When radio station North Norfolk Digital is taken over by a new media conglomerate, it puts DJ Alan Partridge (Steve Coogan) on an unexpected path of working with the police to stop a potentially violent situation.
Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa is mad fun. The gags come thick, fast and tasteless, and the humour is dark, sharp, satirical and very, very silly. The plot—about a hostage siege in a tiny regional radio station in North Norfolk—induces cringes of recognition as it name checks the dead hand of corporate takeovers and a frenzied media eager to cash-in. It’s also about a fading broadcaster/celeb who is a prize prat behaving badly in a world where sanity seems to have taken a long holiday. For what it’s worth, I laughed myself stupid. But then, recommending any comedy is a treacherous business; so take that as both a confession and a caution.
Coogan is a prodigiously gifted actor and his Partridge is a masterpiece
In England Alan Partridge is a household name. Still, the Partridge/Coogan fan-base appears international, sizable and hugely devoted, and it’s no wonder why; he is a hysterically funny grotesque drawn perhaps from the same deep comic reservoir of ego, smarm, snobbishness and embarrassment that gave rise to Basil Fawlty and David Brent. Which is to say, Partridge is that good and that English.
Created by Coogan, Armando Iannucci and Patrick Marber, Partridge, a politically incorrect wally who seems to have no firewall between his slow-burn brain and his motor mouth, first appeared on the BBC radio’s On the Hour in 1991. In the twenty years since, there’s been a lot more radio, TV specials, print, and online appearances for Partridge, who is so self-absorbed, graceless and crazed with his own out-sized and unrealistic ambitions, he makes real-life media celebs look, well, almost (but not quite) sensible.
Coogan is a prodigiously gifted actor and his Partridge is a masterpiece. It isn’t just the dated hair styling, the unmistakably British forced cheeriness, the sing-songy voice that bespeaks a counterfeit sincerity and self-regard in equal measure, or the constant stream of jaw-droppingly off-colour one liners. It’s the fact that as an aging media player well past his prime he is entirely plausible in his petty bitterness and his desire to mine a laugh when and wherever possible. The genius of Coogan and co. is that they’ve made Partridge hilarious and kind of poignant (like David Brent, we’re frequently offered a scarifying glimpse into a deprived, infantile, and lonely soul). He’s a classic comedy creation: a loser, a coward and a user.
There have long been rumours of a big screen Partridge and this feature debut for the character, directed by TV comedy veteran Declan Lowney (Father Ted), doesn’t mess with Partridge or the savage tone fans love. It’s got a strong, bright and unfussy feel and it’s shot in that realistic but slick high-gloss style much favoured in Brit comedy features (think things like Four Weddings, only without the pretty stuff).
As the movie opens, Partridge’s 'home’, North Norfolk Digital, has been newly acquired by a media conglomerate. Thinking his job safe (by virtue of his celeb status), Partridge seems to care less about the planned re-branding or the fact that management is hiring 'young’ on-air talent. Fellow veteran DJ Pat (Colm Meaney) isn’t so sure. When Partridge discovers that it’s either him or Pat that is to be sacked, he advises the board to 'sack Pat". They do and that night, as staff are celebrating their new name and image, Pat turns up with a shot gun and holds all hostage, demanding his old job back. Partridge becomes the police negotiator. There are minor sub-plots; there’s a lovely bit for Partridge’s beaten down assistant Lynn (Felicity Montagu) as she ends up fodder for TV news, and Tim Key is great as Partridge’s on-air punching bag Sidekick Simon, who has to play most of the movie with a shot gun to his head.
It was written by Coogan, Iannucci, Peter Baynham and Neil and Rob Gibbons, and they’ve created a solid sitcom with a high joke quotient. A lot of the set-pieces are very TV sketch-like (which doesn’t make them any less funny); Partridge getting stuck in a window and losing his pants; a poo-filled lunch box mistaken for an explosive device and, um, disposed of by the bomb squad in spectacular style; Partridge turning a hostage negotiation into a shopping mall-style personal appearance op.
Still, Coogan and co. keep the film alive with a string of really great visual gags like the brilliant title sequence where he perfectly lip synchs to Roachford’s hit single 'Cuddly Toy' from 1988 as he powers down the motor way. And, of course, there’s much verbal sparring. Here’s Partridge back-announcing: 'That was soft rock cocaine enthusiasts Fleetwood Mac," and later he advises his off-sider on on-air etiquette, 'Never criticise Muslims. Only Christians. And Jews, a little bit."
What I think I like best about it is Coogan and co.’s lack of sentiment. Daft sorts like Partridge can never really be redeemed. By the end of the movie, Partridge is trying to escape his own folly by hiding at the bottom of a toilet bowl. He escapes but we know the stench will follow him wherever he goes.
Watch 'Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa'
Tuesday 5 May, 7:50pm on SBS World Movies (now streaming at SBS On Demand)
Director: Declan Lowney
Starring: Steve Coogan, Colm Meaney, Darren Boyd, Sean Pertwee
What's it about?
To save his own job, Alan Partridge (Coogan) gets radio colleague Pat (Meaney) laid off, but when the man returns to the station with a shotgun and a siege ensues, Alan is given the high-profile role of go-between, trying to appease both the hostage taker and armed police. The first big-screen outing for Coogan's beloved Alan Partridge character.