An Alabama man who went in to a hospital last month for a circumcision awoke after surgery to find his penis had been amputated, his lawyer said on Thursday.

Movies

Review: Brett Ratner's big 'Hercules' movie is small…

The latest "Hercules," starring Dwayne Johnson as the half-god beefcake of Greek myth, strips its hero and tale of most of its fantastical elements.

Arts

Scientists recreate world's smallest Monet copy

Scientists have reproduced a famous Impressionist painting using nano-printing, to create what has been described as the world's smallest work of art. Reworked at the…

Television

Jerry Seinfeld is ambidextrous, and other Reddit AMA…

See some of the weirder highlights of Jerry Seinfeld's recent Reddit AMA.

Going Out

Grab a pedestrian and start dancing at What…

As a New Yorker, I’ve mastered the art of focusing my gaze straight ahead. Though it occasionally piques my interest, the absurdities that play out…

NFL

2014 NFL Fantasy Football Top 100 overall player…

2014 NFL Fantasy Football Top 100 overall player rankings

U.S. Soccer

NYCFC announce signing of Frank Lampard

The tease of a big signing Thursday by new MLS side NYCFC ended up being one rumored for weeks. England midfielder Frank Lampard agreed to…

NBA

NBA great LeBron James sends 800 cupcake apologies…

By Kim PalmerCLEVELAND (Reuters) - NBA star LeBron James, whose recent return to the Cleveland Cavaliers in his home state of Ohio sparked a frenzy…

NFL

Jerry Reese confident with Giants, skipping countdown clocks…

Last year, Giants GM Jerry Reese installed a countdown clock in the locker room to inspire Big Blue to play in their own stadium for Super Bowl XLVIII.

Tech

Forget Wi-Fi: Li-Fi could be the future

Li-Fi technology – developed by Mexican company Sisoft – is wireless internet connectivity using specialized LED light.

Tech

Weather app Climendo might be the most accurate…

The wait for a truly accurate weather forecast could finally be over thanks to a nifty new app called Climendo.

Tech

Napkin Table puts focus off the phone and…

Michael Jan, a design student at Tunghai University in Taiwan, has invented a serviette-picnic blanket hybrid called the Napkin Table.

Style

Essie's new Color Boutique

Essie launches high-tech kiosks at major airports and malls across the country.