Seige Mentality: Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa
In many ways it’s surprising that an Alan Partridge movie has found its way into Australian cinemas at all. Despite the character’s enduring popularity in his home country of England, Partridge has been inexplicably unavailable in the colonies until very recently, and even the local posters for Alpha Papa pose the question, “the world is wondering… who is Alan Partridge?”.
For those who don’t know, Partridge – the brainchild of comedian Steve Coogan – sits somewhere near Basil Fawlty and David Brent on the list of Britain’s most beloved screen characters. Born on BBC radio in the early 1990s on Chris Morris’s news parody On the Hour, Partridge’s career has spanned three decades and the breadth of broadcast media, with the character evolving from stereotypically uncouth and inept radio sports correspondent to outrageously narcissistic chat show presenter, the whole time painfully devoid of self-awareness. He’s Larry Sanders with all the emotional baggage but none of the cracking wit, natural charm or success.
Through the occasional ups and plentiful downs of Partridge’s career, we’ve seen flashes of the true Alan Partridge – the sad, jealous, lonely man whose children won’t speak to him and whose old-school style of presentation is totally irrelevant in the 21st century – but only in glimpses. Part of the character’s success is that he maintains the stiffest of upper lips during even the most morally devastating situations, and possesses the sense of entitlement of someone with a TV show on prime time BBC1 TV even as he’s hosting a mid-morning digital radio chat show on North Norfolk Digital (“North Norfolk’s Best Music Mix”).
This total cognitive inability to identify that one’s glories are in the past and the world has passed one by lies at the core of Alpha Papa, which finds Alan and his North Norfolk Digital colleagues fearing for their careers after a re-brand designed to help the station skew younger. Alan is but one of the many broadcasting dinosaurs populating the studio, with his old sparring partner Dave Clifton (Phil Cornwell) and Irish DJ Pat Farrell (Colm Meaney) each hosting their own shows alongside Alan’s Mid Morning Matters.
When he discovers that the studio brass have decided to keep only one of him or Farrell, Alan sabotages his colleague behind closed doors and convinces the higher-ups to fire Pat, leaving Pat out of a job and unaware of Alan’s part in his demise.
For Pat this humiliation is the last straw. The shame and anger he feels after such an ignominious demise leads him to return to the station that afternoon with a shotgun and a murderous rage, shooting up a staff party and holding a dozen people hostage, including the new managing director. Alan, by happenstance, manages to avoid being in the studio when the siege begins.
If it were Alan in Pat’s position, the humiliation and insecurity would manifest itself as it usually does, merely as crippling social awkwardness (in severe cases Alan will verbally berate his personal assistant, but very rarely does his shame turn violent – apart from, on one memorable occasion, attacking a BBC television commissioner with a wheel of cheese).
But Pat is Alan without the moderating super-ego, and becomes an unpredictable mad man. He takes over the broadcast studio and begins to host his show as if nothing were out of the ordinary, forcing his hostages to write and record old-timey jingles at gunpoint and demanding the police send his old friend and colleague Alan Partridge into the studio to act as a mediator and co-host. Alan immediately recognises the potential for career advancement being “the face” of a major siege, and milks it for all it’s worth while trying desperately to conceal the fact that the whole situation is probably his fault.
This setting is an ingenious one. Besides offering plenty of opportunities for humour in Alan’s decidedly underwhelming ability to deal with a crisis, it allows his narcissistic, fame-seeking and ladder-climbing tendencies to all surface without having to explain the character’s history to audiences unfamiliar with him. By not tying the film directly to any of Alan’s previous incarnations, you don’t need to know anything about the character to get the most out of Alpha Papa, and the film is all the more successful for it.
Bringing an existing, successful TV property to the longer cinematic form is perilous at the best of times (see: The X Files, The Simpsons, Ali G), but Coogan and his fellow producers have smartly constructed an entirely new setting in which to throw Alan, one which maximises the film’s potential for comedic success and which is perfectly suited to the extended running time of a feature film.
Existing Partridge fans need not worry, though, because there’s plenty for them too. Old faces re-appear, sly references are made to the events of I’m Alan Partridge and I, Partridge (Alan’s riotously funny “autobiography”), and the humour is similar in tone to previous outings. The occasional over-reach notwithstanding – such as Alan falling out of a window and losing his pants – it’s one of the funniest films of the year.
Meaney’s portrayal of Pat Farrell ties the film together, the dim-witted but earnest DJ demanding sympathy in places while also providing a convenient villain when the story calls for one, leading to genuinely conflicted loyalties during the film’s finale.
Alpha Papa sits comfortably alongside the many previous incarnations of Alan Partridge, but with a broader setting (and a release to match), it just might be the opportunity for worldwide stardom Alan’s been waiting for.