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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In the name of the father: Patricia Lockwood on sex, centaurs and Catholicism

The author of the viral poem “Rape Joke” talks about growing up with her gun-toting Catholic “priestdaddy”.

“Oh my fricking God. It’s a centaur.” The American poet Patricia Lockwood and I are in the lobby of a Whitehall hotel and she is finding the quantity of equine art distracting. I have already been skipped along a corridor to examine the bizarrely detailed rendering of a horse’s anus in a Napoleonic painting (“They made a point of doing him straight up the butt”) that turns out to be a copy of Théodore Géricault’s Charging Chasseur. Now a statue on the mantelpiece has caught her eye, prompting a reverie on what she saw at the British Museum a couple of days ago: “A wonderful statue of a man kneeing a centaur in the balls. It’s the most important thing to me there. It’s so beautiful.”

The confluence of violence, sex, orifices, animals and mythology runs throughout Lockwood’s work in wild and witty poems such as “The Whole World Gets Together and Gangbangs a Deer” (inspired by the realisation that “Bambi is a puberty movie”) and “Revealing Nature Photographs” (pastoral verse meets porn spam) – and it also colours her new book, Priestdaddy, a deeply idiosyncratic family memoir in which copulation is a go-to metaphor. Her dad’s frenzied, tuneless playing raises the prospect that he might be “having sex with the guitar”; during Lockwood’s teenage depression, she writes, the only thing she was having sex with “was the intolerable sadness of the human condition, which sucked so much in bed”.

Lockwood (pictured at her First Holy Communion) has dark, cropped hair and elfin features, pearly white nails and sleeping cats on her knees (an effect achieved with decorated tights – “Let this be for the stocking boys,” she says). Her voice is deadpan, frequently dipping into laughter without losing her poise. She is one day off her 35th birthday and has been married since she was 21. Her father, Greg, is a priest and, along with her four siblings in a succession of rectories across the Midwest, she was raised a Catholic – thus ensuring, she says, the permanent sexual warping of her mind.

“We Catholics become perverts because of the way sex is discussed in strictly negative terms. I saw pictures of aborted foetuses before I knew what basic anatomy was.”

As a devout teenager, she attended a youth group called God’s Gang and was given a virginity pledge in the form of a business card. The group leaders had a “very hip and young” approach: “We’re going to tell you every single thing you can do, in explicit terms, and just be like, ‘But don’t do it.’”

The ribald humour of her writing – Lockwood is renowned on Twitter for her surreal “sexts” – often contains a darkness. The poem that made her name, “Rape Joke”, takes her experience of being raped at 19 by a boyfriend and metes it out in discrete, increasingly devastating soundbites and images. It was posted online in 2013 and went viral, leading to a publishing deal for her collection Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals.

After the rape, Lockwood was “absolutely insane” for about five years, but it’s not as if she was entirely happy before: at 16, she had attempted suicide by taking a hundred Tylenol tablets. Her memoir recounts, too, being embedded in a church mired in scandal, a claustrophobic situation that hit home when a priest close to her was arrested for having sex with a 14-year-old boy. Such events led to Lockwood abandoning her faith and escaping with Jason, her future husband, whom she met on an online poetry messageboard.

When Patricia was 30, she and Jason ran out of money and moved back to the rectory, allowing her to observe her parents afresh. The resulting portraits in Priestdaddy are larger than life: her mother, Karen, is a hyperactive generator of mad puns and proverbs; her ex-navy father is a self-mythologising, right-wing whirlwind of talk radio, guns and Tom Clancy novels. Married Catholic priests are rare but Greg, previously a Lutheran minister, got the pope’s permission to convert. Usually to be found in his underwear, he wants for no new expensive gadget or guitar, though the family is expected to make sacrifices. In 2001, two weeks before Patricia – who learned to read at three and was writing poetry at seven – was supposed to leave for college, he told her that they couldn’t afford it. He later “changed the story in his mind so that I had said I don’t need to go”.

“Growing up in my household,” she says, “all of these far-right, retrograde ideas of gender roles and the man as patriarch existed from the very beginning. But I didn’t think of my house as a bellwether of what was going to happen.” It came as no surprise to her that Greg and many like him voted for Trump. When she reported on a Trump rally in February 2016, she “moved like a ghost through the crowd. They saw me as one of their own.”

Anger at her father’s selfishness “would be useless”, and Lockwood respects his sense of vocation, which she feels she has inherited. She has believed in her own genius ever since she was writing “mermaids-having-sex-with-Jesus poems” at the age of 19. Jason is her support staff, licking her envelopes and buying her clothes. His offering the previous day was a T-shirt emblazoned with Justin Bieber’s face: it revealed how much she resembles the singer – “a full 90 per cent overlap” – and is definitely not ironic.

“Do you think we only got irony after Christ was crucified?” she wonders, and then spots two black-clad priests in dog collars who have sat down across the room from us. “Ooh,” she exclaims, awed and delighted, and then, in a whisper, ever confident in her powers of creation: “I manifested them.”

“Priestdaddy: A Memoir” is published by Allen Lane. “Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals” is published by Penguin

Tom Gatti is Culture Editor of the New Statesman. He previously edited the Saturday Review section of the Times, and can be found on Twitter as @tom_gatti.

 

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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