Why Steve Coogan can’t kill off Alan Partridge

The character has elevated banality to an art form. 

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“My closet is empty of skeletons as a result of the press, so unwittingly they have made me immune in some ways,” Steve Coogan told the Leveson inquiry in 2011. His decision to testify followed a decade in which phone-hacking and other dirty tricks had turned the actor and comedian into a tabloid staple. There was drink (now given up). There was cocaine (“a dangerous amount” on at least one occasion, according to a later interview). And there were women. (The News of the World “improperly obtained” details of a liaison with Courtney Love, leading to a £40,000 payout.)

Coming clean – and getting clean – has liberated Coogan from a fast-cars-and-fast-living image that threatened to eclipse his extraordinary talent. It was hard to see past the laddish facade of the man who reportedly turned up at a Spitting Image party in a Ferrari he claimed was “worth its weight in twat” and appreciate the writer and performer underneath.

The 53-year-old, raised in Manchester by a family of Irish descent, started out doing impressions (he was a voice for Spitting Image) and quickly succeeded as a stand-up, winning the Perrier Award in Edinburgh in 1992. These days, he is equally likely to take on serious projects or star in blockbusters. The 2013 film Philomena, which he co-wrote, earned him Golden Globe and Oscar nominations; this year’s Stan & Ollie got him nominated for best actor at the Baftas.

As his own private life has receded from view, he has repeatedly played fictionalised versions of himself, starting with Michael Winterbottom’s appropriately meta retelling of Tristram Shandy, the 2005 film A Cock and Bull Story, followed by seven years of The Trip, where Coogan and Rob Brydon do competing Michael Caine impressions over good food in ever-nicer locations.

Coogan keeps returning to one character: Alan Partridge, the sports journalist turned radio host turned TV presenter turned failed TV presenter turned local radio host turned – now, again – TV presenter. “I’ve had this sort of love-hate relationship with Alan,” he said on 17 February. “I’ve come to accept Alan in my life.”

Coogan first performed as Partridge 28 years ago, in Armando Iannucci’s Radio 4 programme On the Hour, and reprised the role in Chris Morris’s ferocious BBC Two satire The Day Today. In the early years, Partridge existed in short bursts, but he graduated to his own chat show, Knowing Me, Knowing You, in 1994. (He was fired for shooting a guest.)

My favourite Partridge iteration comes next: 1997’s I’m Alan Partridge, where the failed presenter takes a job at a Norwich radio station and is forced to live in a cheap hotel. Two decades later, odd collections of words from that series can still make me laugh out loud – peephole Pringle, extra-big plate, keeping the wolf from the door by thinking of the pedestrianisation of Norwich. Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi” is forever ruined by Partridge’s observation that “they paved paradise to put up a parking lot – a measure which actually would have alleviated traffic congestion on the outskirts of paradise”.

That sums up Alan Partridge: elevating banality to an art form. The character has always worked best as a commentary on the tedium of life, expressed through the kind of media with hour upon endless hour to fill. Think Waiting for Godot, with jingles.

That said, I’m surprised that Partridge still works in our attention-deficit age. That 1997 series captures the aching bathos of minor celebrity, but minor celebrities don’t seem to feel like that about their lives any more. At Christmas, I saw a mid-level “Instagram influencer” post excitedly about how Nando’s had created a menu just for her. (Hashtag sponsored content.) It was the most Partridge thing ever – Alan would love a bespoke poultry dish from a mid-priced chain, although the peri-peri might play merry hell with his diverticulitis – yet delivered with utter sincerity.

What keeps Partridge alive is that underneath all the whooshy graphics, the demented grammar of a certain type of television and radio is stoutly unchanged. Take the TV programme at the heart of the new series, This Time with Alan Partridge, which begins on BBC One on 25 February. It’s The One Show turned up until the knob falls off: the day-glo sets, the strange guests, the paired presenters desperately trying to pretend they’re just normal people having a chat, not precariously employed freelancers being judged by millions. Most of all, it nails the vertiginous tonal changes that make The One Show such compulsive viewing: thanks for joining us Kylie, and now – do you suffer from irritable bowel syndrome?

In the first episode of This Time with Alan Partridge, Alan starts blasting out facts about seals, then undertakes an excruciating two-minute mime on how to use a train loo without touching it with your hands. Yet there’s an odd sense that it’s not him who’s insane, but the programme.

As for Coogan, he says there is an obvious reason to keep returning to Alan Partridge. As he told the Guardian, “Well, I suppose the simple explanation is that it makes me laugh.”

Helen Lewis is associate editor of the New Statesman. She regularly appears on BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and the News Quiz, and is writing a history of feminism for Jonathan Cape

This article appears in the 22 February 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The last days of Islamic State