My dad claims he once got a call from Radio Norwich that went something like this:
Radio Norwich producer: Hi, this is [insert name] from Radio Norwich.
My dad: A-HA!
Radio Norwich producer: Hello?
My dad: [deflated] A-ha…?
Radio Norwich producer: Is that Jonathan?
My dad: Yes, sorry, I was referencing… never mind.
This was an Alan Partridge moment for almost too many reasons to count. For the many, many Brits aware of Steve Coogan’s recurring character – a maladroit local radio presenter with Jupiter-sized delusions of grandeur – the “A-ha” is Alan’s ABBA-referencing catchphrase. Radio Norwich, of course, is synonymous with Alan’s disintegrating career.
This week the BBC announced a new Partridge series, set to parody the corporation’s most Partridge-y institution: the One Show. The BBC, which seem set on self-parodying self-flagellation since John Morton’s sitcom W1A, described the new show as a “heady mix of news and froth”. This description – a perfect dig at the “And now an interview with a gangster rapping sheep”-style One Show – absolutely must have been written either by Steve Coogan himself, or the character and show’s co-creator Armando Iannucci.
My dad’s utterly ham-fisted attempt at a joke referenced Alan Partridge’s second TV incarnation, I’m Alan Partridge. And, in the most Partridge-esque way, it backfired before fizzling into a mildly embarrassing word sludge. But Partridge-ness – Partridgity, even – isn’t just a dad trait. Alan Partridge exists in us all, and that’s why he’s one of British comedy’s funniest creations.
Anybody who has ever tried to fit in by pretending to like a band (Alan on his favourite Beatles album: “I’d have to say [it’s] the best of the Beatles), or who has failed to find French circus performers funny can – with a pinch of self-loathing – relate to one of the most tactless and boorish creations of all time. And the self-loathing involved is an important part of this. Alan embodies that paradoxical British trait of simultaneously hating yourself, while also thinking you’re better than everyone. We shudder as we see ourselves in the character. A key reason why we can all laugh at the failed BBC chat show presenter-turned-provincial radio broadcaster, who plays at being suave, well connected and intellectual, is that, at some point, we’ve all pretended to be something we’re not. Who amongst us has never boasted about knowing a shit famous person, or been caught out while trying to have a view on a world event we know absolutely nothing about? Then, provided we’re cursed with the self-awareness Alan completely lacks, we’ve all looked back on those moments and said, “Fuck. I’m Alan Partridge.”
But then there’s the “thinking you’re better than everyone” part. When you sit down to watch an episode of any of the Alan Partridge series, you’re basically given half an hour in which you’re allowed to be a school bully. And it feels fantastic. From his appalling “sports casual” outfits, to his nerdy and profoundly anal use of niche industry lingo – even from industries that he’s never even worked in: “it’s like people who say Tannoy when they mean ‘public address system’. Tannoy is a brand name” –, we look at Partridge and get a kick out of understanding that he’s a complete twat, when he himself can’t.
This laughing “at” is played on brilliantly in I’m Alan Partridge, when hotel receptionist Sophie, one of Sally Phillips’ early roles, can’t keep a straight face when speaking to Alan. Whether he’s complaining about having “cock piss Partridge” graffitied on his Rover 800, or likening her fellow receptionist Susan to a “lovely” Jersey cow, “ripe for milking”, Phillips almost broke the fourth wall by doing what we were all doing at home: pissing ourselves at what a complete idiot Alan is.
Alan is a manifestation of a kind of white, middle-class, middle England, dangerously sexually repressed bigot we don’t all necessarily know in person, but we at least know of. He’s that distant relative in his fifties, your dad’s second cousin’s husband Steve, whose Facebook posts are solely about immigration and cars, and who wouldn’t particularly get why Alan Partridge is funny. Which makes the whole piss take a kind of inside joke shared by an entire demographic.
The closest we have in real life to Alan Partridge is probably Jeremy Clarkson, who referenced this by ending Top Gear episodes with another Alan catchphrase: “And on that bombshell…”. In an episode of The Grand Tour that I was recently forced into watching by my aggravatingly heterosexual father and brother, Clarkson described the boot of a Tesla as big enough to fit an “owl sanctuary”. And if that wasn’t a reference to his own Partridgity, it was just spooky.
By parodying the Daily Mail-reading Clarkson type, Coogan and Iannucci punch neither up nor down. They just punch. Really hard. The writing and acting is so good that all Alan needs to do is say a brand name (Toblerone being a recurring example) and it’s somehow hilarious. He’s so culturally tuned into the agonisingly dull minutiae of petrol stations and roadside hotels that those things become actual viable jokes.
Maybe it’s the holy trinity of boorishness, delusions of grandeur and extreme pettiness that make Alan Partridge the perfect punch line/ punch bag. But – lest we forget – in the words of AP himself: “I’m Alan Partridge”. And so are you.