Over the years, the great British public has grown to know Alan Partridge better than most real presenters, sportscasters, or talking heads. We have taken this singular, gaffe-prone, profoundly awkward man to our collective bosom (not a euphemism). But a great deal of this might have been argued to be the sympathy people inevitably feel for the underdog. Even during the height of his fame, presenting the chat show Knowing Me, Knowing You With Alan Partridge, he was perennially on the back foot. His return to North Norfolk radio (where, canonically, he remained for around twenty years) was always tinged with the worry that nobody was listening.
So the question is, how well can he work when suddenly parachuted back into primetime, plonked squarely into the limelight of middle-of-the-road talk show This Time? Even if he was still on the back foot – which he was for much of it, the series opening with him lamely begging for a glass of water – it’s something of a vindication of the years spent languishing on local radio. Not only is he capable of fronting a glossy magazine programme, he’s considered capable of it by the BBC, Auntie itself. This is possibly because all those involved with the cancellation of Knowing Me… are canonically now dead, but still.
The fact is, Alan may be as gaffe-prone as ever, but he’s now a distinctly more seasoned presenter. The first episode of Knowing Me… saw him hosting a showjumper, the host of This Is Your Life, and a punk rocker – it was against this fairly fluffy lineup that he went completely to pieces and delivered a foul-mouthed tirade where he invited them all to kiss his arse. God knows since then there’s been times when he’s clearly wanted to do the same, but the point remains, he’s got a firmer hand on the tiller.
Case in point, when the regular presenter Alan’s filling in for dies, and is subsequently outed as a sex pest live on air (a remarkably biting-the-hand plotline for the Beeb), Alan is quick to turn this to his advantage, cementing his own position on the show and also torpedoing the dead man’s chums by association. Sleazy, yes, but also effective. There’s a similar section later which really summarises Alan’s whole approach to modern political correctness – they cover the MeToo movement, and Alan talks over every woman present.
This development of the character is down pretty much entirely to the brothers Gibbons, who’ve been an integral part of the franchise ever since the first series of Mid Morning Matters – now an essential part of the Partridge canon that it’s hard to believe began as ersatz lager adverts. Alan’s neuroses had always been on display, but the Gibbons’s output, in particular the tie-in books I, Partridge and Nomad, went on to reveal terrifying new vistas of his interiority.
One shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking the Gibbonses taking the helm is a break with what’s gone before – if anything, it’s the very opposite, with them using the established canon as a base from which to grow. This Time works as a standalone piece, but it still takes as read that Alan is returning to the BBC after many, many years. It also revisits a concept from Knowing Me… – there was a recurring bit from that when Alan would meet other people named Alan Partridge, who ended up bemused at best. Here, Alan meets an Irish farmer who looks terrifyingly like him (also played by Coogan, with a startlingly convincing lazy eye) who leads the show in a rousing rendition of some lovely old folk songs – including the pro-IRA ‘Come Out Ye Black And Tans’.
You’ll glean from this that Alan still isn’t too seasoned, certainly not to the level of being able to keep control moment-to-moment. If a guest wants to meander off down their own road, then odds are they will, and there’s little Alan can do about that. Likewise, the This Time format involves him having a co-presenter foisted upon him – which has happened before, and which he was never too happy about. He’s always got along best with Tim Key’s Sidekick Simon, well enough at least to bring him along to This Time, but that’s because Simon’s almost entirely in his thrall – and even that lopsided relationship got dangerously turbulent now and again. Presented with actual equals, like co-host Jennie and roving reporter Ruth, he never had a prayer.
Unfortunately, these relationships are never really all they could be – reaching an equilibrium of frostily polite dislike very quickly, and staying, hovering, at that biting point for the rest of the series. Meanwhile, Simon finds himself relegated to a sidenote, which is understandable in the in-show circumstances, but when they finally manage to recapture a little of their bantery radio magic, it’s too little, too late. The strongest parts of the show tend overwhelmingly to be those bits where Alan is a man alone, leading us by the hand through the hot-button issue of the week, and simultaneously through his own warped mental landscape. Again, the strength of the work is his interiority, and while everyone else on-screen is putting in a fine performance (often through horrified facial expressions alone), most of the time they’re inescapably detracting from that.
How lucky we are, then, that we get to witness Alan sinking his tentacles into the fertile, unsuspecting ground of This Time week by week – his shadow steadily looming larger over it. Part of this is due to the slightly idiosyncratic way it’s presented. Rather than seeing the show as the in-universe audience would watch it, non-Alan interstitial segments are replaced by candid, camera’s-still-rolling sections. It’s always interesting to see how public figures act when they’re no longer mugging for the cameras, especially when they say something horrendously rude. But, as I’ve argued before, the most telling moment is Alan’s fumbling request for a glass of water – even back on primetime, the position he’s coveted for over two decades, he’s still desperate for some measure of control over his circumstances.
A fine addition to the Partridge canon that wouldn't leave first-time viewers completely lost and bewildered. What more do you need?