Thursday, August 8, 2013

‘Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa’ (2013) directed by Declan Lowney

Of all the ways I thought an Alan Partridge movie could begin, I never imagined it’d open with a Koyaanisqatsi gag.  Over footage of a run-down seaside town comes Philip Glass’ title track for the 1983 movie, music that underlines the folly of man’s belief that he is in dominion over the world.  Strangely appropriate in retrospect.  Alpha Papa's subject is stuffy, egotistical and slightly demented but with an admirable sense of who he is and what the world owes him. This is a man beset by chaos and misfortune on all sides, a pompous figure desperate for people to laugh with him rather than at him.  He’s Alan Partridge.

It struck me while waiting for the film to start that I probably know more about Alan Partridge’s life than I do about members of my own family - a sobering thought. I grew up with Partridge, watching The Day Today when I was 11, and then following him through the world of talk-shows, fly on the wall documentaries, internet shorts and an audiobook so hilarious that I couldn’t listen to it while running as it made me laugh too much.  

Throughout there’s always been the faint prospect of an Alan Partridge movie being produced.  I was suspicious of the idea from the get-go; surely Partridge is inextricably defined by his close relationship to television and radio.  They’re his natural habitat and form the bedrock of his highest ambitions ambitions.  There was an awful sounding idea for ‘Partridge goes to the USA’ floating around a while back - you imagine some awful British low budget quasi-blockbuster, entirely reliant on mouldy old callbacks to the 90s and winking meta-humour; a combination that would lead to a Partridge perverted.

About 4 or 5 minutes into Alpha Papa I felt a huge wave of relief  - they got it right.  It’s set in Norwich, it revolves around an exciting but relatively small scale armed siege and portrays an Alan we’ve seen organically develop over the course of 20 years.  Perhaps my biggest fear was that this would be a victory lap of catchphrases; endless studenty repetitions of “back of the net”, “you’re doing Bond wrong!” and, most notoriously “A-ha!”.  Alpha Papa has not a single “A-Ha!” in it, and it's a far better film for it.

To eschew these obvious, easy laughs is brave, as is the shift in focus on Alan Partridge as a malleable dramatic character rather than a reference machine. He's given an ethical quandary to puzzle over and room to genuinely evolve.  One of the crucial components that makes Partridge work is that he never once loses audience sympathy. Sure he screws people over and is unthinkingly cruel to his fawning assistant Lynn, but he’s too clueless and childishly innocent to be a truly malicious monster.  He's a man of understandable ambition,  he’s not really after financial success, just wanting an audience to gratify his ego and entertain them with good quality chat.

Cleverly, Alpha Papa defines its subject by showing us the darkest possible place Alan Partridge could end up.  Pat Farrell (Colm Meaney) is essentially a dark mirror of Alan himself.  He’s a middle-aged, parochial, old school “D-Jock”, someone of the same generation and cultural tastes as Alan.  The two share a deep loneliness - Pat’s wife is dead and Alan’s has left him and his children won’t speak to him.  They’re both slightly past-it, both potentially for the chopping block at North Norfolk Digital and both reasonably sympathetic to each other’s arguments.  When the sacked Pat turns up with a shotgun and takes the staff of the radio station hostage it’s not too difficult to imagine a desperate, dissolute Partridge in Pat's shoes.  Alan is, after all, a man that’s suffered numerous nervous breakdowns and shot a man dead on live television.  

Underpinning all this all this is the brilliant performance of Steve Coogan.  It’d be easy for Coogan to go on autopilot while playing Partridge but he here he really pulls out all the stops.  Every facial tic, every break in eye contact and subtle curl of his lips is calculated with rare and precious precision in his performance.  Somewhere in Coogan's head is a glossary of Partridgean facial expressions, every one of which is deployed with perfect comic timing.  Every single movement is carefully maximalised to tell us more about the character, like the way he tries vainly to copy action heroes as he tries to evade a gunman or how he tends to bound up the last two steps in a staircase to prove he's still 'got it' physically.  It's actually surprising how well Alan Partridge translates to the cinema screen, the decision to smooth off some of the more grotesque aspects of the character allows us to take him a tiny bit more seriously without sacrificing an iota of humour.

Alan Partridge is a genius creation that embodies an intrinsic aspect of the British personality, his combination of outward bravado and internal self-loathing speaks to us all.  Alpha Papa is Partridge’s finest hour; a perfect storm of expertly delivered jokes and wordplay, actual character development and an attention to the minutia of Partridge’s world that borders on the obsessive.  Most importantly it feels like a proper movie rather than an extended television episode.  It's as funny as anything else that's ever been done with the character, and is about as good as an Alan Partridge movie could possibly be.

We need Alan Partridge.   On a surface level he functions as a clear, blaring warning of how not to behave.  But deep down, laughing at his farcical, tormented life allows us exorcise the demons of self-obsession, egotism and lameness that we try so hard to keep hidden..  Ultimately that’s the crux of why this movie and this character works so well. It understands that deep down, as much as we hate to admit it, there's a little Partridge inside all of us.

Not literally though.  That would be hideous.

Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa is on general release now.

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