Alan Partridge: Why, When, Where, How and Whom? review – Aha! Alan's back on the Beeb

A celebratory look at the 25-year career of Steve Coogan’s creation revels in the pathos behind the sports-casual wear. Also: Turtle, Eagle, Cheetah: a Slow Odyssey is great – once you adjust to the pace

Alan Partridge was never of his time. Steve Coogan was in his 20s when he started playing the sports presenter who later turned chatshow host and regional disc jockey, but Partridge was perennially squatting in middle age, out of touch and out of step. The worrying thing is he now suddenly, for the first time, seems relevant and it’s the ones who used to laugh at him who are bumbling and bewildered.

He would be loving all this, wouldn’t he? He would be rejoicing in the downfall of the liberal metropolitan elite and appearing on Question Time whenever Nigel Farage couldn’t do it. For good measure, or good meta, even the BBC are in on the act, reminding everyone that in the entertainment industry, incompetent white men often get second chances. Partridge returns to the BBC next year with a new series, this time reported to be exploring Brexit Britain, 23 years after the Christmas special of his chatshow ended with him punching his commissioning editor in the face. That was far-fetched, of course – it’s hard to imagine even the most excruciating, blundering, sports casual-wearing TV presenter punching a BBC colleague.

First, though, a celebratory look through his 25-year career in Alan Partridge: Why, When, Where, How and Whom? (BBC2), which tracks his appearance as the sports presenter in Radio 4’s On the Hour in 1991, through 90s cultural supremacy, the wilds of YouTube and a feature film, to his recent incarnation on Sky.

There’s a fun and cutting insight into how comedy commissioning at the BBC operated (perhaps still does). Joining the On the Hour team, the actor David Schneider recalled how he already knew the others – Patrick Marber, Armando Ianucci and Rebecca Front – from Oxford. There were “these token other people”, he says incredulously, “who weren’t either at Oxford or at Cambridge, but seemed to have, like, talent”. “They had lots of chats about their college days,” says Coogan, doing his Partridgean mix of arrogant disdain undercut by the burning need to be accepted. He felt, he said, “like I’d sort of been able to bluff my way into their camp somehow”.

He says he didn’t have much of an idea what sports presenters were like, and he didn’t seem to be that taken with the character either: it was his co-creator, Marber, who was fascinated with him and could see a life for Partridge beyond this bit part.

There were familiar clips – Alan and the chocolate mousse, Alan shouting “Dan!” in a car park, Alan’s big plate – and the behind-the-scenes footage of workshops and rehearsals was vaguely interesting, though you have to be a real comedy nerd to care too much about the process. The contributors, or rather creators, tried hard not to be too self-congratulatory, but you forgive them because of their obvious affection for Partridge, and not just because of what he’s done for their careers. It’s fashionable to compare him to Farage or Clarkson, but Partridge is more human. “The fundamental given of the character,” says Marber, “which was the case from the very beginning, is desperation.” Or as Coogan puts it: “There’s something about Alan that wants to aspire to be something better than he is, but he doesn’t quite know what that is.”

Reset your expectations … Turtle, Eagle, Cheetah: A Slow Odyssey.
Reset your expectations … Turtle, Eagle, Cheetah: A Slow Odyssey. Photograph: BBC/NHU

There were no humans in Turtle, Eagle, Cheetah: a Slow Odyssey (BBC4) – well, there was one but it was a tiny figure glimpsed mostly from the air. This was one of the strangest programmes I’ve watched, but once I’d got over how boring much of it was – you have to reset your expectations with this swelling trend for “slow TV” – it was also one of the most affecting. A small camera is strapped to a green turtle cruising an Indonesian coral reef, a white-tailed sea eagle that patrols the west coast of Scotland, and a young orphaned cheetah released into the Namibian savannah, and each is given half an hour to show us what they’re up to.

It makes you realise how heavy the human touch is in nature documentaries. There was little music and no narration – instead there are spare and unobtrusive captions explaining why something is happening, or giving a few facts (“half their muscle mass is packed around their spine, allowing it to flex like a spring,” it says of the cheetah, which is about to unsuccessfully hunt a zebra).

It wasn’t glossy and awe-inspiring, Blue Planet II-style, but it was deeply immersive and intimate. You could almost feel the soft whump of the eagle’s wings as it took flight over the heather moorland and I can still hear the cheetah’s frantic panting (“in full flight a cheetah takes 150 breaths per minute”, the text on the screen informs us) as it tries to run down a warthog. The soothing glugs and bubbles of the turtle’s gentle underwater journey is just what we need at this time of year, even if its throaty ingurgitation of a jellyfish might remind you of the worst festive excesses.


Emine Saner

The GuardianTramp

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