It is good to see Steve Coogan back as inimitably quirky broadcast personality Alan Partridge in Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa (2013). The last time we got to see Partridge up close and personal was the 1997 BBC sitcom I’m Alan Partridge. Fans didn’t know if they would ever see our hapless hero again. When asked in 2004 if he’d ever revive the character, Coogan replied, “[H]e’s being cryogenically preserved next to Walt Disney. . . When the day comes that I feel like I need to do something else with him, I’ll defrost him and make him funny again.” He has finally been defrosted and, I am glad to say, he is as funny as ever.
The Partridge character has a long and complex history. He once hosted a national television series for the BBC, but a disagreement with broadcast executives led to his ouster. He was forced to take a DJ job at small radio station in the quiet seaside town of Norwich. His latest adventure is set in motion when a giant media conglomerate purchases the station with the intent to change the format to attract a younger demographic. When Partridge discovers that the station owners are debating whether to fire him or fellow DJ Pat Farrell (Colm Meaney), he disparages Pat to a group of executives gathered together for a boardroom meeting. In perfect Alan Partridge style, he concludes his statements by flamboyantly scrawling “Just Sack Pat” on the boardroom’s flipchart. Anyone familiar with Partridge’s troubled past will know that this unkind gesture will inevitably bring our karmic fool an abundant helping of humiliation and defeat.
Trouble starts immediately. Farrell, who is already distraught by the death of his wife, has a breakdown when he loses his job. He bursts into the station with a shotgun and takes the employees hostage. Partridge, who Farrell surprisingly trusts, becomes a mediator between the police and the hostage-taker. He is ecstatic to step outside of the building to speak to the police, which puts him in the full view of news cameras. The former television presenter comes to sees himself as “hosting the siege.” The station manager is thrilled for the station to be receiving publicity. He emboldens Partridge by telling him that he is “the face of the siege” (or “siege face” as Partridge brands himself). Phillip French of The Observer aptly described the film as “comic cross” between Ace in the Hole (1951) and Dog Day Afternoon (1975).
Comedies today are generally loud and obnoxious. Nothing could be more loud and obnoxious than the roster of comedy films for 2013: The Heat, Identity Thief, Grown Ups 2, The Hangover 3, Scary Movie 5, Bad Grandpa, The Incredible Burt Wonderstone and Movie 43. The logic behind these films is that the best way to make people laugh is to shock them. The shock is conveyed by rudeness, obscenity and, at worst, violence. These films do not trade on relatable human behavior and witty dialogue. Alpha Papa is different. The comedy in this film is natural and unassuming. It has to be the most subdued film about a siege that has ever been produced. Yet, the film is extremely funny.
The most indecent that the film gets is when Partridge loses his pants while climbing into a window and, later, when he hides inside a septic tank. The septic tank, which is attached to the bottom of a broadcast bus, breaks loose and carries Partridge at high speed into a curb. But, whether Partridge is baring his bottom or leaping out of a septic tank, the film remains a masterful character-driven comedy. Once he has freed himself from the septic tank, the ruffled Partridge feigns nonchalance by politely informing a startled spectator, “It’s a septic tank – you can have it if you want.” Before he has time to take another breath, he vaults over a gate to flee the approaching gunman.
Coogan, who introduced the Partridge character on a BBC radio series in 1991, has had an extraordinary amount of time to perfect this thoroughly absurd character. Partridge has, in his 22-year existence, displayed a multitude of flaws. He is shallow, insecure, insensitive, self-absorbed, dimwitted, and socially inept. His awkwardness in social situations stands out among his flaws. He embarrasses himself every time that he opens his mouth. This is evident as he tells an overly personal story about a time that he experienced a panic attack while driving through a car wash. He has a lot in common with the blustery jerk that Danny McBride plays so well, but he’s more vulnerable and more endearing despite his less than ideal behavior. He is far more well-defined than another ignorant and egotistical made-up broadcaster, Will Ferrell’s Ron Burgundy. Partridge is the goofy loser that you can’t help but love.
Farrell and Partridge take to broadcasting a radio show during the hostage crisis. They are excited to know that the situation is attracting a large audience, which is all that matters to a pair of broadcasters conditioned to obsess about ratings. Neither man seems to care about the heavily armed SWAT team that has surrounded the building. But Farrell remains unpredictable and frightening. When he finds out that the station manager deleted his jingles, he becomes crazed and gathers the terrified hostages to record a new jingle. The idea that the lives of the hostages are dependent on the group producing an adequate jingle is just the type of absurdity that flows through the film from beginning to end.
The question remains if, by the end, Partridge will find a way to make it through his predicament and learn to be a better person. Don’t count on it.
Coogan no doubt will cryogenically preserve Partridge again. I hope that it isn’t long before the character is removed from subzero temperatures and thawed out for another misadventure.