Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa
Director Declan Lowney Stars Steve Coogan, Colm Meaney, Felicity Montagu UK 2013 Language English 1hr 30 Colour
Big-screen outing for Steve Coogan’s finest creation/albatross (d/a/a)
Alan Partridge didn’t wholly pass me by, but I was never a fan. He was far better, though, than Coogan’s other (for me completely unwatchable) TV comedy characters, such as Paul and Pauline Calf and Tony Ferrino.
I’ve only really enjoyed Coogan’s performances when steered by talented film directors*: in Jim Jarmusch’s Coffee & Cigarettes and his work with Michael Winterbottom, which peaked with The Trip. His Tony Wilson in 24 Hour Party People and his various ‘Steve Coogan’s all have something in common with Partridge – Wilson’s bluster and willingness to make a fool of himself, the brittle vanity and competitiveness of Coogan as Coogan in C&C, A Cock & Bull Story and The Trip. But these all seem more complex, more interesting roles. Many of Partridge’s characteristics, from the horrible bared teeth to the vocal mannerisms, are fairly authentic, but represent an era of British light entertainment for which I have neither nostalgia nor any urge to laugh at in 2013.
So I had reasonably limited expectations of Alpha Papa. And on that level I was pleasantly surprised. Armando Iannucci has said that what they were after was an event of high drama that could plausibly take place within Partridge’s world, rather than using the movie as excuse to go bigger. So they have opted for the radio station hostage crisis. It’s a well-worn plot, but it fits the criteria perfectly, bringing the world to Alan rather than Alan to the world.
The film starts with North Norfolk Digital being taken over by ambitious new owners, who rename it Shape (that’s all too believable) and who sack (just for starters, I presume) one of the veteran DJs. He turns up uninvited with a shotgun during the relaunch party, and the siege begins.
This is, of course, a moment both of terror and hope for Alan, as in his role as intermediary between the cops and the hostage-taker, he gets a moment back in the limelight of the national media, as does his trusty assistant Lynn (Felicity Montagu), and it’s this that gives him assorted moral tests (it’s weirdly old-fashioned like that). The standoff takes up almost the rest of this tidy 90-minute film, directed as unobtrusively as possible by TV veteran Declan Lowney.
This Partridge is a sadder, wiser man than the one who first appeared on the radio and then on our screens back in the 1990s. Yes, he’s still an idiot, vain, deluded, crass and sometimes cruel, yes of course (this is a big-screen version of a TV comedy) he will contrive to lose his trousers in one scene. He will say, ‘You can keep Jesus – as far as I’m concerned, Neil Diamond will always be king of the Jews.’ But both the character’s own story – hitting rock bottom in Norfolk – and Coogan’s growth as an actor have made him more nuanced, less cartoonish. This Partridge is seasoned old pro who revels in broadcasting under the extreme circumstances. If you played a game of ‘who’s the bigger tosser?’ comparing Partridge to a number of similar (but highly paid) real-life broadcasters, he would come as less objectionable than many.
None of this would count for much if the film wasn’t funny, but it delivers reasonably consistent and well-earned laughs. It’s not as funny, mind, as the superfans sitting behind us at the Curzon Soho found it, but then they were combusting with impatience during the trailers and sang along to the Sparks song over the closing credits. For a film based on a TV comedy, this is probably better than anyone could reasonably expect.
* Part of Coogan probably wishes there were more people like me. In the final episode of The Trip, Coogan and Brydon are imagining what Steve would say at Rob’s funeral. Rob introduces him as best known as Alan Partridge, to which Coogan tetchily adds also for ‘art-house films well reviewed by the broadsheets’.