This article argues that I'm Alan Partridge wasn't very good. We realise that this will be an alien and inconceivable concept to many readers, and we apologise for any offence we may cause.
I'm Alan Partridge signalled the death of the original Partridge character, with whom Coogan and his writers had once been so careful. As fans of that original character we find this really upsetting. More upsetting still is the fact that nobody seems to understand why we were so appalled by it. Hopefully this piece will clear a few things up.
In On The Hour, The Day Today, and Knowing Me Knowing You, the joke had rested on the fact that, despite Alan Partridge being awful, nobody actually said so. We also only ever experienced Partridge through his sports-desks and chat shows, and the material was a subtler, more interesting spin on the traditional inept-man-promoted-above-his-ability format. In I'm Alan Partridge, the character was reduced to the lowest common denominator: it was essentially Coogan giving knowing winks to the audience, reacting to indescribably contrived feedlines from the other non-characters, and basically explaining why he was being funny. The series reached its nadir when Partridge gave the Tony Hayers character a list of 'bad programme ideas', which was a accompanied by reaction shots of Hayers looking incredulous and appalled. You might as well have had 'HA HA, LOOK AT HIS BAD DRESS SENSE AND EMBARRASSING BEHAVIOUR - DO YOU UNDERSTAND?' emblazoned across the screen.
Like a lot of today's commissioned mirth-makers, Steve Coogan has not been backward in citing the film This Is Spinal Tap as an influence on his work. Said film is certainly brilliant, and pretty revolutionary in its approach to spoof-documentary making. In one rare out-of-character interview, Michael McKean (David St Hubbins, lead guitar) explained that a big part of its success lay in the fact that, during post-production, many of its more perverse and illicit scenes were removed. The philosophy was that, if such a band existed, they would have some say in the final cut, and would have had the sense to remove all evidence of free-basing and groupie sex. It was, after all, part of the joke that the group depicted in the film were what the band considered a fair reflection of themselves.
Steve Coogan claims that he has adopted this style of working. He wants his characters to be self-contained entities, believable in every way. He wants his work to be credible pastiche rather than broad parody. A very commendable attitude, you may think. Until you realise that he's using it to justify Tony Ferrino.
The basic problem lies in the fact that Coogan has had to dilute this attitude to remain in a mainstream earning bracket, and this means taking less risks. He doesn't want to alienate the middle-ground of his audience who may not realise that his projects are supposed to be funny. After all, This Is Spinal Tap flopped at the box-office and only recouped its losses through later video sales (where its soft-sell approach to comedy was allowed to filter slowly through to an audience who understood it). In this sense, Spinal Tap could be seen as a freak of comedy-nature, perhaps never to be repeated. In today's PR-fuelled entertainment business, in which every show, act, book or appearance is cynically ticked off as an advert for the next show, act, book and appearance), comedians and their managers can't afford to be that laid back any more.
Thus, I'm Alan Partridge, despite its Tap-esque leanings towards being a fly-on-the-wall documentary, could never have hoped to succeed as a piece of TV theatre in the same genre. Aside from a belated, in-character appearance on Clive Anderson All Talk in which Partridge half-heartedly attacked the way the series had misrepresented him, the joke didn't come off. Even if you assume it was 'done behind Alan's back', the character would not have behaved the way he did in the show, certainly wouldn't have allowed the omnipotent cameras to film the scenes they did (the sex/chocolate mousse incident, for example) and no BBC post-production team would have allowed it to be broadcast with a laugh track. There are, after all, meetings, contracts and unwritten ethics to avoid such frivolity. This may sound like conceptual nit-picking but let's not forget that it was the care with which the Iannucci team presented The Day Today and Knowing Me... that set them aside from the non-believable KYTV style of presentation.
'So what?' you may say. 'It was funny. Did you see the one where he stole the traffic cone? Brilliant!' Hey, fine - if you enjoyed all that, we're not going to take that away from you. And you'll be pleased to know that, since you've made the show such an arsing success with your praise, from now on you personally will be used as an audience template for further series. Enjoy the next project called Steve Coogan Is Alan Partridge, set in a Pringle sweater factory run by Alan's bad-tempered Pakistani woman boss and watch the hilarious pratfalls that occur. Enjoy it all.
It could have been done properly and been ten times more entertaining. The team had actually attempted something similar before. During the repeats of the Radio 4 series of Knowing Me Knowing You, they broadcast a special documentary called Knowing Knowing Me Knowing You - A Week In The Life Of Peartree Productions which was superb. Not only was it technically and conceptually imaginative (it centred on one specific show from the series, with 'backstage' conversations edited seamlessly into clips from the real programme), but it was also, for this project alone, a piece of first-generation improvisation. This latter factor is important: not only did it offer the comedy fan a guided tour around the heads of the performers involved, it also gave rise to an unsettling yet utterly believable display of naturalistic acting. It was a resolutely focused piece, and exhibited an awareness of the fly-on-the-wall medium: interviews, candid recordings, bland voice-overs and, most crucially of all, no sycophantic audience cackling at the slightest mention of Pringle sweaters. A lost classic, and one of the few bits of the Partridge legacy overlooked for CD/cassette release.
I'm Alan Partridge could have been the television equivalent. It could have been artistically perfect and a genuine exponent of the Spinal Tap ethos. With a properly-constructed framework, no audience, and a few less obvious laugh lines, it could have been Coogan's finest three hours. Or, failing that, it could have been made as an unashamed, brightly-lit, clockwork sitcom in the inoffensive, cheap 'n' cheerful style of The Brittas Empire. This would at least have been structurally more likeable, and would have allowed the writers to discipline their craft once more. However, despite purporting to be both of these extremes, it was effectively neither, and the whole project fell between two stools.
There were also technical problems - the action took place in a studio set so large and elaborate that most of it was invisible to the studio audience (or simply played on monitors via a studio feed, or from pre-recorded tapes). This severely hindered the atmosphere of the series, meaning that the actors were unable to 'surf' the audience laughter (something which Coogan, for all his faults, is still quite good at), and the audience response inevitably sounded out of sync, distant, and deceptively canned.
The actors were wasted. Sally Phillips is a subtle and well-tuned actor, capable of great things. As Sophie the receptionist, however, she had to deal with a script of astonishing inconsistencies - coy and timid one week, assertive and playful the next. Other talented people like Kevin Eldon and Phil Cornwell were similarly under-used and cast aside whenever a Partridge vignette had run its course. Graham Linehan and Arthur Mathews were roped in simply as po-faced fall guys for Partridge's anti-Irish bigotry. Felicity Montagu's character existed solely to provide feedlines, Peter Baynham played the worst character in the world, and Chris Morris played a farmer in a suit. (This last cameo appeared to be a reversal of Morris' own talent at getting vox pops to ramble nonsensically about false issues, with Morris providing the sane answers to Partridge's 'funny' comments about cows. A rare instance of unpleasant self-publicity from a man who also used to eschew the idea of commenting on his own ridiculousness.) OK, it would have been even worse if these people had simply come on to do their party pieces, but - since they were presented as cameos to be spotted by comedyphiles and media slags alike - their presence seemed both contrived and inconsequential in equal measure.
Finally, on this subject, if you're sitting there saying, 'Oh, they're just trying to be clever', ponder on this for a while:
Ever since I'm Alan Partridge became the media success it was designed to be, many journalists - tired of articles bemoaning the state of British sitcoms - have started citing the series as a saviour of the genre. Tony Parsons even slips it into lists of 'classic' sitcoms alongside Dad's Army and Fawlty Towers. By the same train of thought, Steve Coogan has, ever since he stopped doing voice-over work, been marketed as 'the new Peter Sellers'. Would we be 'trying to be clever' to point out that this elevation of one comic actor to almost jingoistic hero status is no less misguided than music papers elevating Oasis to the status of The Beatles (or indeed popularising the myth of Britpop)? Would it simply be idle moaning to theorise that pockets of society need heroes like Coogan to generate an artificial feel-good factor? They needed I'm Alan Partridge to be a success, and...POW!...it was a success. And everybody can go off to bed happy, secure in the knowledge that they know who to call sir. If Coogan died tomorrow, they'd have to find a replacement. Al Murray, probably.
Another flamboyance among journalists has been to point out that the show scores over previous Partridge incarnations without realising that the subtlety of those earlier outings was made Partridge work, rather than what made Partridge popular. Back then, Coogan not only understood why the Partridge character was funny, but his audience did too. Someone who oh-so-cleverly points out that I'm Alan Partridge was better than the Knowing Me Knowing You radio series is the worst kind of fool: not only is such an opinion totally unarguable (not that such people bother coming up with arguments anyway, since most of them have never heard the radio series), but it's also a piece of coked-up, glory-hunting Time Out bollocks echoed in every crap Goodge Street wine bar since the show went into production. Stupid people believe them, and reinforce the same views again and again.
Believing that I'm Alan Partridge is better than Knowing Me Knowing You is akin to believing that Wings were better than The Beatles... Hey everyone, this stuff is funny.
Remember his description of Robin's Nest in show 3 of the radio series? The way Coogan said 'And Robin got annoyed' was worth the licence fee alone. This isn't an opinion - it's a FACT. Anyone who disagrees knows NOTHING about comedy. The amount of adulation and sycophancy levelled against I'm Alan Partridge is not just depressing, it's actually quite frightening. Genuinely frightening. It's like we've woken up and the world's gone mad. We're giggling now.
Actually, Steve Coogan probably is the new Peter Sellers. In the sense that Peter Sellers only made about five good films out of a hundred and is dead. Sorry, we can't type any more. We're laughing out loud!
To: Radio Times
Re: 'ALAN PARTRIDGE IS...ALAN PARTRIDGE'.
Here, as promised, are the episode titles for Steve Coogan's new sitcom, 'Alan Partridge Is...Alan Partridge'. Get them in the right order this time, won't you?
1: 'The Appointment'
Alan asks the bank manager for a loan to set up a pullover shop or something. Anyway, the bank manager is a woman, surprisingly, resulting in embarrassment. 'But you're a woman!' says Alan. 'How very observant!' replies the bank manager.
2: 'Court In The Act'
Alan appears in court to pay a parking fine. To his horror, a researcher (who he sacked the day before, I think) turns up as his lawyer. As a result, Alan decides to conduct his own defence. Obviously this annoys the judge a lot, I imagine.
3: 'The Postman Always Rings Once'
Alan gets a Valentine card. Who's it from? Needless to say, he thinks it's from someone it isn't from, and then says something inappropriate to them, not knowing that it wasn't them. And then I suppose he gets his cock out.
4: 'Sex, Lies And Chocolate Sponge Pudding'
Dawn French guest-stars in an episode where Alan tries to open a sex shop, with lingerie in it and things. He gets a local councillor to help him, but is horrified to discover she's a woman. 'But you're a woman!' says Alan. 'How very observant!' replies the councillor.
5: 'The Television Set Has Broken'
6: 'Seasonal Spirit'
7: 'The Visit'
Alan's long-lost Scottish cousin, Alan McPartridge, turns up. He wonders how to get rid of him, and then finds him dead. He feels guilty, then discovers McPartridge isn't dead after all. And he's made all sorts of promises to God as well, which he has to carry out.
8: 'Stuck In The Monastery'
Alan is penniless. He tries some madcap schemes to get rich. They all fail.
10: 'House Of Alan'
Alan sets up his own fashion house, specialising in sportswear. Then there's a fashion shoot, and it's amusing no doubt. With cameos from Joanna Lumley and Jean-Paul Gaultier.
11: 'The Godfather-In-Law'
In an hilarious parody of The Godfather, Alan learns that he must protect the family name or he will... wait for it... find Alan Titchmarch's head on his pillow! Yeah, so that's funny. In the end, he enters a Sean Connery Impression Competition, a sequence which displays Coogan's unique talent for mimicry. And it's his wedding anniversary too.
12: 'A Pain In The V-Neck'
Alan thinks there's something wrong with his cock, so goes to the doctor. Unfortunately, the doctor is a woman. 'But you're a woman!' says Alan. 'How very observant!' replies the doctor, pointing at her tits. Alan then has to pretend that he came because there's something wrong with his leg instead.
13: 'And In The End...'
The programme's premise is turned on its head in some way.
NB: The episode 'A Partridge Alone' has been postponed.
[NOTE: the above parody was written (as private amusement twixt the editors) back in 1997 shortly after Coogan announced he was working on an 'Alan Partridge sitcom'. We've included it here just in case they're short of ideas for the next Partridge project...]