Tuesday, March 22, 2011

British humor 5: Steve Coogan as Alan Partridge

Although most Americans would recognize him from his appearances in a series of multiplex comedies of varying quality, Steve Coogan has crafted a number of utterly indelible characters on British radio and TV — the full range of them can be viewed in his standup video The Man Who Thinks He’s It. The most memorable of all is Alan Partridge, who stands alongside Barth Gimble (Fernwood 2-Night) and Larry Sanders as one of the most lacerating parodies of self-involved talk-show hosts ever.

The creators of the Partridge character were the folks who produced the brilliant Chris Morris-Armando Iannucci radio news comedy On the Hour (1991-2); some of the early sketches done by Coogan as Partridge were written by the comedy team of Stewart Lee and Richard Herring. On the Hour became the impeccably nasty TV series The Day Today (1994) (see my piece on Chris Morris for info on that series). Two sample clips:

The writers spun off Alan from being a confused, ignorant sportscaster to being the ultimate egomaniacal (and doggedly ignorant) talk-show host in the perfect Knowing Me, Knowing You with Alan Partridge, which began on radio in 1992 (the full run of the series can be found here) and wound up, naturally enough, as a six-episode TV series in 1994 (the full run of which can be found here).

Sample clips: Alan is hypnotized by “Tony Le Mesmer” (David Schneider) and is tied to the “Wheel of Death”:

A political debate which presents the finest moment of actor-playwright Patrick Marber’s career (at least in my mind), his turn as fictitious Parliament candidate “Lt. Col. Kojak Slaphead III”:

Alan interviews the lesbian hostesses who will be taking over his timeslot:

Alan performs an ABBA medley with an American singer (played by Rebecca Front, with more than a hint of “Liza with a Z” in evidence):

Since that last medley worked so well on the show, Coogan did an equally wonderful Kate Bush medley in his live stage show:

A lot of the stray Partridge appearances have appeared on the DVDs of the shows released in the U.S. Here’s one I’d never seen, with Coogan and Marber at the BAFTA Tech Awards in 1994:

On Clive James Talks Back in 1997:

Another rarity: Alan shows up on Armando Iannucci’s “Election Night Armistice” special:

Knowing Me, Knowing You was followed a few years later by the sitcom I’m Alan Partridge (1997), where we follow Alan as he spirals down in show business. The show is a perfect example of an exquisite British TV comedy in that it focused around a brilliantly conceived “grotesque” comic character; it ran a minimum number of episodes (six per season, two seasons); the creators waited several years (five in fact) to do a second season that was as good as the first; and the downhill journey sketched in the show reflected countless annoying celebrities from several different arms of show business (gone was the simple focus on talk shows).

The entire series is on YT here. Sample clips: Alan “sympathizes” with his senior-citizen manager:

A key scene in one episode involves Alan being furious at his friend having taped over his copy of The Spy Who Loved Me. Here, a fan puts scenes from the film over his frantic recreation of its Roger Moore Bond-ian badness:

And a fave moment for me that enshrines the world “mentalist”:

After the 2002 second season of I’m Alan Partridge, Coogan seemed to retire the character for several years, but he did trot out new embarrassments for Alan in live shows like this 2009 “personal development seminar” that somehow becomes a play about Thomas More:

For years there has been talk about an Alan Partridge feature — which could be exquisite if scripted by the folks who did the original three TV series — but in the meantime there has been no new Partridge “product.” In late 2010, Coogan and colleagues (all sadly uncredited) decided to resurrect the character in what seemed like a crass commercial ploy, a series of “webisodes” sponsored by Fosters Lager. We in America have been “blocked” from seeing the official uploads of the shows, but thankfully dutiful fans have made all twelve episodes available on YT (all except No. 10, which lingers somewhere in the darkness).

I’m happy to report, now that the show have been “unlocked” for those who don’t live in the U.K., that the Mid Morning Matters with Alan Partridge episodes are short, smart, and wonderfully funny. The premise is that Alan, somehow still finding work in show biz, is now doing the mid-morning slot at “North Norfolk Digital” radio, where we are able to watch him both on- and off-mic, thanks to webcams.

The claustrophobic staging of the episodes is a masterstroke, and the plotting — in which Alan’s “Sidekick Simon” is eventually replaced by a younger blonde whom Alan has a crush on — gives us more reasons to simultaneously pity and loathe Alan. Mid Morning Matters essentially works as a radio play, but the scripters (again, sadly uncredited) let Coogan do some wonderful face and physical work, as well as indulge in some truly golden silences. Here is the first episode, in which Alan discusses condiments and bicycling:

As the episodes continue, he engages in moronic radio contests (choose the “best” Norfolk person ever, give your favorite example of “forced celebrity breeding,” choose which animal species to make extinct) and does incompetent interviews with local guests. One of the best episodes, number 5, features an almost entirely solo turn by Coogan, as Alan talks with an Irish shepherd, is pranked by another digital radio service, and reads an endless “Sad Story”:

The next to last show finds Alan breaking in his new radio partner and answering calls with a local “agony aunt” (advice columnist):

The Fosters project thus turns out to be another pathetic and wonderfully funny chapter in the life of the obnoxious, delusional, and very familiar Mr. Alan Partridge. Since Coogan regularly buries the character and then digs him up again, hopefully there will be more appearances by this brilliant comic creation in the years to come.

1 comment:

Will Finn said...

This is indeed an amazing series and character. IMO the single-camera follow-up seasons seem to presage the "human train-wreck" humor of THE OFFICE a bit.

Favorite episode : Alan impaling his foot rather gruesomely on a spiked fence.