Let’s not pretend Steve Coogan is at his peak just because the apocalypse is nighby Lucinda Smyth / March 15, 2019 / Leave a comment
The man on the screen is wearing a yellow puffa jacket, a blood-chestnut toupee, and a bared-teeth grimacey-smile that cranks sideways as he talks. It’s the sort of smile that can only be explained by his state of perpetual embarrassment. “A simple stream in North Gresham, Norfolk,” the man says, in a reverent nasal monotone. “But six centuries ago, this stream would have flowed with the blood and entrails of fallen men.” He pauses, huffs. “I was hoping to illustrate it by pouring in this bucket of butcher’s waste, but some dimwit at the county seems to think it would contaminate the water supply.”
You’re watching the second episode of the BBC 1 sitcom, This Time with Alan Patridge. The man on the screen is the eponymous host, Partridge himself, and he is presenting a segment on the Peasants’ Revolt.
Dear Prospect reader, if you’ve come to this article not knowing anything about who Partridge is, I honestly can’t help you much beyond the above description. I could try to catch you up by running a brief summary of the 28-year cultural history. I could tell you about the radio shows, the inaugural chat show, the sitcoms (two), the feature film, the book, the audiobook, the cameo appearances. I could bore you through the basics: how he’s played by the actor Steve Coogan, how he’s a hapless disc-jockey formerly at the fictional North Norfolk Digital, how he’s now (in the new series) the temporary BBC presenter of This Time, a sort of The One Show/Good Morning Britain spoof. I could waste an entire paragraph telling you all this. But to put it in informational terms would only be to understate the impact that Partridge has had on UK audiences.
Alan Partridge is more than just a comedy character. He is an expression of Englishness. Specifically, he is an expression of English social awkwardness. He is someone who recognises what the acceptable standard is, attempts to rise to it, drastically fails to get there and (unlike you) refuses to apologise. Remember that time you were driving and mouthed to someone to switch off their fog-lights, and they thought that you were swearing at them? Yeah, Alan did that, in a car with a giant phallus graffitied on it, and then he got called out for it on his radio show. Remember that time you shouted at your new friend across a car park, and they didn’t respond? Alan did that too, for about 10 minutes. These are a clutch of blunders in a repertoire stretching back almost three decades.
Failure is the cornerstone of UK comedy. As a nation we love to watch depressed people struggle on through unimprovable situations that we recognise having been in ourselves. And for many of us, there is no failure more profound or painful or recognisable than a social failure. What’s better than seeing a nicey-nice dinner party full of stilted laughter collapse into bewilderment when the protagonist randomly announces they’re having a miscarriage (S2 E2 Fleabag)? Nothing, that’s what. Or, if there is, it’s watching the best man urinate on a church balcony at a wedding, before the residual moisture drips down onto an old lady’s hat (S4 E6, Peep Show). These are joyful moments of British art. I don’t know what this says about England as a nation, but I’m tempted to say something about class—that the expectation of us as stiff-upper lip, prim and proper genteel types is very rarely met, and that those who try to live up to such a performance rarely execute it successfully.
What elevates Partridge to iconic status is that he not only encompasses this level of total social failure as a human being—it’s that he always tries to rectify it. Alan’s neediness is visceral. TV is a visual medium, but when he makes a facial expression I can actually smell the stress-sweat gathering around his hairline. There’s an intensity about the man—in his wincing inability to conceal his feelings—that screams for acceptance. Unlike David Brent (the Office boss played by Ricky Gervais)—who desires triumph over others—the root desire of Partridge is to be accepted. This makes him weirdly, perversely loveable.
So much can be said of the character then. But what about the actual show? Since the first episode of This Time aired on BBC1 a few weeks ago, critics have been brimming with praise. The Guardian, Independent, and the Telegraph all ran five star reviews. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen Coogan better or Patridge funnier,” swooned BBC-sceptic James Delingpole in the Spectator. Even the Daily Mail praised Coogan’s “genius,” and squealed Partridge was “FINALLY returning to television.” It’s truly heartening to see this reconciliation across opposing camps. And yet there is an underlying sense that, well, something is afoot here.
Amidst all the praise, there has been one loud dissenting voice against This Time: that of Good Morning Britain host and veteran baddie Piers Morgan. In his Daily Mail column, Morgan claimed that the show was so unfunny as to be “almost unwatchable.” This reaction was triggered partially (comically) by the fact that Partridge’s new incarnation is inspired by him. “Oh Steve,” he wrote, like a Scooby Doo villain, “In your attempt to embarrass me you’ve committed comedy homicide and murdered Alan Partridge as a laugh-out-loud character.” He then went on to point out Partridge’s dipped second episode ratings, and to cite several journalists who claimed that Good Morning Britain was better TV. Eh, sure. But let’s be fair here: although Morgan’s ping-pong braggadocio is clearly tiresome and predictable, the ratings for the subsequent episodes are down. And if we’re honest, this season is not quite as funny as critics are claiming.
I’m now going to put my cards on the table. This Time is… OK. But it is not the best of British television, it’s not even the best of Coogan, and it undermines both to say so. At a time of excellent, genuinely novel comedy (Fleabag, Russian Doll, BoJack Horseman, The Good Place) it’s absurd to pit Alan Partridge as the best thing on TV.
I don’t mean to say that there haven’t been a few gems in This Time. But overall the timing is patchy, the belly-laughs are few, and the script is tiringly Alan-centric. As with all social failure comedies, you need some kind of friction in order to pull off punchlines. It’s not enough to have someone doing and saying embarrassing things: we need to give that person enough space to see the reactions of people around them.
Despite the fact that This Time is a talk show, Alan so far has had little back-and-forth with the other characters, and when he does, often the one-liners are cheap. In episode one, Alan introduces a guest as “Alice Clunt.” “It’s Alice Fluck,” she corrects him. Funny-ish, but scraping the barrel. The better moments of Partridge are the subtler ones: like in episode three, when he can’t figure out whether his Scottish guest’s repeated “eh,” is intended as a request for his opinion (do you agree?) or just a verbal tic.
There are various explanations that could be posited for the universally positive critical reaction to This Time. Could it be that we’re collectively so fed up with the establishment that an irreverent lampooning is massively appreciated, irrespective of whether it’s really that funny? Maybe, but it could also be the opposite: that it appeases both sides. Partridge, like all satire, can be interpreted as quite flattering to the intended subject of ridicule. (Spitting Image was reportedly Margaret Thatcher’s favourite programme.) Seeing Partridge saying the unsayable will be vicariously satisfying for a smattering of right-wing viewers; for many liberals, seeing themselves referenced will be a source of smug discomfort.
My suspicion is that the current political climate plays a larger role: forced to watch the desperately unfunny Brexit farce that rolls on day by day, we’re so desperate to laugh at something (anything!) that we’re lowering our standards. And we love Alan so much—an emblem of Englishness, of simpler times—that we force ourselves to laugh with/at him the hardest.
I can already hear the Twitterati sharpening their pitchforks, so I’ll cut to the chase here and get out alive. Look, yes, Partridge is still pretty funny. It’s fine. But let’s not pretend it’s at its peak just because the apocalypse is nigh.