Alpha Papa: Just enough common sense to save us from the monsters

Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa develops and deepens a character we know and love - a humble comedy with the right amount of sanity.

Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa (15)
dir: Declan Lowney
 
Most makers of television comedy dabble at some point with the notion of moving across or upgrading to cinema – John Cleese even considered writing a Fawlty Towers film in the 1970s, in which Basil Fawlty takes charge aboard a hijacked plane. It was the box-office success last year of The Inbetweeners Movie (£58m worldwide, with a sequel on the way) that rehabilitated this idea after the damage caused by years of disgraces such as Mutiny on the Buses or Cannon and Ball’s The Boys in Blue. Not that the curse has been entirely lifted: there are few words in the UK film industry that are more taboo than Keith Lemon: the Film.
 
Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa, in which the comic actor Steve Coogan returns to his most enduring creation, a peevish and pettyminded Norfolk DJ, demonstrates that the transfer need not result in a thinning-out or compromise. Alan is propelled into the sort of situation that he has only formerly encountered while reading Bravo Two Zero and his personality develops, even deepens, before us. Most of what we learn about him falls into the category of Too Much Information: it’s bad enough that he knows sex games require safety words, let alone that he uses “airbag” as his own.
 
On the other hand, the flummoxed and hostile stand that he has always taken against the threat of change results here in a strain of accidental heroism, albeit one that leaves his natural repugnance plenty of room to breathe. In a culture growing steadily resistant to all things homogeneous, Alan is the stopped Casio digital watch that suddenly finds itself beeping on time. As with Edgar Wright’s recent film The World’s End, there is a pleasing hint of Ealing comedy in the pitting of flawed, footling heroes against omnipotent corporate drones.
 
In this case, the threat comes not from the sacked DJ Pat Farrell (Colm Meaney), who stages a siege at North Norfolk Digital, the radio station where he and Alan are colleagues, but from the callous incoming manager, Jason Tresswell (Nigel Lindsay), who is one of the hostages. Trying to win over Alan, whom Pat has appointed as an intermediary between himself and the police, Jason promises him the breakfast show and “a glamorous assistant with big tits” if he can neutralise the siege. Several characters must face the scrutiny of their conscience. (Encountering a cowardly member of middle management who is among the first hostages to be released, Alan tells him wryly: “Sleep well.”) In this instance, Alan must decide whether he is with the old ways or the new, the bullied or the bullies. Public opinion in the early 21st century just happens to be on his side.
 
Coogan first introduced Alan as a sports reporter on the BBC Radio 4 spoof news show On the Hour in the early 1990s and has gone on to play him in various contexts: on television (from the On the Hour adaptation The Day Today through to Mid-Morning Matters, originally made for the web as a series of bite-sized shorts); onstage in The Man Who Thinks He’s It. A recent autobiography, I, Partridge: We Need to Talk About Alan, also preceded the film. That’s close to the entire range of the arts. If Coogan doesn’t also produce a libretto for Alan, or lead him into the world of interpretive dance, it will be our loss.
 
In Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa, Alan is fundamentally the same figure here who has been causing toes to curl for more than two decades. If anything, he started out in latemiddle age, like a pre-scandal Frank Bough, morphing lately into a younger fogey like Richard Madeley or John Inverdale, with whom he shares a susceptibility to foot-in-mouth disease. His appearance reveals his personality (leather driving gloves, an immovable stack on his head closer to fabric than hair), as do his frame of reference (paintballing, the 1980 Iranian embassy siege, Ski Sunday) and language. The screenwriters (old hands Coogan, Armando Iannucci and Peter Baynham and the recent recruits Neil and Rob Gibbons) know intrinsically that Alan would call his tiny office at home a “business centre” and that he would share happily with strangers news of his “very aggressive athlete’s foot”.
 
The dimensions of Alan’s world are snug: ensconced in his studio with his bafflingly loyal PA, Lynn (Felicity Montagu), on call, he’s a small fish in a small pond. His sense of humour is calcified, his music tastes stonewashed (John Farnham’s “You’re the Voice”, Roachford’s “Cuddly Toy”), but there is enough of an overlap with common sense to rescue him from the monstrous.
 
His is a collision with the modern world that we will all experience, if we have not already done so; even the sharpest cutting edge will one day be dulled. Surveying the hors d’oeuvres at a party is enough to send him into a tailspin: “Oblong plates. Square bowls. Go figure.” But his plain-speaking grasp of the contradictory occasionally suggests the child spotting that the emperor is in the buff. Reacting to his sidekick’s vulgar joke about the word “Islam”, he hurriedly cues up another record and gasps off-air: “Never criticise Muslims! Only Christians. Jews a little bit.”
 
Declan Lowney directs with a brisk, unfussy hand, allowing only occasional stylistic flourishes, such as the scene in which the frumpy Lynn drives along to the sound of “Roxanne” by the Police (“You don’t have to sell your body to the night . . .”). It’s sweet that the climax takes place at the end of a pier, a location that will have a chastening resonance for any comedian, no matter how far from the variety circuit they have travelled. For Coogan to end his best movie there is a commendably grass-roots touch for a comedian not widely associated with humility. 
Hang the DJ: Steve Coogan as Alan Partidge, hanging out in his home "business centre".

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 12 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, What if JFK had lived?

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How podcasts are reviving the excitement of listening to the pop charts

Unbreak My Chart and Song Exploder are two music programmes that provide nostalgia and innovation in equal measure.

“The world as we know it is over. The apo­calypse is nigh, and he is risen.” Although these words came through my headphones over the Easter weekend, they had very little to do with Jesus Christ. Fraser McAlpine, who with Laura Snapes hosts the new pop music podcast Unbreak My Chart, was talking about a very different kind of messiah: Harry Styles, formerly of the boy band One Direction, who has arrived with his debut solo single just in time to save the British charts from becoming an eternal playlist of Ed Sheeran’s back-catalogue.

Unbreak My Chart is based on a somewhat nostalgic premise. It claims to be “the podcast that tapes the Top Ten and then talks about it at school the next day”. For those of us who used to do just that, this show takes us straight back to Sunday afternoons, squatting on the floor with a cassette player, finger hovering over the Record button as that tell-tale jingle teased the announcement of a new number one.

As pop critics, Snapes and McAlpine have plenty of background information and anecdotes to augment their rundown of the week’s chart. If only all playground debates about music had been so well informed. They also move the show beyond a mere list, debating the merits of including figures for music streamed online as well as physical and digital sales in the chart (this innovation is partly responsible for what they call “the Sheeran singularity” of recent weeks). The hosts also discuss charts from other countries such as Australia and Brazil.

Podcasts are injecting much-needed innovation into music broadcasting. Away from the scheduled airwaves of old-style radio, new formats are emerging. In the US, for instance, Song Exploder, which has just passed its hundredth episode, invites artists to “explode” a single piece of their own music, taking apart the layers of vocal soundtrack, instrumentation and beats to show the creative process behind it all. The calm tones of the show’s host, Hrishikesh Hirway, and its high production values help to make it a very intimate listening experience. For a few minutes, it is possible to believe that the guests – Solange, Norah Jones, U2, Iggy Pop, Carly Rae Jepsen et al – are talking and singing only for you. 

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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