Saturday, August 10, 2013

Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa

Originally created for BBC Radio 4’s ‘On the Hour’ to satirize a certain media type – the self-important but culturally banal radio presenter – Alan Partridge (in the form of Steve Coogan, and it would take a more cynical critic than yours truly to speculate on where Partridge ends and Coogan begins) has been around for more than two decades. The transition from radio to small screen was seamless and the guy’s even found his way into print. Who’d have thought, though, that Partridge would have made it to the big screen, let alone so successfully?

The point of Alan Partridge is that, to put it mildly, he’s an arse. Pompous, pedantic and socially inept to the point where he can cause tumultuous offence without even realising it, he’s also the personification of a specific strand of parochial Englishness: the kind of guy, in other words, who thinks loft conversions and traffic disruptions make for scintillating cocktail party conversation; the kind of guy whose favourite Bond movies are the Roger Moore years; the kind of guy who still sports a comb-over and wears driving gloves; the kind of guy finds himself embroiled in a siege/hostage situation and the thing he expresses most surprise at is a woman officer in charge of the situation.

Partridge, I reiterate, is an arse. While having an arse as protagonist is not necessarily a hindrance in a sitcom – let’s face it, many of the great sitcom creations, from Harold Steptoe and his pathetic fumbling towards middle class conformity to Basil Fawlty and his jaw-droppingly casual xenophobia, are deeply flawed characters – the longer format of the feature film requires a different set of aesthetics parameters and at the very least a surface-level reason for the audience’s emotional engagement. And at the same time there’s the tricky business of upping a small screen character to the big screen without the whole enterprise seeming inherently absurd. (‘Porridge’ – great TV, lousy movie. ‘Steptoe and Son’ – ditto. ‘On the Buses’ – … er, actually that one was lousy in any incarnation. Forget ‘On the Buses’.)

Fortunately, director Declan Lowney – a stalwart of British TV, with credits including ‘Cold Feet’, ‘Father Ted’ and ‘Little Britain’ – strikes just the right balance; while the script, by Coogan, Peter Baynham, Neil Gibbons, Rob Gibbons and Armando Iannucci, plays Partridge off against fellow-DJ-with-a-grudge Pat Farrell (Colm Meany), corporate shark Jason Tresswell (Nigel Lindsay), and a team of increasingly disgruntled cops.

North Norfolk Digital, the radio station Partridge and Farrell call home, has been taken over, rebranded, flooded with corporate sloganeering and its employees are steeling themselves for downsizing. When Partridge catches sight of a memo suggesting it’s him or Farrell, he doesn’t hesitate in encouraging management to sack Farrell. Not that he doesn’t feel bad about it afterwards; his housekeeper Lynn (Felicity Montagu) offers a salve: “Pat’s Irish, isn’t he? Why don’t you donate fifty pounds to Sinn Fein?” As a clang-dropping line, it’s nothing compared to Sidekick Simon (Tim Key)’s on-air rumination that tensions in the Middle East could be reduced if Judaism and Islam merged: “They could call themselves Jislam”. Even Partridge is shocked enough to reprimand his co-host: “Never make fun of Islam. Only even make fun of Christianity. And the Jews a little bit.”

I digress. At the launch party for the rebranded station, Farrell crashes the party with a shotgun and takes hostages. An armed-response team are soon on the scene. Farrell refuses to talk to anyone except Partridge, blithely unaware that it was he who brokered Farrell’s redundancy. But standard hostage negotiation isn’t enough for Farrell and Partridge finds himself on air with an armed and extremely pissed off ex-colleague. What follows is kind of ‘Dog Day Afternoon’ in Norfolk blended with an AOR version of ‘Good Morning, Vietnam’ where Adrian Cronaeur wears crap cardigans and is nervous around women. It’s as viciously acidic in its portraiture of Englishness as ‘The World’s End’, and as consistently hilarious. Edgar Wright’s Cornetto Trilogy finale has the bigger concept and its execution is more Hollywoodized, but the overall aesthetic of the two films is very similar. ‘Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa’ would make a great opener to a double bill with ‘The World’s End’.

Another potential pitfall that Lowney avoids: the hostage genre is notoriously static; the milieu of a radio station (small booths; microphone; participants sitting and talking) equally so. Yet ‘Alpha Papa’ maintains an almost constant state of movement, whether it’s Partridge accidentally locking himself out of the very siege he’s meant to be negotiating (the scene pays off with a cringingly embarrassing image that also serves as the most bizarre homage to ‘The Silence of the Lambs’ you’re likely to see), or traversing the building’s endless corridors with Angela (Monica Dolan), the mumsy production assistant he’s taken a shine to: “Walking and talking, very ‘West Wing’,” he remarks in almost fourth-wall-breaking acknowledgement. “I don’t watch the show,” Angela responds, blandly cutting him off as he launches into a hammy American accent. (The film delights in having its supporting cast interrupt Partridge mid-flow, wonderfully puncturing his myriad self-aggrandizing moments.)

Partridge bumbles and spews verbiage and exacerbates the crisis, all the while playing up to the media attention which he sees as a ticket to career revivification. The selfishness of the ploy earns him Tresswell’s approbation and Lynn’s disgust. And here we make the true small-to-big-screen leap: where the Alan Partridge of radio and small screen is unchanging in his parochialism, a man who never learns, who remains spectacularly non-cognizant of the offence he’s capable of causing, the Alan Partridge of the big screen develops. He never becomes a hero – perish the thought of him doing something iconic! – but he moves towards some small degree of redemptive behaviour.

The progress of Partridge you might call it, and it kicks off a wonderfully crowd-pleasing (if nigglingly short-lived) sequence where Partridge (minor spoiler only, since the trailer pretty much gives it away) joins forces with Farrell and they take to the road in a canary yellow outside broadcast vehicle in an anti-corporate roadshow. But Alan’s complicity in Farrell’s job loss is lurking in the wings, and the final act lurches abruptly into thrilleramics. This gives the film a ragged if still entertaining denouement. ‘Alpha Papa’ stops just short of being stone-cold brilliant; but when you stop to consider how crass an Alan Partridge film could have been, damned good is something worth broadcasting. Even on North Norfolk Digital.


Tim said...

I find myself wondering if the translation of the Alan Partridge character was made easier because of how effectively the only slightly different "Steve Coogan" figure already has been put into movies: A Cock and Bull Story, of course, and the theatrical cut of The Trip (which I don't know, did that version ever appear in the UK? Or just the TV series?) both pretty much did the job of exploring how a self-absorbed arse could be made an effective movie protagonist.

Anyway, this sounds great, and as much as I love the character I hope there's some legal means to watch it on this side of the Atlantic at some point. It doesn't seem like that point is apt to be anytime soon, though.

Neil Fulwood said...

Good point, Tim. British terrestrial TV screened the hit-and-miss 'Hamlet 2' last night - like 'A Cock and Bull Story' and 'The Trip' (which I seem to recall got a limited UK cinema release) - it gives us a Partridgesque figure and experiments with its big screen capabilities.

Keeping my fingers crossed that you get to enjoy the full glory/horror of silver screen Partridge in the States at some point.

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