Alan is 20 years old, if you start counting from his desolate and anguish-filled sitcom I’m Alan Partridge, or 25 if you take into account the radio birth of his chat-show Knowing Me Knowing You. Or 26 if you mean the first time the nation heard his voice as a humble sports commentator in the news spoof On the Hour. He’s a legendary monster who only gets more relevant. When Nigel Farage appeared on the Brexit boat on the Thames in his double-breasted, gold-buttoned blazer, many noted the eerie similarity to Alan’s attire. And now Alan Partridge – Middle England’s resentful id – is about to be reborn on the BBC for the new age of Brexit, fronting an hour-long BBC Two special at the end of this year, followed by a new BBC One series in early 2018.
Created by actor Steve Coogan – together with a raft of writers including Richard Herring, Stewart Lee, Armando Iannucci, Peter Baynham, Neil Gibbons and Rob Gibbons – Partridge has grown over the years into a superbly rich and complex character with a feature film, Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa, and a spoof memoir, I, Partridge, which was so good that many wondered why it could not be shortlisted for the Booker prize. Now Alan is returning as the true voice of Brexit, which he naturally espouses in the hardest form possible – and for Remainers this is the final, exquisitely painful insult. Alan has already debated Brexit with former spin-doctor Malcolm Tucker in the pages of the Big Issue, and now the BBC, in a W1A-ish spirit of self-satire, is bringing Partridge back to the corporation’s fold as a high-profile Brexiter: because it’s exactly the sort of thing that Alan and the BBC would do.
People talk about the phenomenon of the Accidental Partridge, when TV stars are caught in some awful act of celeb faux-modesty. But Brexit is the nation’s Deliberate Partridge: a defiant stand against the liberal trendy elitists, a bloc of people coming together and declaring that they won’t be intimidated by the cosmopolitan liberal good taste which, until now, has declared them to be nothing more than the butt of the joke. More than this – the joke has been turned on to the liberals. And Alan is the standard-bearer. Or perhaps it is truer to say he represents what Donald Trump called Brexit Plus Plus Plus. Alan is Brexit writ large and cartoonishly unapologetic, extending and metastasising throughout pop culture.
It was, crucially, in the fraught and bumbling era of John Major, when Thatcherite home-counties certainties were on the wane, that we first really heard that voice, creating a bumptious personality from which everything else naturally flowed. It had the distinctive nasal twang of Frank Bough or David Coleman, combined with David Frost, and from this came the mannerisms and deadly serious amour propre under the ersatz chatshow chumminess, reminiscent of Noel Edmonds or even David Icke, with the teeniest touch of Andrew Marr. We watched in real time as his radio show became a TV show and then did not get recommissioned, to Alan’s horrified astonishment. It sent Alan into the hell of being an ex-celebrity, living in a Travel Tavern and then a caravan as he was forced to do local radio in the graveyard slot in his hometown of Norwich, nursing resentment and self-pity, which until now we could be reasonably sure would find no effective political expression. Yet perhaps the Brexit vote was the day of the nation’s Toblerone breakdown.
Failure was the point of Alan Partridge, yet having been an excruciating failure for so long – even in the early days of his ostensible career-growth, when he made an embarrassing mess of every one of his interviews – Alan is now to be a success. The rising tide of Brexit has lifted Alan’s boat on the Norfolk Broads. In today’s Britain, the rules have changed. Populist underdogs and yesterday’s men and professional cynics have won by beating the establishment at Monkey Tennis, the reality game show that Alan once tried pitching to the BBC. Alan is a joke, sure, but so are Boris and Trump.
The Brexity apotheosis of Alan shines an interesting light on a certain kind of celebrity ambition. Just as people might think that it’s funny-’cause-it’s-true, Alan is the kind of celeb who thinks I’m-funny-and-successful-’cause-I’m-right, the kind of star who cultivates weighty opinions in private and might get booked as the light-relief panellist on Question Time, but has very serious thoughts of getting huge ovations from the studio audience because his fearlessly incorrect common sense is going to put the professional politicians and pundits to shame – effortlessly outclass them, in fact. Alan Partridge’s political views never seemed much of a secret, but in the age of Brexit it is his amateurism which counts. Like Donald Trump, Alan has no political expertise but that is what makes him an expert.
But wait – is there something insulting and condescending about wheeling out Alan Partridge on the satirical battlefield? Isn’t this just an example of the establishment still not getting Brexit, still trying to mock and put it down? I wonder. Even if we set aside the fact that high-profile Brexiters such as Gove, Johnson and Farage do an admirable job of satirising themselves, Partridge has himself pre-empted and intuited this debate. The point is to go back to the title of Alan Partridge’s original show, the prophetic brilliance of which now reveals itself: Knowing Me, Knowing You.
Yes, it’s an Abba song: and Abba are popular, you know it, I know it. Abba were once naff and so was Alan Partridge. But it is Alan, newly confident in his Brexit pomp, who asks: who did you once jeer at in your teen years? Bow your head and admit it, you liberal elitist, bow your head in shame and admit which pop band you really like in your heart, that can get everyone, young and old, rich and poor, cool and naff, on to the disco floor.
Every age gets the conceited fictional pundit that it deserves. And in the era of Brexit Britain we have got Alan Partridge, the Little Englander who has a second shot at greatness.