Alan Partridge finally makes it to the silver screen after 20 years of network nightmares – welcome to big school
The opening sequence in Alpha Papa sees Alan Partridge miming to Roachford’s 'Cuddly Toy' in his freebie Kia. It is the apotheosis of Partridge, Alan in excelsis – aggressive, pedantically word perfect, punching the key phrases in his string-backed driving gloves and using the instrumental break to berate a fellow motorist for leaving his fog lamps on.
John Peel said of Noel Edmonds that he was the only DJ he knew who didn’t appear to own any records, and Partridge is definitely a broadcaster of the Edmonds school. So it is surprising just how much music colours his life, whether he’s chanting along to Steeleye Span’s festive chart-topper 'Gaudete' or playing air drums to the Return of the Saint theme.
It’s these deft touches from creators and writers Armando Iannucci, Pete Baynham and Steve Coogan himself – alongside brothers Neil and Rob Gibbons after their Midmorning Matters success – that really colours Alan Partridge, that make him so richly, despicably human.
Pat Farrell (Colm Meaney) is a worried man. The radio station he works for, North Norfolk Digital, is being rebranded as Shape – 'The way you want it to be'. This is good news for moronic Breakfast DJ Danny Sinclair and his posse, but bad news for Pat’s cosy graveyard shift. His biggest mistake is putting his faith in his best friend at the station, the midmorning maestro Alan Partridge, and asking him to intercede on his behalf.
Bustling into the corporate meeting – 'Sorry to be an agenda bender' – Alan wastes no time at all in comprehensively betraying Pat once he realises that there is a question mark next to his own name. Sacked and with nothing left to live for, Pat lays siege to the radio station, leaving great mate Partridge to negotiate between himself and the police.
A briefing by the security services puts paid to Alan’s longstanding Bravo Two Zero fantasies as he crumbles in the face of Sean Pertwee’s macho copper: 'If you jeopardise the lives of my men I will take off this uniform and make you pay for it.' A cloud of panicked confusion drifts across Alan’s face: 'You want me to buy your uniform?'
Things come to a head when Pat, who has started broadcasting to a suddenly inflated audience, realises that Shape have deleted his jingles. Partridge subsequently springs into action, galvanising the hostages into a working band with his long-suspected fretless bass chops.
The central part of Alpha Papa is a Dog Day Afternoon style siege, which rattles along perfectly well thanks to Wexfordian Declan Lowney's taught direction. Colm Meaney’s Pat is vulnerable and desperate enough to do anything, and you genuinely believe he is quite capable of taking a shotgun to babbling gadfly sidekick Simon’s head. An unemployed widower, he feels he has nothing left to lose.
And then, of course, there is the fulcrum at the heart of the film: Alan Partridge’s callow treachery and Pat’s inevitable discovery of his betrayal. Alan is a larger and more heroic figure here than in previous incarnations. He is generally more likeable too, actually attempting to do the right thing on occasion.
There have been howls of protests about this new likeable Partridge, but that must surely come from the acknowledgement that for once Alan isn’t the worst person in the room. Yet he reverts immediately to type – all mendacious self interest and cowardice – at the slightest hint of trouble.
At the height of his success, buoyed up by the promise of a breakfast show and international hostage negotiating fame, he even manages to get locked out of the building and has to clamber in through a window, losing his trousers in the process.
Alpha Papa is a perfect marriage of observation, beautifully sculpted dialogue and the sort of crass physical humour the Carry Ons would have lapped up. Alan Partridge has been around for 20 years – there is a weight and depth to Coogan’s characterisation that is both mutable and consistent – so when Alan loses his trousers, he loses them the way only Alan Partridge could.
Coogan is a fine actor and Partridge his most complex creation, driven by furies and continually thwarted. Here, Pat and Alan face up to the fetishisation of youth and the tyranny of brand awareness like a smart casual Butch and Sundance. They represent a fat seam of people unfairly discarded because of their seeming obsolescence in a world of corporate uniformity and bland brand obsession.
For all his tics, neuroses and dysfunction, Alan is just Alan. I don’t want to see him go on a journey and I don’t want to see him learn anything. I want to see him as the squirming, oblivious, socially inept Daily Mail reading coward that he is. I want him venal and grasping and Clarkson-esque and Alpha Papa does not disappoint. This is liquid cinema.
Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa is on general release now.