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In many ways, we are all Alan Partridge – which is why he’s still so funny

We shudder as we see ourselves in the paradoxically self-loathing character.

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 W1Adescribed 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.

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose "Lez Miserable" column appears weekly on the New Statesman website.

PHOTO: ROBERTO RICCIUTI/GETTY IMAGES
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“I want the state to think like an anarchist”: Dutch historian Rutger Bregman on why the left must reclaim utopianism

The Dutch thinker advocates global open borders, a universal basic income and a 15-hour working week. 

History consists of the impossible becoming the inevitable. Universal suffrage, the abolition of slavery and the welfare state were all once dismissed as fantastical dreams. But in the Western world, politics today often feels devoid of the idealism and ambition of previous generations. As the mainstream left has struggled to define its purpose, the right has offered superficially seductive solutions (from Brexit to border walls).

One of those seeking to resolve what he calls a “crisis of imagination” is the Dutch historian and journalist Rutger Bregman. His book Utopia for Realists advocates policies including a universal basic income (a guaranteed minimum salary for all citizens), a 15-hour working week and global open borders. Since its publication last year, Bregman’s manifesto has been translated into more than 20 languages, establishing him as one of Europe’s pre-eminent young thinkers.

“I was born in 1988, one year before the fall of the Berlin Wall, and people of my generation were taught that utopian dreams are dangerous,” Bregman recalled when we met for coffee at the London office of his publisher Bloomsbury. A softly-spoken but forceful character, dressed casually in a light blue jacket, jeans and Nike Air trainers, Bregman continued: “It seemed that the age of big ideas was over. Politics had just become technocracy and politicians just managers.”

Bregman’s imagination was fired by anarchist thinkers such as the Russian philosopher Peter Kropotkin. He identifies with the left libertarian tradition, which emphasises individual freedom from both market and state domination. Another formative influence was Russell Jacoby, Bregman’s history professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, whose book The Last Intellectuals (2000) lamented the decline of the polymath in an era of academic specialisation. Utopia for Realists, a rigorously argued and lucidly written work, fuses insights from history, politics, philosophy and economics. Bregman echoes Oscar Wilde’s sentiment: “A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at.”

Such romanticism partly filled the void left by Bregman’s loss of religious faith at the age of 18 (his father was a Protestant minister in the church opposite the family home in Zoetermeer, western Netherlands). “Maybe utopianism is my form of religion in a world without God,” Bregman mused.

For him, utopia is not a dogma to be ruthlessly imposed but a liberating and inclusive vision. It would be “completely ludicrous”, Bregman remarked, for a Western politician to suddenly propose global open borders. Rather, such ideals should animate progressive reforms: one could call it incremental utopianism.

“History will tell you that borders are not inevitable, they hardly existed at the end of the 19th century,” Bregman observed. “And the data is behind me.” Economists liken the present system to leaving “trillion-dollar bills on the sidewalk” and estimate that allowing migrants to move to any country they choose would increase global GDP by between 67 and 147 per cent.

The thoughtful Conservative MP Nick Boles recently objected to a universal basic income on the grounds that “mankind is hard-wired to work. We gain satisfaction from it. It gives us a sense of identity, purpose and belonging”.

Bregman did not dispute this but argued for a radical redefinition of work. “A YouGov poll in 2015 found that 37 per cent of British workers think their own job is absolutely meaningless,” he noted. Rather than such “bullshit jobs” (to use the anthropologist David Graeber’s phrase), work should be defined as “doing something of value, making this world a little more interesting, richer, beautiful – whether that’s paid or unpaid doesn’t really matter.”

In Utopia for Realists, Bregman decries “underdog socialism”: a left that is defined by what it is against (austerity, privatisation, racism), rather than what it is for. How does he view the ascent of Jeremy Corbyn? “Most of the ideas are sensible but they’re a bit old-fashioned, it felt like stepping into a time machine,” Bregman said of the 2017 Labour manifesto (which majored on renationalisation). Yet he recognised that Corbyn had expanded the limits of the possible. “All this time, people were saying that Labour shouldn’t become too radical or it will lose votes. The election showed that, in fact, Labour wasn’t radical enough.”

“We need a completely different kind of democracy, a society where you don’t think purely in terms of representation,” Bregman explained, citing the Brazilian city Porto Alegre’s pioneering experiments in participatory democracy (citizens’ assemblies, for instance, determine public spending priorities). “I call it the anarchist state. The anarchists want to abolish the state; what I want to do is to make the state think like an anarchist.”

Rutger Bregman has a fundamentally optimistic view of human nature: “People are pretty nice” (his next book will challenge “the long intellectual history in the West that says, deep down, we’re all animals, we’re all beasts”).

He dismissed those who cite the 20th century – the age of Stalinism and fascism – as proof of the ruinous consequences of utopian thought. “People are always yearning for a bigger story to be part of, it’s not enough to live our own private lives. If you don’t give them [people] hope, they’ll go for something else.” 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist