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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Netflix's Ozark is overstuffed – not to mention tonally weird

Could the channel use a hit? Every time my subscription leaves my bank account, I think again that it could.

The main reason why Ozark, the new Netflix series, feels so underpowered has to do with its star, Jason Bateman (who also directs): a good actor who badly wants for charisma, he simply can’t carry it alone. Watching the first few episodes, I kept thinking of Jon Hamm in Mad Men and (a better example here) Bryan Cranston in Breaking Bad, both of whom played, as does Bateman, characters around which the plots of their respective series turned. When they were on screen, which was often, it was all but impossible to tear your eyes from them; when they were off it, you felt like you were only biding your time until they returned. But when Bateman disappears from view, you hardly notice. In fact, it feels like a plus: at least now you might get to see a bit more of the deft and adorable Laura Linney.

In Ozark, Bateman is Marty, an outwardly square guy whose big secret is that he is a money launderer for the second biggest drugs cartel in Mexico. When the series opens, he and his wife Wendy (Linney) and their two children are living in Chicago, where he nominally works as a financial advisor.

By the end of the first episode, however, they’re on their way to the Lake of the Ozarks in rural Missouri. Marty’s partner, Bruce, has been on the fiddle, and the cartel, having summarily executed him, now wants Marty both to pay back the cash, and to establish a few new businesses in which future income may be cleaned far from the prying eyes of the law enforcement agencies. If this sounds derivative, it is. We’re in the realm of Breaking Bad, only where that show gave us out-of-control Bunsen burners and flesh-eating chemicals, this one is more preoccupied with percentages and margins.

Where’s the friction? Well, not only is the FBI on Marty’s tail, his wife has been cheating on him, with the result that their marriage is now just another of his business arrangements. The locals (think Trump supporters with beards as big as pine trees) have proved thus far to be on the unfriendly side, and having paid off their debts, the only house Marty can afford has a cliché – sorry, crotchety old guy – living in the basement. On paper, admittedly, this all sounds moderately promising. But hilarity does not ensue. As dull as the Lake of the Ozarks when the tourist season is over, not even Linney can make Bill Dubuque’s dialogue come alive. Her character should be traumatised: before they left Chicago, the cartel, for reasons I do not completely understand, pushed her podgy lover – splat! – off his balcony. Instead, she’s fussing about the crotchety old guy’s sexism.

Ozark is overstuffed and tonally weird, so I won’t be binge-watching this one. This completes rather a bad run for me and Netflix; after the lame new series of House of Cards and the egregious Gypsy, this is the third of its shows on the trot to bore me rigid. Could the channel use a hit? Every time my subscription leaves my bank account, I think again that it could.

And now to The Sweet Makers: A Tudor Treat (19 July, 8pm), in which we hear the sound of the “living history” barrel being scraped so loudly, those attending the meeting at which it was commissioned must surely have worn ear defenders. Basically, this is a series in which four confectioners “go back in time” to discover how their forebears used sugar (first, the Tudors; next week, the Georgians).

What it means in practice is lots of Generation Game-style faffing with candied roses and coriander comfits by people in long skirts and silly hats – a hey-nonny-nonny fiesta of pointlessness that is itself a sugar coating for those nasty things called facts (ie a bit of tokenism about slavery and our ancestors’ trouble with their teeth).

Resident expert, food historian Dr Annie Gray, strained to give the proceedings urgency, sternly reminding the confectioners that the sugar house they’d spent hours building did not yet have a roof. But who cared if it didn’t? Destined to be eaten by fake Tudor guests at a fake Tudor banquet, it wasn’t as if anyone was going to lose their head for it – not even, alas, at Broadcasting House. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder

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