Is Alan Partridge perfectly placed to take on MeToo and Black Lives Matter? | Steve Coogan and his colleagues on the character's return © Baby Cow

Is Alan Partridge perfectly placed to take on MeToo and Black Lives Matter?

Steve Coogan and his colleagues on the character's return

In these hyper-sensitive times, it takes a man of rare tact and empathy to negotiate the minefield of hot-button racial and gender issues. Step forward, Alan Partridge…

While he might represent all that is reactionary, the character is so well-known for his clumsily inappropriate comments that he can get away with jokes on the most delicate of topics, his creator Steve Coogan says.

‘Because I don't think there are any other characters who have survived this long, you can take risks that you couldn't with a new character, he argues. ‘You can talk about things that are problematic or very, very delicate. All the whole post-MeToo landscape, the BLM/BAME issues, all the identity politics that people are very sensitive to, we can actually, with Alan, sort of run at it. And, if we're careful enough, emerge unscathed.

‘It weirdly makes things easier to talk about because if people are able to laugh, not at these issues, but laugh around them, then it takes the curse off them and makes people able to have more of a grown-up conversation.’

That said, he says he and co-writers Rob and Neil Gibbons are keen to make sure the target of the joke is always  Alan himself.

‘Alan says some really inappropriate things that  are sort of subliminally racist. But the joke is always on Alan for being ignorant or not on-message, or not fully aware of the zeitgeist,’ Coogan adds, at the launch of  the second series of This Time With Alan Partridge, which starts this Friday.

‘It always makes me laugh when he says things that are inappropriate in a throwaway moment. Sometimes we [all] might accidentally have a thought which is not really politically acceptable these days, but we just keep that thought in our head.

‘What  Alan does is have that thought, then quickly says it, and then realises he shouldn't have said it. Those moments straddle the line between utter discomfort and laughter.’

Coogan says the alter-ego’s failings softens the edge… but also allows him to slip out some home truths.

‘While on many levels Alan is objectionable, and misjudged, and makes awful faux pas, on the other hand, he is quite vulnerable,’ the star adds. ‘And, although he says things are inappropriate occasionally, because of his naivety or lack of self-awareness, he  sometimes says things that are universal truths, sort of "The Emperor's not wearing any clothes". You have the ability to  occasionally stumble on those things, so that's appealing to people because he  says things you ought not to say.

‘The vulnerability  also means that people care about him, that while he might get his comeuppance, people don't want to be destroyed. In actual fact, despite Alan's petty little England mentality, he’s a lot nicer than some of the guests he interviews.

‘When the character started out, it was very much a case of "this guy's an idiot". And it felt like the comedy was pulling the legs off an insect, cruel and unrelenting. I remember quite early on  being a bit defensive about him.’

Coogan says the way the character has evolved over the years has kept it fresh: from the buffoonish sportscaster caricature of On The Hour and The Day Today, to inept chat-show host of Knowing Me, Knowing You, to ignominy in the Linton Travel Tavern of I’m Alan Partridge, and slow comeback via North Norfolk Digital radio to his new job co-hosting the BBC’s early evening magazine show This Morning with Jennie Gresham, as played by Susannah Fielding.

‘I think the character’s become more sophisticated , so it always feels like it's a new thing to be working on,’ Coogan says. ‘As long as we give the character a spin, it's always interesting for me, and I find it funny. We never really pursue an Alan project, just because there's demand, we have to do it because we want to.’

The fact Coogan has branched out into many other projects, from Philomena to The Trip, and from The Lost King, his forthcoming film about discovering the remains of Richard III in a Leicester car park, to running his own production company, Baby Cow, has also helped.

‘If Partridge, was all I was doing, I would regard it as an albatross. Because I'm able to do these other things. That’s taken the curse of Alan for me,’ he says.

‘People use to say, "when are you going to kill off Alan Partridge?" But they just stopped asking that. It's accepted that I'll keep doing him. I wouldn't like to never do it again because now it feels like it's enjoyable as part of everything else as I do.

‘I love working with Rob and  Neil and Susannah and Felicity [Montagu] and  Tim [Key] and I wouldn't want to not work with them. So that's that's another important part of it.

‘So I would like to keep coming back as long as I think it's funny. As  the world changes, Alan is a reflection of that changing world, so it can keep keep going.

‘It might be the one day he oversteps the mark and implodes, but that part of the thing if finding out, to just keep pushing him until he until he falls off a cliff or something.’

Talking of which, the last series of This Time ended with Partridge summoned to a meeting over his sexist comments about his co-host. But, two years on, that’s water under the bridg.

Neil Gibbons says: ‘The sense was that Alan, at the end of series one, was put back in the box. His arc was a bit Icarus, that he was getting a bit ahead of himself. And he was put his place by the powers-that-be after episode six. But two years later, I think it would be slightly odd to have them still referring to a disciplinary meeting that happened a long time ago.

‘I think the sense is that Alan was given a slap on the wrist and told to adjust his ways, and unfortunately, the old ways have crept back in…’

The Gibbons brothers started writing Partridge lines for Coogan’s 2008 live tour, six years after the last I’m Alan Partridge TV series aired.

The star says: ‘When they submitted this material, it was a real eureka moment for me because I thought it was fresh and funny and  consistent with the character. So  I knew that the character could have new life and be relevant and funny.  I remember very clearly being excited by the quality of the work.

‘Initially what we did were these things online, with a certain lager sponsoring us, and who I refuse to namecheck.  They offered to do lots of advertising on billboards, and we said, "We don't want any advertising. We don't want to publicise it, we want to do it quietly, and have people rediscover it, and not ram it down people's throats."’

Speaking about picking up the mantle of writing for such a much-loved character that Coogan had previously forged with Peter Baynham and Armando Iannucci, Rob recalls: ‘The thing that surprised us initially was how Steve is incredibly ego-free when it comes to thinking of Alan ideas and how Alan could develop. There was never any sense of "this is my character".’

Neil adds: ‘I think it also helped that a time had  elapsed since the last iteration of Alan, during which is feasible, that, Alan would have grown and changed. So there wasn't a template of Alan that was frozen in aspic that we had to nail. We we had  licence to move on a little bit.’

For this series of This Time, the three of them had to write over Zoom, even though Rob says ‘there’s certain  type of comedy that you're never going to generate unless you're face to face’.

And then there was the issue of filming under social distancing - with ‘a Covid officer who was very by sergeant major-ish, barking to people if they didn't have the masks on’, as Coogan put it.

A major issue was for the cast having no visible response from the masked-up crew.

‘A lot of the feedback we got in the first series was from the people behind the cameras,’ Fielding says. ‘You would know if a joke had really landed, because you can see them smiling and laughing, but obviously, they can't audibly laugh. So you lose that [with Covid rules]. And you have no idea really what what the response is -  it's like doing comedy in an operating theatre, it's not really the best setup for it.

‘It made it a bit more tiring this time, because we weren’t getting that energy coming back at us. It did definitely make it hard and we had to rely on our own instincts more.’

As for the arc of this series, it’s that Alan has realised that as a middle-aged male broadcaster ‘he either needs to make himself an institution, or he's going to become completely irrelevant’.

‘He needs to become Dimbleby or Attenborough, or that's that for him,’ Neil Gibbons says. ‘He's smart enough to see which way the wind is blowing, and to see that he's kind of a dinosaur. But he's Alan-y enough to think in terms of having to make himself an institution. I think that the moment you try and think "I need to make myself an institution", you'll never become one.’

• This Time With Alan Partridge  returns to BBC One on Friday at 9.30pm. Here’s an in-character Q&A with Alan himself

- by Steve Bennett

Published: 28 Apr 2021

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