Friday 24 April 2020

From the archive: "Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa"

First things first. Now that Alpha Papa’s finally here, it proves as weird to see Alan Partridge on a big screen as it would be to see, say, one’s own dad on the big screen. We’ve grown up with Steve Coogan’s comic creation bumbling around our front rooms embarrassing himself and others, every bit the product of the 4:3 analogue TV era; those recent Internet specials were exactly the kind of venture a washed-up DJ might resort to in a bid to prove himself down with the kids. Back in the game, as the man himself might say.

Digital comebacks aside, it’s nevertheless jolting to suddenly be confronted with a scaled-up and apparently rejuvenated Alan, singing along with Roachford’s “Cuddly Toy” (early evidence of the good time Alpha Papa’s here to show us) in stonking, multi-channel Dolby. There’s a world in which Alan Partridge has already found his ideal home on tatty TV channel Dave, going out in perpetuity between reruns of his beloved Top Gear.

In this world, however, the movie spin-off we’ve arrived at is effectively Die Hard with a Partridge – strike that, Lynn: Die Hard with A. Partridge – doing its very best to recast a character previously encountered as a prizewinning prat as the closest thing North Norfolk has to an indomitable hero: the first man the police think to turn to as negotiator after aggrieved Irish DJ Pat Farrell (Colm Meaney) starts taking hostages at a party intended to celebrate North Norfolk Digital’s absorption by a multimedia conglomerate.

Of course, Alan loves the idea: the role offers him the chance to don a bulletproof vest and live out all those macho Andy McNab fantasies fostered during those long dark nights in the Linton Travel Tavern. And, of course, the gag is that he’s a rubbish negotiator, forever ducking out, falling asleep or otherwise failing to respond when the opportunity presents itself; while sharing the airwaves with Farrell – and a newly trussed-up Sidekick Simon (Tim Key) – Alan even finds himself sympathising with the oldtimer, brushed aside by thrusting corporate bucks keen to replace Neil Diamond with Tom Odell.

We’ve gone from Hapless Alan to Alan: Man of (Sort of) Action, in other words, and the shift takes some getting used to: the film, a brisk 90-minute romp overseen by comedy veteran Declan Lowney (Father Ted), is steered by plot, where Partridge’s TV appearances were slow-burn character studies, and only occasionally does it attempt the shows’ signature mix of comedy and bathos, as when Alan flicks through the television channels to find his hostage crisis has dropped down every agenda save that of regional news magazine Look East.

There’s a tonal concern, too, in that for this plot to function, it demands a heightened level of violence and threat that – the dark desires of Alan-stalkers aside – hasn’t previously reared its head inside this universe. Meaney responds by wrapping his man-going-postal inside a cuddly befuddlement, but this is still the first Partridge project to rack up a (granted, modest) bodycount, which you could get squeamish about, and the denouement depends on a blood loss far more life-threatening than one might suffer from, say, impaling one’s foot on the gates of a Norwich country club.

What smoothes the experience over – and makes Alpha Papa one of the few TV-to-film crossovers that doesn’t embarrass itself – is that it is funny, at least two or three times a minute, the work of comedy pros keenly and smartly parsing each scene (and, indeed, the entire Partridge back catalogue) for set-ups to pay off. At the press screening, critics were enthusiastically noting down what looked like three-quarters of the script for future use, which wasn’t the case at, say, The Inbetweeners Movie, where even the funnier material sounded unprintable.

I’ll just limit myself to noting Lynn’s quietly hilarious assertion she couldn’t have had anything to do with Farrell’s rampage because she only ever baked the Irishman three cakes, “all of them plain”; that, while he may have seemed an interloper in those viral vids, Key’s underplaying here serves as genuine relief amid the shoutier, bangier business, establishing him as perhaps the Freeman to Coogan’s Gervais; and that there’s clever (if sparing) use of the one character in the Partri-verse who you suspect might actually flourish in any siege scenario.

Mostly, though, this is a one-man show, very much dependent on your fondness for/tolerance of Coogan-as-Partridge, whether he’s holding inappropriate mid-siege phone-ins (“Have you ever met a genuinely intelligent bus driver?”), using the radio station forecourt to stage his own low-rent version of Dog Day Afternoon, or simply indulging those petty and pedantic urges that link him indelibly to smaller-screen Little Englanders.

Ever since the days of Tony Ferrino and Phileas Fogg, Coogan has been champing at the bit to play the lover and the hero, no matter that he’s almost always funnier (and more likable) playing pitiable or pathetic. Here, he’s reached the point in his career where he can try and square the two – no matter how this alters the boundaries of the Partridge world – and quite possibly get away with it.

The have-your-Dundee-cake-and-eat-it approach is encapsulated in the end credits, which mash up a Partridge-approved chart-topper with an attempt to broaden the demographic appeal – though this Alan, an almost-alpha, is now hero enough to publicly denounce the work of Example as “rubbish”. As elsewhere in Alpha Papa, he’s more right than wrong.

(MovieMail, August 2013)

Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa screens on BBC1 tonight at 11.45pm.

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