Steve Coogan’s Alan Partridge has been in television, on and off, for a quarter of a century. His first screen appearance, in The Day Today’s six-episode run beginning in January 1994, took place during the second year of John Major’s calamitous second ministry. A few months previously in Edinburgh, the television playwright Dennis Potter had commenced his 1993 James MacTaggart Memorial Lecture, titled “Occupying Powers”, with a survey of the ever-familiar ills besetting the UK: endemic poverty, unemployment, ignorance and inequality; the departure from Radio 1 of Dave Lee Travis. “What is at the heart of such a distorted society?” demanded Potter, answering his own question with a declaration from the BBC’s “ponderously anodyne” response to the latest government Green Paper concerning the Corporation’s future: “Broadcasting is at the heart of British society”.
While The Day Today satirised the conventions of news and current affairs broadcasting to great effect, its take on the wider social landscape was more oblique. It approached the institutions of church and state with an irreverence which occasionally rose, in the levitating ire of mock-anchorman Chris Morris, to magnificent scorn, but its real target was the sanctimony and self-importance with which broadcast news coverage wreathed these topics. Partridge, its hapless sports presenter, was positioned as a straight-man evidently ill-at-ease with his surroundings and struggling to preserve normality. There was little to suggest that the character might shortly break out of this setting and become a household name.
25 years on, Alan Partridge is not only a household name, but a “national treasure” (according to Vogue) and “one of the greatest and most beloved comic creations of the last few decades” (the Guardian). It is the common fate of such “creations”, like Captain Mainwaring and Basil Fawlty, to become icons of national self-regard, “beloved” because they project and affirm a reassuring notion of ourselves as candidly eccentric, excusably prejudiced, loveable despite it all. This Time with Alan Partridge has done perhaps the only really interesting thing that can be done with such a character, once such lionization sets in: it has divided opinion. Broadsheet critics have praised it exorbitantly, but some viewers have found it alienating and unfunny. The question is, have they found it alienating because it is unfunny, or unfunny because it is alienating?
The series moves back and forth between three framings: This Time itself, the light topical affairs show Alan has found himself presenting with his co-host Jenny Gresham (played with disquieting composure by Susannah Fielding), clips of pre-recorded reportage starring Alan which are screened within the show, and off-camera scenes within the studio in which Alan exchanges tense banter with Jenny and receives pep talks from his assistant Lynne. This format weaves together three ages of Alan: the strictly in-show footage of Knowing Me, Knowing You, with Alan Partridge (1994), the docusoap verité of I’m Alan Partridge (1997-2002), and the investigative journalism as celeb career vehicle of Alan Partridge’s Scissored Isle (2016). But it also produces an unsettling effect, making visible the awkward transitions between frames, which is further emphasised by Alan’s slightly-too-long journeys around the oversized studio set as he moves physically from one segment to the next. The show Alan is presenting is itself beset by jarring inconsistencies of tone, as lighthearted chats on the sofa are succeeded by excruciatingly botched attempts at hard-hitting interviews with cybercriminals and corrupt politicians. This Time is out of joint.
There were advance whispers that This Time, besides heralding Alan’s triumphant return to the BBC after a prodigal spell with Sky Atlantic, would address the big issues of the day: #metoo and Brexit. No doubt Partridge, an inveterate little-Englander and male chauvinist pig, would have amusingly incorrect things to say both subjects. In the event, the treatment of #metoo, while more explicit, mostly settled for landing some obvious punches: on the show’s previous presenter, a venerated elder statesman, who was alleged by twitter messages read out on the show to have a history of sexual misconduct; and on Alan himself, whose natural reaction to the issue was to position himself both as a penitent former sexist, and as a victim in his own right. The second episode, which featured the allegations against the former presenter, was among the strongest and most pointed of the series; it is worth recalling that, at the time Alan Partridge first appeared on television, Jim’ll Fix It was still regularly on the air.
Of Brexit nothing was said out loud, but This Time did after all have something to say about broadcasting’s place at the heart of Brexit Britain, and about the undeserved affection still enjoyed by “auntie” BBC. Anyone who has watched a few minutes of The One Show and been dumbstruck by its eerie quietism, its projection of unruffled normality, will recognise in the dogged perkiness of Partridge’s co-presenter the face of a manufactured consensus. Rather than supporting some concrete ideological position, this consensus promotes a commonsensical trust in the rightness of respectable ambition, the efficacy of professionalism, the self-validating ethos of success. It cannot comprehend why anybody should be so foolish as to be poor, angry or dysfunctional, or so gauche as to come from Sunderland. Alan Partridge has always believed that his place is with the BBC: that he embodies its values, with which he wholeheartedly identifies. His rancour, his temper, his simmering sado-masochism, are all permanently irreconcilable with this identity; yet it still has him enthralled, endlessly trying to play along.
While The Day Today played off Alan Partridge’s narrow, conventional yearning for admiration and respectability against the “surreal” humour of brainy provocateurs, in This Time he is an outsider by virtue of the strangeness of his ordinariness, his all-too-human inability to fashion himself into a mannekin of frictionless amiability. The final episode of the series, in which Gresham stormed off and left Alan and his Norwich radio sidekick to present the show all by themselves, was both a panicked farrago and an oddly comforting reassertion of Alan-ness. The funniest moments of the show were mostly those in which such collapses occurred, as when an Irish Partridge-lookalike (played by Coogan himself) brought on companions with musical instruments to play old IRA recruiting songs – Coogan has always had a sure sense of how to end on a bombshell.
It may be argued that the appearance of Piers Morgan on a presenter’s couch renders satire toothless: if the milieu of This Time is one in which Alan is flailingly incongruous, the real-world boorishness of figures such as Morgan indicates a trend to embrace and promote the paid controversialist, as a way of bringing excitement back into a moribund format. But Partridge has never been a Clarkson-like bruiser, and has never aspired to the racket of the public heel who is handsomely rewarded for the unfiltered airing of objectionable views. That kind of soul-death would be a far sadder fate for the character, and ultimately incompatible with his profound desire to be liked and accepted. But it is not impossible that the fateful meeting with the Director General to which Alan sheepishly departed at the end of this series portends not a sacking, but a cynical promotion.