“Give him a second series, you swine!” “Yeah, give me a second series, you shit!” That’s the sound of Alan Partridge (Steve Coogan) holding the worst business meeting in TV history, as his disgraced presenter struggles through the aftermath of his ill-fated chat show. Less ill-fated for him, it must be said, than it was for one of his guests, who got shot live on air during the final episode of Knowing Me, Knowing You – bringing the farcical spoof series to a shocking, hilarious close.
Where do you take a character from there? I’m Alan Partridge was the answer, and it succeeded because it turned the amusingly pathetic figure into a fully rounded person – a conservative (and, one suspects, a Conservative), a divorcee, a James Bond obsessive and a secret lover of Toblerone. We join him as he lives in a roadside hotel (the brilliantly named Linton Travel Tavern), where the staff laugh at his vandalised car, tolerate his habit of bringing his own plate to the breakfast buffer because it’s slightly bigger, and, sometimes, actually show him sympathy.
It’s that ability to conjure up fondness for this most absurd of caricatures that makes Alan Partridge such an enduring presence on our screens. From his flailing sports punditry on The Day Today to the low-key feature film Alpha Papa, he’s grown into a man whose flaws have become more and more apparent – and whose arrogance has dwindled without fully disappearing. It’s an arc carefully traced by Coogan and his co-creators Armando Iannucci and Peter Baynham, one that leaves him in the limbo of Linton (equidistant between London and Norwich) for a season, as he tries to convince the commissioning chief at the Beeb to give him a chance (“Smell my cheese!”). Then, he moves to the equally uprooted home of a tiny caravan, as he waits for his new home to be built. In between the two lingers an unseen breakdown, one that’s hinted at by the two-pronged montage of Alan pole-dancing for the BBC and Alan shamefully gorging on triangular chocolate in a car. (I’m Alan Partridge, tellingly, doesn’t stretch the joke beyond two seasons – like Fawlty Towers, it knows not to ruin a joke with overkill.)
And yet, for all of Alan’s gradually expanding personality, I’m Alan Partridge succeeds because the writers surround him with equally brilliant supporting characters. It’s a cast that once again balances awkwardness and affection, from the put-upon Lynn (masterfully played by Felicity Montagu), Alan’s loyal, timid and not-quite-deadpan assistant, to Michael (Simon Greenall), a Geordie employee at the Travel Tavern who winds up becoming Alan’s unlikely, yet entirely apt, friend – a scene in which he offers Partridge a mug of sausage and beans, without inviting him into his house, is a deliciously tragic microcosm of their sort-of relationship, which is at its most comfortable eating microwave pasties at a petrol station or Michael delivering an anecdote about a helicopter during the war that killed his friends. Throw in his girlfriend, Sonja (Amelia Bullmore), whom he can’t stop telling everyone about, and a memorable cameo from Stephen Mangan as Dan, who appears to be his mirror image, and you have an ensemble of cracking comic talent that doesn’t stop delivering laughs.
The lion’s share of those, however, come from Alan himself, and Coogan’s way with one-liners and throwaway comments is second to none, from Alan’s military based quiz show he hosts on “UK Conquest” to his requests for medicinal powder to treat his fungal foot infection, or his banter with fellow radio DJ Dave Clifton (Phil Cornwell). At its heart, Alan Partridge remains a wonderfully inept, clueless man who is so desperate to be liked that it’s hard not to do just that. “Did you see the match last night?” he asks a builder working on his house one morning. “What match?” comes the reply. He pauses. “Dunno.”
I’m Alan Partridge: Season 1 and 2 is available on Netflix UK, as part of a £7.99 monthly subscription.