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Saturday Night at the Movies by Dennis Hartley review archive

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Hullabaloo


Saturday, April 19, 2014

 
Saturday Night at the Movies


Beginners and losers: Alan Partridge


By Dennis Hartley




















The drinkin' I did on my last big gig
Made my voice go low
They said that they liked the 'younger sound'
When they let me go


-From "W-O-L-D", by Harry Chapin


Four score and seven years ago (OK, that's an exaggeration...it was 1974) I was a neophyte DJ working the midnight-6am shift at an AM station in Fairbanks, Alaska. The call letters, KFAR, were somewhat apropos; this was about as far fucking north as you could live on planet Earth and still have a radio career. I have never forgotten a nugget of wisdom imparted to me back in those days by a veteran jock, who, perhaps sensing my Pollyanna enthusiasm for the gig, took me aside to share some career advice. "You're still young," be began with a world-weary sigh, "So I'm gonna tell ya something about small market radio stations like this one, Dennis. There are only two types of people who work here: Beginners, and losers." I was the beginner, so...I assume he knew of what he spoke.

No fictional character better embodies the ethos of this showbiz axiom than Alan Partridge, the creation of droll English actor-comedian Steve Coogan and writer Armando Iannucci (the comic genius behind the BBC political sitcom The Thick of It). A smarmy, egotistical "program presenter" of middling talent and perennially underwhelming accomplishment, Alan is a "jack of all trades, master of none" who persists in orbiting about the showbiz peripheral like an angry bee, despite continual failure. This stalwart refusal to surrender dreams of stardom makes Alan oddly endearing, despite the fact he's a self-absorbed asshole. UK TV audiences (and Anglophiles like yours truly) have become fixated (in bad car wreck fashion) on following Alan’s ever-downward career trajectory. It began in the mid-90s, with the one-season BBC series Knowing Me, Knowing You (also the name of the fictional "show within the show"), which “documented” an ill-fated variety program created (and ultimately destroyed) by its prickly, passive-aggressive host (this incarnation of the Partridge persona recalls Dabney Coleman's character in the short-lived but brilliant 80s NBC series, Buffalo Bill).

Several years later, Coogan and Iannucci resurrected the character in I'm Alan Partridge, a two-season series that picks up Alan's story as he moves back to his hometown of Norwich, in the wake of his humiliating failure as a national TV personality. He has managed to snag the graveyard shift on a local radio station (erm...see paragraph 1) where he spins 80s synth-pop hits for residents of the sleepy little hamlet. By season 2, he's living in a trailer with his young Ukrainian girlfriend, picking up whatever gigs he can in between making desperate pitches to stone-faced BBC executives. Whereas Knowing Me Knowing You was more showbiz satire, I'm Alan Partridge has darker tones; Alan emerges more as a figure like John Osborne's Archie (or a character from a Ray Davies song). It's a 'cringe-comedy'; discomfiting yet funny (like Curb Your Enthusiasm).

The most recent TV update on the Alan Partridge saga was parlayed via the 12-episode series, Mid Morning Matters (2010-2011), which finds Alan more or less settled in (or wearily settling for) his career as a radio personality for a small market station, hosting a slightly higher profile air shift on "North Norfolk Digital". Coogan and Iannucci ease up on the pathos that informed I'm Alan Partridge and go more for the belly laughs in this series. And the laughs are plentiful, mostly thanks to Alan's interaction with fellow staff, particularly "Side-kick Simon" (Tim Key) and Alan's apparent inability to complete one single interview without somehow offending his guests. Which brings us to a new feature film called Alan Partridge (which was released as Alpha Papa in the UK this past fall).

In the film (directed by Declan Lowney and co-written by Coogan, Iannucci, Peter Baynham and twin brothers Rob and Neil Gibbons) we find Alan (Coogan) still ensconced in the air chair at North Norfolk Digital, with Side-kick Simon (Key)  covering his flank. Alan is waging his usual charm offensive, with song outros like "You can keep Jesus Christ. That was Neil Diamond...truly the 'King of the Jews'!" and challenging his listeners to ponder and weigh in on the big questions like, "What is the worst 'monger'-? Iron, fish, rumor...or war?" However, it is not business as usual with upper management, who call Alan into a meeting after his show to inform him that North Norfolk Digital is about to be absorbed by a media conglomerate, who want to make some staff cuts. Alan dodges the bullet, but his old pal Pat (Colm Meaney) is not so lucky. The new owners want to pick up younger listeners, and Pat is seen as too stodgy. Pat doesn’t take it so well; he comes back with a gun and takes hostages. Alan becomes the reluctant liaison between Pat and the police in the resulting standoff; hilarity ensues.

I know that may not necessarily sound like the setup for a riotous comedy on paper, but it works as such, thanks to the sharp writing, smart direction and deft ensemble work from the cast, right down to the smallest roles. Meaney (a fine actor who has proven to be equally adept at dramatic and comedic roles) plays it fairly straight, lending the film an edge and even genuine poignancy at times. Still, this is ultimately Coogan’s show; he’s inhabited this uniquely weird character over so many years with such commitment that it’s nearly impossible to figure out where Coogan begins and Partridge ends, or vice-versa (like Andy Kaufman and Latka Gravas). But you needn’t ponder that. Your job is to simply sit back and enjoy 90 minutes of laugh therapy…something we could all use.

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