Steve Coogan has been playing the comic character Alan Partridge – a kind of verbose Mr. Bean – for nearly thirty years now. For reference, Leonard Nimoy had only played Mr. Spock for nine before calling his first autobiography ‘I Am Not Spock’. (Twenty years later, Nimoy followed it up with a second volume titled ‘I Am Spock’.) Coogan will forever be associated with Partridge, in equal measures because of the character’s success and the minimal makeup required – while Coogan has played plenty of other characters over his career, Partridge stands above all.
Partridge as a character is something of a meta-paradox, though. Within his fictional universe (identical, within a rounding error, to ours), the character is a woeful failure, who briefly ascended the giddy heights of hosting a bad chat show, bungled that, and fell back into the anonymity of local radio. Meanwhile, out here in the real world, the character is a runaway success, beloved by the nation – essentially everything he dreams of in-universe. Vanity Fair described him as ‘a national treasure’ and a 2017 poll rated him as ‘best TV comedy character’ (appropriately, alongside Coogan as ‘best male comedy actor’).
For those outside the UK, Partridge is an interesting glimpse into Britain’s unspoken gradations of class. He shamelessly aspires to the elite, his sense of superiority rarely not on show – there’s a telling moment in the radio version of his chat show when, interviewing a minor royal, he slips into a fantasy in which if his country asked it of him, he would grasp the nettle and become ‘King Alan…the First’ – yet, like so many other status-seekers, he mistakenly believes all that is required to attain the rarified heights of the actual upper class is wealth and conspicuous consumption.
This is most prominent in the man’s references to brand names. Partridge is a fluent speaker of English, yet moulds it into a distinct patois all his own, to the point there’s a Twitter account devoted to chronicling real-life Partridgeisms. Most prominent in his singular dialect is a special kind of pedantry, where, in detailing a journey, he will list the roads he’s taken – and, if he mentions any sort of consumer product, he will as often as not give the brand name. His tipple of choice, for instance, is not just ‘bitter’, but always ‘Directors bitter’.
I bring up this example as a segue into my wider point, that the Partridge character has a rarely-commented-upon but utterly bizarre relationship with food. Crucially, food is not just another method of conspicuous consumption for Partridge, but very clearly reveals itself as one of the main vehicles for his attempts at dominance, however misguided and misfired they may be – indeed, it often backfires completely.
This didn’t come up so much in his earlier work as sportscaster and chat show host – but he was on the clock, and even then, it still managed to winkle its way in. While interviewing a pompous French chef, he eats an hors d’oeuvre which turns out to contain a testicle, as if to epitomise his stereotypically English inability to stomach the Gallic culture. Later, what ultimately got him booted off the BBC (in-universe) was the climax of the Christmas special, when he snaps while preparing dinner and punches two guests, one of whom was the BBC’s chief commissioning editor, with a fist still wrapped in turkey.
In one of the character’s earliest outings, as sports anchor of On The Hour, host Chris Morris’s surreal yet hardnosed line of questioning had lead Alan to fumblingly claim ‘I certainly think I can use weaponry’. So it’s curious that the only weapons we’ve ever seen him wield are food-based – the turkey was merely the start.
When we got our first real look into the man behind the man in I’m Alan Partridge, the first episode had him in a lunch meeting with Tony Hayers, the aforementioned chief commissioning editor. If you think this shows either poor judgement or forgiveness to the point of insanity on Hayers’s part, you’re right – as, long story short, Hayers gets hit in the face again, this time with an entire cheese. Likewise we later Alan disinterestedly judging the produce at a fete, and idly musing that a sizable onion would make a fine murder weapon, as one could then eat the evidence. Another showdown with an old rival nearly reaches fever pitch when Alan wields a boiling-hot apple turnover with the air of a man who has walked into an airport holding a live grenade.
The second episode of I’m Alan Partridge, ‘Alan Attraction’, is a particular tour de force of culinary mishaps. From the off, we find him shamelessly abusing his graveyard shift spot on local radio to plug Terry’s Chocolate Oranges – in return, it transpires, for a bounty of shop-soiled Chocolate Oranges that he gives as presents to almost every woman he knows.
I say ‘almost’, because he bought a fresh one for his receptionist, divorcee Jill (Julia Deakin, playing an even cruder version of her character from Spaced). The main arc of the episode is his courtship of Jill – which, at times, reaches cringe levels that could actually be fatal. The wider series arc is him living in a ‘travel tavern’ (that is to say, a bad hotel) after his marriage fell apart, relevant because he believes himself to be scamming their all-you-can-eat buffet by slyly bringing along a bigger plate. Needless to say, this is the venue to which he brings Jill for Valentines’ day dinner.
Over dinner, they have a flirtatious back-and-forth about their favourite kinds of chocolate. Alan accurately characterises this as ‘just listing chocolate bars’, but despite this it’s probably the most romantic they actually get in the episode, even against the strong competition of Alan’s too-high rendition of ‘Why Do Birds Suddenly Appear’. When, afterwards, they retreat to his room, Alan having closed the deal with surprising ease, the staff manage to undercut it all by making sure he’s remembered his big plate.
The actual dirty deed, thankfully, takes place in the dark – although Alan, defaulting to his usual inane radio chatter, keeps up a running commentary. But then disaster strikes when Jill makes a much-needed attempt to spice things up by introducing – what else? – chocolate mousse to proceedings. Rather than being saucy, it pours cold water on the entire shooting match, and both participants end the episode somewhat disaffected.
We get the inverse of this a couple of episodes later, when Alan overhears a couple of the hotel staff – conspicuously younger and brighter-eyed than him – arranging to slip out back for quarter of an hour a bit of how’s-your-father. Alan scuppers their rendezvous by corraling one of them and asking for a sandwich to be brought to his room, a sandwich which grows gradually more complicated and elaborate (‘and a hot egg…and a crescent of crisps’). He ultimately rips the gloves off completely when he says he doesn’t want it immediately, but at any time – any time in the next fifteen minutes.
Remember, these are members of staff, at Alan’s beck and call – he could have pulled out any menial chore to frustrate their desires, and the one he chose is an order of food. Perhaps there’s no deeper meaning to it, but the fact it happens quite so soon after his troubling encounter with Jill lends it a kind of twisted poetry.
The next episode sees him quite literally using food – or at least, the aftermath of food – as a weapon once again. Against all the odds, he’s wangled a meeting with two executives from Irish state broadcaster RTE (played by Graham Linehan and Arthur Matthews, then midway through doing the third season of the legendary Father Ted). Initially, he’s almost magnanimous, treating them to ‘British Isles breakfasts’, a vaguely PC rephrasing of the classic full English. But when, to his disgust, they end up getting on much better with his assistant, he uses his terrible, gassy breath – the product of a petrol station Scotch egg – to break this up.
(Later on, when pinioned in a headlock by insane superfan Jed Maxwell, he uses his breath once more to give Maxwell pause.)
The second season of I’m Alan Partridge catches up with the man sometime later, when he had – per his in-universe autobiography, ‘Bouncing Back’ – bounced back somewhat. He was overseeing the construction of, in his words, ‘a pretty eff-off house’, and had a much younger girlfriend, a Ukrainian woman called Sonja. On the face of it, their relationship had the stink of mail-order about it (which would be confirmed in supplementary media), but even without that element Sonja was, in large part, another example of Alan’s conspicuous consumption. Despite a healthy sex life, they didn’t actually get on particularly well, and if Alan ever talked about Sonja, he would invariably bring up the fact she was fourteen years younger than him, rather than anything about her as a person.
There was, however, one moment of genuine affection between them – or at least, the nearest they ever seemed to get. Sure enough, it was food-related. Despite her foreign nature, Sonja rustled up a British Isles breakfast that Alan pegged at a solid seven out of ten. While he still found fault with it – suggesting she use a sausage as a breakwater between the eggs and beans – it was about the tenderest moment they shared onscreen, and nearly led directly into an act of coitus.
It is rightly often said that the lowest lows follow the highest highs, and vice versa – because somewhere between the first and second seasons, Alan broke down to an even worse degree. Fame brings many temptations, many of which involve consumption to excess – and so it is that the second season takes place after his recovery from a serious addiction. Over the course of the season we get a number of brief flashbacks to his lowest ebb – physically bloated and helpless, having driven to Dundee in his bare feet in a fit of madness, all as a result of his problems with Toblerone.
Mock not, since over-eating is a serious subject – it’s only the fact that it’s specifically Toblerone which gives it that Partridgian twist and turns it into a joke rather than a blunt portrayal of a divorcee’s depression-related weight gain. The first book, ‘I, Partridge: We Need To Talk About Alan’ goes into greater depth about this time in his life, relating how he was first introduced to Toblerone at a party by Pepsi (or Shirley) of Pepsi and Shirley in his first flush of fame, and how it quickly assumed a prominent role in his life as a comfort food/coping mechanism.
Yes, it’s funny how he came to measure any setback by the number of chunks of Toblerone he’d feast upon afterwards – but it’s also inescapably tragic. Alan may be a comic grotesque, but the character did not meet with the success it did because he was a fundamentally unrelatable man. If anything, the opposite is true, and most people could recognise some of their own lower impulses in his antics. As big Fred might have put it, Alan is human, all too human.
‘I, Partridge’ also covers the fateful trip to Dundee, with Alan describing it as done in a Toblerone-fueled haze, remembering little about it apart from his exact route and which motorway services he stopped at. It is always the trip to Dundee, and the fact he did it in bare feet, which he emphasises, rather than – as the book reveals – that it was an ultimately abortive suicide attempt. Again, this is tragicomedy at its height. Putting the emphasis on the wrong thing is a reliable comedy touch, but one cannot escape the idea that even years later, it is too painful for him to dwell on.
The books – being the most sustained look into the Partridgian mindset we have – are full of more examples of his relationship with food. One particularly notable episode recounts what happened after that time he accidentally shot and killed a guest on his chat show. His account of the police interview is tersely written, in shoddy hard-boiled prose worthy of a bad crime thriller – then, abruptly, he describes the legally mandated meal he receives with gushing, unalloyed praise, as if trying to sell the place for a Michelin star. Here, again, food is about the one avenue he possibly has by which to claim any sort of control over the situation (and this perhaps explains one of the shows he would later try to pitch to Tony Hayers at their disastrous lunch meeting, ‘Cooking In Prison’.)
Alan’s second actual book, Nomad, centres on his walk from Norwich to Dungeness, in confused tribute to his father (their relationship was rocky, on which more later). Obviously when one embarks on a walk of this scale, the thing to do is to get into training and eat right. Alan just about manages the first – swimming, rather than walking, because ‘walking is boring’ – but the second goes completely to cock. Even the leadup to the walk sees him making dietary choices such as “angrily eating crisps” in front of the television. Once the walk itself begins in earnest, the menu includes more British Isles breakfasts, packets of Asda ham, and, in possibly the nadir of not just his diet but of all human culinary history, ‘jam-bombs’, his own creation and a substitute for more sophisticated energy shots, consisting of dollops of jam wrapped in clingfilm.
And the books may even give us a glimpse into the start of all of this. When Alan recounts his childhood, it has to walk a fine line between him overselling his relatively normal childhood as a traumatic school of hard knocks, and his parents genuinely having been pretty unpleasant – and muddying the waters further is the distinct suggestion he’s not telling the whole truth. But the crux of this – and, perhaps, the genesis of his entire screwy relationship with food – is a childhood incident involving a cake (“I adored cakes, but was only allowed to eat any on special occasions, such as after meals”).
When, at nine years old, Alan accidentally destroyed his own birthday cake, his father told him he would never amount to anything – then slipped on an errant bit of icing and fractured his own skull. Even on the surface of this, Alan cites it as a formative moment of his life. Having established he views food as a strange, semi-mythical reserve of power, something he can rely on, even over-rely on, this is a game-changer. The nine-year-old Alan couldn’t retaliate against the father who so wounded him (much as he might have wanted to, detailing various fantasies from a straight right to the gut up to poisoning the guy with burning plastic), but, in its own roundabout way food could.
One must wonder, what would the father who sustained a severe head injury from a cake mishap think of his son going on to nearly die of excessive Toblerone use? Come to that, is this perhaps the Partridge family curse? (Not that Partridge family.)
However, the wider question is what, if anything, does this mean? Certainly, since this is based on titbits from a three-decade career, it’s either unintentional or one of the subtlest running gags in the business. And certainly, if you look at any work hard enough, you can read in any message you want. Consider Ghostbusters, which has famously also been argued to contain food-related subtext, specifically a paean about the dangers of overeating – Slimer stuffs his face even though it falls right through him, the demons come out of Sigourney Weaver’s fridge, hell, the Busters’ logo is a no entry sign across a fat guy.
(Although in much the same way as brand Partridge, this is likely a side-effect of Ghostbusters’ more prominent subtext of ‘80s-style free-marketeering consumption. The heroes are entrepreneurs, the non-ghost villains are interfering bureaucrats, and – how better to put this? – Alan Partridge would absolutely have attended Rick Moranis’s ill-fated yuppie party.)
In an academic essay, this is probably where I’d return to talking about Alan’s consumption in the broader sense, and probably about his place in the capitalist system, man. I tend against drawing real-world socioeconomic conclusions from fictional characters, as this is how we got 0.7% of the population of Britain declaring themselves to be Jedi on the census. But it is perhaps worth mentioning that the slap-up feast holds particular weight as a narrative reward in British culture, as a result of the long shadow cast by world war-related rationing – however, even comic characters from that vein, like Greedy Pigg, Fatty Fudge, and Viz’s Tubby Tucker The Big Fat…Person, never had the same perverse power-dynamic relationship with food as Alan, they simply pursued it, had a bit of a scoff, and then were sated, at least temporarily.
The question then becomes – or, rather, wanders into – are there any other characters who use food as an expression of power? While this is a distinct departure in tone, the obvious answer is Willy Wonka of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. As a man alone he’s a simple eccentric, but with his bizarre confectionery empire behind him, he becomes genuinely frightening, with any number of his sweetmeats seemingly purpose-made to at once tempt and punish any child who lays eyes on them, like the sadistic morality tales of old.
We never see Alan feed a kid experimental chemicals to teach them a lesson for their obvious misdeeds – but God knows, if it came to it, he probably would. He had child guests on both iterations of his chat show, which never ended well and tended to see someone get hit, and his relationship with his own children is distant at best. Indeed, there was the time he created an elaborate set-up where his young daughter, believing she was on air, had to contend with an irate caller, an exercise which moved her to tears – in a surreally cruel touch, this wasn’t as punishment for anything she’d done, but rather intended to get her to make her friends show Alan a bit more respect. Would Wonka have still allowed Augustus Gloop to go through the drains if the fat boy had shown sufficient obeisance? You be the judge.
(You could probably also draw an unflattering comparison between Alan’s underpaid assistant Lynn, and the Oompa-loompas – who, in Dahl’s original draft of the novel, were explicitly Congolese pygmies who Wonka shipped over as indentured servants, and paid in cocoa beans.)
Curiously, when it comes to it, Alan is – in his own tawdry way – as whimsical as Wonka, or at the very least, he’d like to be. In many ways he’s deliberately normal to the point of blandness, but his productions are invariably filled with bizarre flights of fancy, like a phone-in about what cars various Kings of England would have driven, or a sensually-narrated ‘deep bath’, or even a segment called ‘Alan’s Big Pocket’ where he draws various surprises out of a larger-than-life recreation of his breast pocket. And, yes, like Wonka he’d probably distribute chocolate through the medium of broadcast if he possibly could – it might be shop-soiled Terry’s Chocolate Oranges, but still.
How far the difference, then, between Wonka and Partridge? One exists in a Dahlian state of heightened reality while the other is tethered to this more grim vista we know all too well – but the crucial metric is success. Wonka is a wildly successful industrialist, but Alan lacks any product as appealing as the Wonka-bar. His only marketable product is himself, and the sad fact is, there’s not many people buying (at least in-universe).
Given Alan’s view of food as the key to seemingly all power, one must wonder why he didn’t follow Wonka’s route, and go into that trade instead? Unlike essayist Christopher Hitchens, whose autobiography made especial note of a moment in childhood when he realised the power of verbosity, Alan has no particular love for the written or spoken word. While he won a prize in school for an essay on sport, his reminiscence of this event focuses far more on the accolades he received – which seems to be the crux of it.
Wonka, despite the ego required to wear that outfit, was able to keep his self-absorption sufficiently in check to build a successful business – but Alan’s delusional narcissism crippled him from the get-go. Like everyone else has at some time or another, usually in early childhood, he imagines himself to be a one-off, a beautiful unique curiosity who should be lauded simply for being. And like everyone else within a rounding error, he is dead wrong. Perversely, this is why the character strikes home for so many. It is his greatness, and his tragedy.
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