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?

OLIVER BURSTON
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How science and statistics are taking over sport

An ongoing challenge for analysts is to disentangle genuine skill from chance events. Some measurements are more useful than others.

In the mid-1990s, statistics undergraduates at Lancaster University were asked to analyse goal-scoring in a hypothetical football match. When Mark Dixon, a researcher in the department, heard about the task, he grew curious. The analysis employed was a bit simplistic, but with a few tweaks it could become a powerful tool. Along with his fellow statistician Stuart Coles, he expanded the methods, and in doing so transformed how researchers – and gamblers – think about football.

The UK has always lagged behind the US when it comes to the mathematical analysis of sport. This is partly because of a lack of publicly available match data, and partly because of the structure of popular sports. A game such as baseball, with its one-on-one contests between pitcher and batter, can be separated into distinct events. Football is far messier, with a jumble of clashes affecting the outcome. It is also relatively low-scoring, in contrast to baseball or basketball – further reducing the number of notable events. Before Dixon and Coles came along, analysts such as Charles Reep had even concluded that “chance dominates the game”, making predictions all but impossible.

Successful prediction is about locating the right degree of abstraction. Strip away too much detail and the analysis becomes unrealistic. Include too many processes and it becomes hard to pin them down without vast amounts of data. The trick is to distil reality into key components: “As simple as possible, but no simpler,” as Einstein put it.

Dixon and Coles did this by focusing on three factors – attacking and defensive ability for each team, plus the fabled “home advantage”. With ever more datasets now available, betting syndicates and sports analytics firms are developing these ideas further, even including individual players in the analysis. This requires access to a great deal of computing power. Betting teams are hiring increasing numbers of science graduates, with statisticians putting together predictive models and computer scientists developing high-speed software.

But it’s not just betters who are turning to statistics. Many of the techniques are also making their way into sports management. Baseball led the way, with quantitative Moneyball tactics taking the Oakland Athletics to the play-offs in 2002 and 2003, but other sports are adopting scientific methods, too. Premier League football teams have gradually built up analytics departments in recent years, and all now employ statisticians. After winning the 2016 Masters, the golfer Danny Willett thanked the new analytics firm 15th Club, an offshoot of the football consultancy 21st Club.

Bringing statistics into sport has many advantages. First, we can test out common folklore. How big, say, is the “home advantage”? According to Ray Stefani, a sports researcher, it depends: rugby union teams, on average, are 25 per cent more likely to win than to lose at home. In NHL ice hockey, this advantage is only 10 per cent. Then there is the notion of “momentum”, often cited by pundits. Can a few good performances give a weaker team the boost it needs to keep winning? From baseball to football, numerous studies suggest it’s unlikely.

Statistical models can also help measure player quality. Teams typically examine past results before buying players, though it is future performances that count. What if a prospective signing had just enjoyed a few lucky games, or been propped up by talented team-mates? An ongoing challenge for analysts is to disentangle genuine skill from chance events. Some measurements are more useful than others. In many sports, scoring goals is subject to a greater degree of randomness than creating shots. When the ice hockey analyst Brian King used this information to identify the players in his local NHL squad who had profited most from sheer luck, he found that these were also the players being awarded new contracts.

Sometimes it’s not clear how a specific skill should be measured. Successful defenders – whether in British or American football – don’t always make a lot of tackles. Instead, they divert attacks by being in the right position. It is difficult to quantify this. When evaluating individual performances, it can be useful to estimate how well a team would have done without a particular player, which can produce surprising results.

The season before Gareth Bale moved from Tottenham Hotspur to Real Madrid for a record £85m in 2013, the sports consultancy Onside Analysis looked at which players were more important to the team: whose absence would cause most disruption? Although Bale was the clear star, it was actually the midfielder Moussa Dembélé who had the greatest impact on results.

As more data is made available, our ability to measure players and their overall performance will improve. Statistical models cannot capture everything. Not only would complete understanding of sport be dull – it would be impossible. Analytics groups know this and often employ experts to keep their models grounded in reality.

There will never be a magic formula that covers all aspects of human behaviour and psychology. However, for the analysts helping teams punch above their weight and the scientific betting syndicates taking on the bookmakers, this is not the aim. Rather, analytics is one more way to get an edge. In sport, as in betting, the best teams don’t get it right every time. But they know how to win more often than their opponents. 

Adam Kucharski is author of The Perfect Bet: How Science and Maths are Taking the Luck Out of Gambling (Profile Books)

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism