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Non-Review Review: Alan Partridge – Alpha Papa

Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa successfully brings the BBC icon to the big screen. He’s come a long way from a sports desk persona on a BBC4 parody radio show, and modern British comedy owes a lot to Coogan’s creation. Partridge has been around for over twenty years at this point, in many ways becoming more recognisable than Steve Coogan himself. It’s surprising that it’s taken this long to shepherd Partridge to the big screen.

Partridge is the king of what might be termed “cringe comedy”, and is a clear forbearer of Ricky Gervais’ David Brent. As such, it’s possible to feel that Partridge is a little dated. Certainly, there are times when Alpha Papa plays out like it could be an extended holiday special featuring North Norfolk’s most famous radio DJ. To be fair, that’s not a bad thing. Coogan is on fine form here, the comedy is broad and the wit is quick enough that there’s never a dull moment.

It’s a giant-sized helping of the comedy character, one which stays true to his roots even if it does occasionally feel like it over-simplifies him a bit.

On the air, and on the line...

On the air, and on the line…

To be fair, the appeal of Partridge is relatively simple. He’s a very confused individual with no real grasp of his place in the world, no ability to relate to another human being and an incredible ability to fill awkward silence with thoughtless white noise. In short, he’s the perfect parody of a local radio personality, and the bulk of the character’s output has been themed around Patridge’s sheer inability to comprehend that he’s really not everything that he would like to believe that he is.

However, the reason the character has endured is largely down to Coogan. Coogan is so comfortable in Partridge’s skin that he’s able to take the character on the talkshow circuit. He’s been able to slip in and out of Partridge’s skin with incredible ease over twenty years – sometimes with years between appearances. Coogan has been quite candid that he sees Partridge as a mixed blessing, a wonderful accomplishment that runs the risk of overshadowing the rest of the comedian’s impressive output.

Opening a door to the past...

Opening a door to the past…

And yet, despite that, there’s something that resonates about Coogan’s Partridge. There’s something incredibly human in his quest for fame and respect (and, as he puts it here, “an SUV towing a speed boat”). He’s a selfish, prejudiced, entitled moron, but Coogan gives him just enough humanity that the audience never quite hates him. We might not want to get stuck in an elevator with him, but it’s never a chore to watch Partridge discover that he’s not the centre of the universe.

Alpha Papa isn’t particularly adventurous. It doesn’t offer any especially astute insights into Partridge as a character. In a way, this helps the movie focus on what works – Partridge as a self-centred narcissist in the middle of a hostage crisis is fun to watch. On the other hand, the movie strains just a bit when it tries to give him an arc. Partridge finds himself something of a celebrity by virtue of his involvement in a siege on Radio Norfolk.

Alpha dog...

Alpha dog…

“I could be the biggest thing to come out of Norfolk since Lord Nelson,” he boasts. “Or Trish.” The character arc seems a little too simple, a bit overly-familiar and just a tad generic, as Partridge finds himself elevated to fame as he bumbles his way through the drama. To be fair, Alpha Papa stops just short of giving us a trite “Alan learns a lesson” subplot, and the ambiguity in Coogan’s performance – the sense that Alan is more completely out of his depth than taking a philosophical stand – helps remove some of the sting, but Alpha Papa does feel very paint-by-numbers.

To be fair, once you get past that, there’s some great stuff here. The notion of throwing Partridge together with a late-night radio host who is everything that he isn’t (honest, sincere, decent) works very well at throwing Partridge into contrast for any audience members unfamiliar with the character. Coogan’s knack for improvisation shines through, and Patridge’s strange tangents and metaphors – often oblique references to his rather surreal internal logic – are always hilarious.

The shape of things to come?

The shape of things to come?

There’s an interesting thematic overlap with Edgar Wright’s The World’s End, with a subplot focusing on the loss of British identity as Radio Norfolk is purchased by one of those soulless generic conglomerates that then to pop up in stories like this. Alpha Papa never tackles the issue as earnestly or as thoughtfully as The World’s End, but it also manages to avoid feeling as heavy-handed. There are some interesting points made about these sorts of local institutions and establishments, even if the film never quite pushes the issue to the foreground.

There’s a sense that anything particularly local is being wrung out of these smaller broadcasters, and that the voice of Norfolk is being slowly drowned out and replaced with bland inoffensive pop. A former DJ returns to the station to find out that his unique and individualised jingles have been replaced with generic branding. “It was a jingle genocide,” one staff member explains. “Be the brand,” urges a sign on the station’s wall, installed by the new owners.

Radio gaga...

Radio gaga…

The mega-corporation is given the suitably generic name “Shape”, complete with the suitably Orwellian slogan “the way you want it to be.” The company even restricts the library of songs available to the hosts, reducing them – as one DJ laments – to little more than a sales force pushing the latest proscribed hit upon a passive populace. There’s a definite sense of the same crisis of identity which underscored Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg’s The World’s End, a fair of what is distinctly British might end up erased by the scramble for global branding.

The film is too smart to engage entirely with that sort of nostalgia. After all, it casts the know-nothing ego-centric Partridge as the voice of Norfolk, making us wonder if maybe the generic international conglomerate might not be such a bad thing. The movie wisely avoids trying to make Partridge into a hero and champion of small-town values, and the movie never quite feels like it earnestly engages with the point. This is a shrewd move, seen as Partridge was invented as something of a parody of this small-town radio host, so it might have been a tad hypocritical to reinvent him as some sort of people’s champion.

Give it arrest, eh?

Give it arrest, eh?

“Keep it light,” the hostage taker urges Partridge at one point, prompting the radio host to just star spewing words in the microphone. It seems to be something of a mission statement for Alpha Papa, which is a solid celebration of a British comedy institution, even if it never feels especially bold.

2 Responses

  1. Terrific write-up. I’m really looking forward to checking this out, love me some Alan Partridge! Awesome site by the way, been an avid follower for a while. I recently started my own film blog and would love for you to check it out, hopefully you like it :).

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