This Time With Alan Partridge review – an excruciating white-knuckle ride

The monkey tennis-pitcher is back – and now he’s taking on do-badder hacktivists. After half an hour in his appalling company, you’ll be limp from laughter, loathing, panic and despair

Impossible though it is to do justice to Alan Partridge with only the written word at our disposal, we must try. Because after his years in the wilderness, Linton Travel Tavern and North Norfolk digital radio, the monkey tennis-pitcher is back. Almost. Well. To be clear. The exquisitely excruciating creation of Steve Coogan and Armando Iannucci (and others at On the Hour, where Partridge made his first appearance) ‘Alan Partridge’ is definitely back, in This Time With Alan Partridge.

It’s the character’s first proper run-out since his 2013 feature film Alpha Papa, and is co-written and directed by twin brothers Neil and Rob Gibbons, who have become – since 2010’s Mid Morning Matters – not just keepers of the flame but fuel and bellows for it too. They have accomplished the feat of finding new layers in Alan, somehow allowing him growth without change, development without enlargement of that definitively constricted soul.

But is Alan himself – as it were; good God but we live in complicated times – back? He has returned to the BBC proper, standing in, dry-mouthed and periodically stricken, for the co-presenter on a current affairs programme (a parody of The One Show, with a dash of most of the others to season) who has fallen ill. But he is not the broadcasting behemoth he once – if only in his ceaselessly self-deluding mind – was. Still, it’s a start. And as he says in the opening scenes, “I am here to give of my best.”

Oh, the fractional excess of it. The infinitesimal flinch it causes in everyone around him. That ineffable blend of neediness and arrogance that infuses every word. He is back. He is back.

All of Partridge life is here. The dogged pursuit of the wrong path, becoming irretrievably mired in the wrong tone that sucks him down like quicksand (a lighthearted piece about leopard seals finds him describing how they “toss penguins around like rag dolls … for fun”). The desperate, conscious arranging of his face into the right expression. The attempts at banter or just simple conversation that always circles back to the subject of Alan. The endless compounding of errors that makes any time he speaks a white-knuckle ride to potential disaster; realising, for example, that referring to “bosomy” downs is Not Right, he corrects his description to “or like a smooth, fat teenage boy”. You know you are in the presence of Partridge when you wish to flee as you laugh. And all the while, his co-host Jenny, portrayed with consummate brilliance by Susannah Fielding who plays off Coogan in about seven different dimensions, fights the conversational fires he sets as she strides unblinking on to the next link.

All of Partridge life is here ... This Time With Alan Partridge.
All of Partridge life is here ... This Time With Alan Partridge. Photograph: BBC Studios/Andy Seymour

The differentiation of This Time With Alan Partridge’s layers and escalation of every exchange is precision-engineered: beautiful things and a joy forever. There is the bedrock in the perfect replication of such a show’s set, energy and topics. Then comes the skewing and skewering of the show, its format’s absurd swinging between the frivolous and the heavyweight with occasional curve balls, with Alan reading lines from his autocue that could almost be pasted directly from a script nicked from Eamonn Holmes or (presuming they still bother supplying him with such things) Richard Madeley. Where in “Bedroom-based do-badders known as ‘hacktivists’”, Alan’s introduction to a piece on internet dangers, could real life be said to leave off and invention begin?

And from there, his creators modulate smoothly, seemingly effortlessly although it cannot be, into Partridge. Through the overconfidence, let the neediness poke, then the rage that lies beneath that thin, thin skin and let the moment go to hell in a handcart. Watching Alan is to watch his creators let him give enough rope to hang himself, watch him choke then cut him down just before he starts to go blue.

This Time brings Alan back, in all his glory and his tragedy, at just the right time. He surely voted Leave but, as a man of no convictions or courage, must now want to remain. He has always been little England made flesh, while also embodying the tortured monster of insecurity and discontent that lives unchanging inside us all. We get the heroes we deserve, and as you finish writhing in agony and lie limp from laughter, hatred, panic, despair and/or stilled in awe at the end of another half hour in his appalling company, you can only reflect that if Brexit means Alan then the whole business just got more complicated still.


Lucy Mangan

The GuardianTramp

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