Alan Partridge is a chameleon of media, a character of perfect adaptability because he’s as realized as a fictional person could ever be. Since his debut in BBC Radio 4’s superb news satire On The Hour in 1991, he has worked his way through countless projects, weaving a canon that’s seen him present a chat show, followed his efforts to get his career back on track in the yet-unmatched I’m Alan Partridge and witnessed the publication of an actual bestselling and 100% faithful and suitable autobiography, with forays into documentary-making and charity work on the side. He is Armando Iannucci, Peter Baynham and Steve Coogan’s greatest creation, and if you’re reading this outside of the UK, it’s very likely you’ve never heard of him. With the perceived legitimacy that comes with the leap from screen small to silver, perhaps Alan’s international profile is finally set for its overdue expansion, as Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa – the Alan Partridge movie, is finally upon us.
Crucially, though, Alpha Papa is not ‘Alan Partridge: The Movie’ in the sort of sense that television comedies (and particularly British ones) have in the past expanded their viewerships by dropping their characters into wilder and wackier situations and throwing more money at them. No, Alpha Papa doesn’t see Alan travel abroad to deal with culture clash or strike out on his own to find himself curiously, hilariously out of depth – instead, it presents yet another format in which the character works because, quite simply, the character does work. There’s little left to do with Alan Partridge now but transcribe his misadventures in minutiae to flipbook or project them onto the face of the moon. It’s not bigger, badder and built with more explosions, which is something that’s slyly addressed by a visual metaphor I’ll not spoil for you. With that said then, what’s the point of taking North Norfolk Digital’s most tenured presenter to the masses? Why, might we ask, is there an Alan Partridge movie?
Alan Partridge has worked as a character for so long because there’s so much to him. In BBC’s Knowing Me, Knowing You, he was frequently condescending, inept and self-conscious, but dealt on a weekly basis with people who were in as desperate a need of a dressing down as he was and offered a bizarre compromised catharsis through a palpable richness of character. Simply put, Alpha Papa – in which one of Alan’s fellow DJs is fired as part of a corporate rebranding and takes the station hostage, using his old pal Partridge as negotiator – merits its creation with the excuse that it’s too damn funny not to have been made. Making a comedy film’s surely a challenge, despite the number of duds that litter screens and bargain bins year after year, but Alpha Papa feels like a film that was particularly challenging, one that’s been the subject of intense modification, a sort of distillation that results in a density of gags that’s almost overwhelming. It may sound like a criticism, but Alpha Papa is initially hard to keep up with, as dazzlingly and bafflingly on-target as the peerless Airplane! was.
And it is damn funny, too. Partridge was at his best when written by Baynham, Iannucci and Coogan, who haven’t worked together as a trio since 2002, but with the inclusion of recent contributors Rob and Neil Gibbons, it’s a Partridge scripting dream team that also benefits from a cast skilled in improvisation. Special note goes to Tim Key, returning as Sidekick Simon from 2010’s Mid Morning Matters, who’s one of the finest comedians on these isles and perhaps most deserving of the exposure. Felicity Montagu, as Alan’s dog-loyal PA Lynn, acts as the movie’s heart with a slight escalation of her performance from years previous which sees her serving as inspiration for Alan when such a thing would have been hitherto anathema. Colm Meaney, as the sole outsider in terms of the cast’s prior level of collaboration on Coogan projects, brings a quiet strength to sacked Pat Farrell that makes him impossible not to like. Despite his literal crimes in the film, Pat serves as a conduit for Alan to realize where he’s overstepped the mark and gives the audience that way in that’s needed for relatability and sympathy. There’s no doubt that Alpha Papa works just a film is supposed to in terms of structure, but it’s not as obviously or rigorously deployed as you may expect.
Naturally, the films lives and breathes through Steve Coogan, whose performance as Partridge has evolved as any real person would have over 20 years to the extent you feel you could sit down and talk to this man, in-character, and never feel you were speaking to an actor, and this is precisely why Partridge (and thus Alpha Papa) works: you believe it. You believe that this is how this man, who you may have met for the very first time, would act in any of the film’s given situations. There’s only so much that impeccable timing, facial contortion and the specificity of delivery can convey, and it is to Coogan’s credit that he is able to sell Partridge as a believable character, but it should come as no surprise as he is quite possibly this generation’s very finest comedy actor.
Content-wise, there’s something for just about everyone, from farce to wordplay to physical comedy setpieces and that trademark Partridge attention to detail that works for casual audiences and is sure to reward those who’ll pick this film to pieces on home video. Though Father Ted director Declan Lowney helms the film, Iannucci’s impact is indelible and perhaps the film’s strongest suit. His profile has been on the rise since In The Loop was released several years ago and since then, its pseudo-sequel series Veep has earned great notices. Plus, let’s face it, the better known you are in America, the better known you are period.
I’d like to think that this transatlantic success will lead to more exposure for Iannucci and indeed Partridge, as the two arguably share as much DNA as the character does with Coogan. My greatest hope for the outcome of Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa, as with any truly great film, is that people enjoy it. As like many Partridge fans, there’s a sense of pride that its creators have earned, but a close second is my hope that the level of recognition for this band of writers and actors is raised, because they’ve been quietly toiling away at being the best in the class at the back of the room for far too long.
It’s also worth observing for existing fans that to a minor extent, the character has been softened. Alan remains as potentially mean as ever, but in the one instance where he’s out of line he is immediately remorseful, at which stage in the film the idea of Alpha Papa as Partridge fantasy struck me. Consider the film’s structure, its every beat, and enough evidence emerges to present its case as yet another Partridge-produced vanity project (much like the underseen Anglian Lives, precursor to last year’s Welcome To The Places Of My Life).
Alan is given over to fantasy, as illustrated in one of the film’s standout laughs, but the movie offers many instances of heroism through strength of character and sacrifice and sees Alan embraced by the public along the way that contradicts his stature as presented for the last 20 years. A climax that apes the finale of Falling Down before a sort of re-establishment of the status quo shakes it out of the system but Alpha Papa boasts that secondary layer, that notion that this film – so named by Tim Key’s Sidekick Simon in its trailer from earlier this year – is both for us, and for Alan, which is an optional reading that nonetheless withstands scrutiny and certainly deepened my appreciation for the film.
Ultimately, Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa succeeds just as the very best comedies do, and that is as something that is uniquely funny without qualification. Yes, this film is one which will reward fans that deem to give it a second, third or fiftieth go, but it is also one that is sure to be enjoyed by newcomers, and that’s a personal guarantee. Though there’s been some concession to big-screen broadening of scope, it’s never to the film’s detriment and I’ll comfortably name it not only the best comedy of the year in a year that’s so far offered more than just a few challengers, but one of the greatest British comedies of all time and something that everyone involved should be very, very proud of.