With the success of the Oscar-nominated Philomena, British comedian Steve Coogan has nudged up his North American profile, previously established in such movies as Tropic Thunder and, to the Anglophile crowd, Michael Winterbottom’s films, Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story and The Trip (in which he played Steve Coogan), and the musical biography 24 Hour Party People. With Alan Partridge, he brings to North America a character who has had more than 20 years marinating in England on television and radio.
Because Alan Partridge is a long-standing English comic phenomenon, the standard of judgment for the movie, released in England last summer, was roughly equivalent to the reaction to The Simpsons Movie here: Decent, but not all we hoped. On this side of the Atlantic, the arrival of Alan Partridge is more of a revelation.
The character of Alan Partridge, developed in the early nineties by Coogan himself and Armando Iannucci (creator of the HBO series Veep), is a fairly stock type: the puffed up, ignorant newscaster or talk-show host. Unlike Will Ferrell’s similarly narcissistic Ron Burgundy, who seems to constantly achieve success far above his natural ability, Partridge is passably bright but emotionally cold, petty and cowardly, and pretty much deserving of all of his comeuppances. When we watch him madly lip-synching as he drives along the road, we see he’s also a three-year-old caught in a middle-aged man’s body.
The current movie finds Partridge, now 55 (the real-life Coogan is 48), long after losing his national talk show, but having retained his gleaming dental veneers. He’s back working as a DJ in his hometown radio station at North Norfolk Digital Radio, where he is the host of Mid-Morning Matters, an easy-listening show featuring plenty of audience votes (which is the worst monger? Iron, fish or war?) and occasional banter with his sidekick, known as Sidekick Simon (Tim Key). But North Norfolk Digital Radio is in crisis: New owners Gordale Media, led by corporate bulldog Jason (Nigel Lindsay) are ready to slash staff and change the format known as the Shape.
Elected by his co-workers to make a pitch in their defence to the executive, Alan starts off brashly, but the moment he realizes the choice may be between him and another middle-aged host, the depressive Irishman named Pat Farrell (Colm Meaney), he steps up and does the wrong thing, recommending that Pat get the sack. Pat, already despondent over the death of his wife a year previously, loses it, returning to the station that evening with a shotgun and taking the staff hostage.
Alan, supposedly Pat’s best mate, is sent to the station to try to mediate between police and the hostage taker. As the hostage drama plays out through the media, Partridge, in a kind of Anglo update on Dog Day Afternoon, begins to revel in his status at the centre of attention. Soon both he and Pat have returned to the airwaves, taking requests from listeners, while the puzzled police and excited press mill outside. When Partridge’s much-abused personal assistant (Felicity Montagu) warns him of the danger of letting his ego run away with him, he brushes her off: “Enjoy me. Everyone else is.”
Shot in drab surroundings in a mock-doc, hand-held television style (the director is Declan Lowney of the Father Ted series), the movie is largely dialogue-driven, focusing on Partridge’s verbal locutions and offhand offensiveness. Rooted in a hyper-verbal, Brit comic tradition that in broadcast form goes back to The Goon Show, That was the Week that Was, Beyond the Fringe and Monty Python, Coogan delivers one-liners at a speed and frequency that make his North American contemporaries sound as if they have weights on their tongues. Particularly good is his appropriation of soft-rock radio DJ style, with the end of every record offering another opportunity for a bon mot: “That was soft-rock cocaine enthusiasts, Fleetwood Mac.” Or: “You can keep Jesus, as far as I’m concerned. Neil Diamond will always be the King of the Jews.”
Otherwise, Alan Partridge is fairly silly, setting up slightly menacing situations for dopey gags. Hostage-taker Farrell, angry that the new station masters have already thrown out his favourite promotional jingles, demands the staff write a new one immediately, and tragedy is narrowly averted when the balding, bespectacled chap in the wool vest volunteers that he’s a former drummer for the eighties’ prog-rock band Marillion. In another case, the movie is intended to grasp for laughs by showing Coogan’s bare buttocks as he loses his pants climbing out a window.
The film’s conclusion, the usual showdown at the pier, offers the possibility that even Alan Partridge may have a moment of enlightenment and empathy. Even if it’s mock inspirational, the ending suggests that even the pettiest of us can occasionally step outside of our ego and catch a breath of fresh air.