The most remarkable thing about Alan Partridge is that he wasn’t hard to invent. While making On the Hour, as the story goes, Armando Iannucci asked Steve Coogan to do a voice for a sports reporter. Coogan came out with the now familiar tampon-up-the-nose timbre and someone spontaneously said “he’s an Alan”, immediately followed by someone else concluding “he’s a Partridge”. From that moment on, Iannucci says, “we knew what his background was, how he felt about being a sports reporter, how he wanted to move on and be taken more seriously”. This is not what usually happens; to create a character that’s believable, consistent, original, funny, sympathetic and interesting is immensely difficult. Just ask Dan Brown. It takes hours of tortuous work, but Alan didn’t. Alan and his driving gloves were waiting to come out. They say truly great songs (say Cuddly Toy by Roachford) almost sound like you’ve heard them before, and it’s the same with great characters. There’s something awfully familiar about Alan Gordon Partridge.
Everyone’s met an Alan. The father-in-law who criticises your choice of motorway. The train passenger who frowns at people speaking Spanish. The pub bore who complains about the prominence of Fiona Bruce. Alan Partridge perfectly encapsulates a particular type of Englishman. And, whether you like it or not, he also encapsulates a part of you. The laughter he generates is one of relief; it’s a there-but-for-the-grace-of-god involuntary exhale. In fact, to write for the character Iannucci has said he and the writers actually had to become Alan by doing his voice and riffing from there. There aren’t many characters where this would prove fruitful because for that to work, they have to be perfectly realised. Characters like that a rarer than Alan in a Mini Metro. Basil Fawlty, David Brent, Del Boy, Patsy Stone, Mark Corrigan perhaps, but not many others. Alan’s character is so clearly defined that you know exactly how he would act in any given situation. This is true to such an extraordinary degree that he can sustain two autobiographies. Not just sustain but elevate them, and particularly their audiobooks, into works of comic genius.
Over the last few years the Gibbons brothers, who wrote the autobiographies, have injected new life into a character so old you can hear his knees. They’ve moved him on from the obnoxious little Englander of I’m Alan Partridge to the almost well intentioned dinosaur of This Time. Alan’s unexpected return to primetime has forced him to confront movements like #MeToo that previous Alans would have dismissed out of leather-gloved hand. His interaction in last week’s episode with Peter the “shaved boy in a wig” was full of intriguing subtext. The lingering, almost wistful, look Alan gives Peter as he leaves the stage is one of a number of similar incidents – as in the opening episode when Alan mutters “No, we mustn’t” to a hand washing expert in an Ishiguro-esque moment of thwarted passion – where we glimpse Alan’s rich inner life.
More of the real Alan was on display in the finale, his conflict with co-host Jennie and the “stomping around like Carol Thatcher” jibe. The way the writers let us know moments later, when Jennie plays a recording, that Alan had already made another unflattering Carol Thatcher comparison is a stroke of brilliance. No writer worth their salt would ever repeat a joke like that unless the character demanded it. This tiny moment tells us a lot: the fact that he thinks these references are the height of sophisticated wit is pure Partridge. You can imagine Richard Madeley whipping out a similar zinger during an argument with Judy. The standout scene, however, was the chat with the sleep disorder consultant. The way it morphed from bum-scratching slapstick and Blair Witch stare to the quiet horror of “I could harm them but choose not to” is up there with the very best Partridge there has ever been.
But perhaps the most impressive thing about this creation is his continued relevance. You only have to glance at the internet to see what a large part Alan still plays in contemporary culture. From the vital Accidental Partridge Twitter account to the endless Alan reaction gifs that punctuate conversations, he is there shrugging his way through public consciousness. Even on the biggest issue of the day he is a significant presence. Poking above the sea of humanity on the recent People’s Vote march was an indignant Alan Partridge next to an adapted version of his most famous line: “Give me another referendum, you shit.” He’d be furious.