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.