It is perhaps a slightly coarser, less exquisite agony than in his absolute prime but agony it truly remains. Welcome – if that is the word – to the return of Steve Coogan in the new series of This Time with Alan Partridge (BBC One). Such is the ongoing mastery of his creation – brought again to awful, hilarious life by Coogan and his post-Armando Iannucci collaborators Neil and Rob Gibbons – that I flinch from the pain even as I remember the laughs.
Partridge has survived as co-host of the show, a perfect parody of current affairs programmes such as The One Show and Good Morning Britain (with Alan a less secure version of Piers Morgan, their lunging need to be noticed springing from difference founts, and Susannah Fielding’s Jennie Gresham essaying the Susanna Reid ‘smile like it’s not an act of self-harm’ role). “Covering everything! From aqua-aerobics to abortion! From zebras to Zionism!” But a new producer has come in and, to Alan’s alarm, has already tweaked the theme tune. It’s enough to set him spiralling into the personal and professional paranoia that will dog him until the day God at last takes pity and reaches out a hand to still the high-pitched ringing of his soul.
All is excruciatingly as it was. Jennie is still in iron control of herself if not, alas, her co-star, and stares unblinkingly down the lens while she waits for him to knot himself to a standstill whenever he breaks across her to talk or delivers a link. There’s still an argument that Fielding is underused – her part is in essence one long (albeit brilliant) extension of the fractional change of expression on the woman’s face in the “We wanna be together!” Prudential advert of yesteryear. But perhaps this will change as the series continues. Though of course if the parody is to work, it cannot deviate too much from the real life and unaltered template.
Lynn (Felicity Montagu) – now with a new, PVC-composite hip despite Alan advising titanium – is still on hand to try to arrest the spiralling and absorb what excess monstrousness she can. Tim Key is still “resident humorist” – and there could be monographs written on why it is the Partridgean rolled ‘R’ that makes his utterance of this innocuous phrase unbearable – Simon Denton, still vastly out of his depth and defeated by his giant swipe screen. And Lolly Adefope is still in glorious place as the magnificent, magisterial Ruth Duggan, the only person in the Alanverse who treats him with unvarnished contempt.
The opening episode gallops through a segment with a steely body language expert (“If a divorcee bites her lip when I say ‘Shall we skip dessert?’ is she anxious or intrigued?” “Questions like that I just don’t deal with”); Alan’s stay with a silent order of monks as part of a search for peace in the modern world (“They keep a lid on it because they think God likes it. Who am I to tell them any different?”); an interview with the presenter of a popular new holiday programme and more. Every piece of banter is an occasion for panic, flashing in Alan’s eyes. Every conversation is a mass of tripwires and potholes. The Partridge mind and mouth can be trusted no more than they ever could.
Even if he doesn’t soar quite as high or as often as he once did, Coogan/Partridge remains the best of comedy and the worst of us. It is entertainment as penance and penance as entertainment. Welcome the pain.
• This Time with Alan Partridge is on iPlayer and BBC One at 9:30pm Friday 30 April.