When I first heard that Alan Partridge was coming back to the BBC, it was as if an old key was turning in a lock: a feeling of total rightness. Partridge could not be more Brexit if he was a bit of cheddar on a Union Jack cocktail stick. We all thought he was outmoded, as defunct as the Mini Metro he once told his assistant Lynn he would never, ever drive. But it turns out that he had only to wait for the world to regress to his level; to meet him, as it were, at the door of North Norfolk Digital, the crummy radio station that has employed him these past few years.
I’m guessing that not many people – certainly not many readers of this magazine – have read Nigel Farage’s pathetic book, The Purple Revolution. But I have, and all I can tell you is that it’s pure, unadulterated Partridge, the grandiose and the banal repeatedly colliding to unintentionally comic effect (try as I might, I’ve never been able to forget the fact that he likens Ukip at its most buoyant to a bird flying into an Anglo-Saxon mead hall). This, then – I mean 2019, and all its associated horrors – appears to be Alan’s moment; his very own finest hour. It seems only right that in order to celebrate it, he should at last be allowed to return to W1A and to all the box-ticking, determinedly impartial souls who sail in it – especially now John Humphrys is retiring.
The result is a bit like BBC Sounds: something has gone slightly wrong on the way. I love Partridge, and always will. I’d rather have him around than not. But Neil and Rob Gibbons, the writers of This Time with Alan Partridge (9.30pm, 25 February), perhaps made a mistake when they elected to have him temporarily co-presenting a sofa-based smorgasbord of self-help and sentimentality (This Time) that resembles both The One Show and Good Morning Britain. As they’ve already acknowledged, you can barely slip a paper between someone such as Piers Morgan, the presenter of Good Morning Britain, and Partridge; the territory, gauche and ghastly, is too familiar to be wholly funny. I understand that they wanted him to catch a break. But in their shoes, I’d have had that break be a job presenting a phone-in on an LBC-style station: a space where Brexit Britain would be permitted to intrude. The trouble, I guess, is that the BBC wouldn’t have broadcast that show – and someone (Coogan?) clearly longed to be there rather than at Sky, or elsewhere.
It still has its moments. Partridge’s package about hand-washing was very funny, especially the chopsocky drill in which he demonstrated how to access and use a train loo without touching anything with one’s hands. I laughed when he complained to the maker of a wildlife documentary that the name she’d given a baby seal – Silas – was rubbish (Partridge demanded “a better one – like Richard”). It was pretty delicious when a hacker revealed what Alan had been up to online in the moments after hearing that he’d landed This Time (googling John Inverdale’s salary; boasting to Sue Barker and Richard Hammond). And of course Coogan’s performance is as marvellously twitchy as ever. No element of the emotional armoury deployed by the average chat show presenter escapes his attention; no nod, no jerk of the knee, no tight little smile. But all in all, I think it needs more pathos and darkness, more nastiness and anarchy – and an awful lot more Lynn Benfield.
In The Satanic Verses: 30 Years On (9pm, 27 February) Mobeen Azhar, of the BBC Asian Network, tracked down some of those involved in the events that led to the fatwah against Salman Rushdie, an act that stole from the writer nine years of his life, and much else besides. Were they regretful? Was it right that they burned books in the streets? That they marched through London with an effigy of Rushdie hanging from a gallows? That it was a British man, Kalim Siddiqui, who travelled to Tehran to drip poison in the ear of the Ayatollah Khomeini?
For the most part, the likes of Liaquat Hussain and Ishtiaq Ahmed of the Bradford Council of Mosques could only shake their heads in answer to these questions, and in a way, who can blame them? I wonder if the liberal world would be quite so openly united in horrified opposition were something similar to happen now. The Rushdie affair has many ongoing repercussions, and chief among them, I think, is the confusion and fear that now almost inevitably trails the notion of offence. Even if we can’t always see it or feel it, in 2019 censorship is all around us, and likely here for the duration.
This Time with Alan Partridge (BBC One)
The Satanic Verses: 30 Years On (BBC One)
This article appears in the 27 Feb 2019 issue of the New Statesman, How Brexit broke politics