This week sees Alan Partridge return to BBC One for new magazine show This Time, but it’s far from his first time on a TV couch. Steve Coogan’s broadcasting veteran has been on our screens since the early 1990s, when he leapt from sports commentary on The Day Today (“Yes, yes, yes! That is… a goal!”) to his very first talk show. And even over 20 years later, Knowing Me Knowing You with Alan Partridge remains a timeless piece of entertainment.
It helps that the show is a parody of that most familiar of genres: the chat show. Back then, it was the territory of Michael Parkinson and Terry Wogan, but even in an age of YouTube-friendly skits and stunts, Knowing Me is a surprisingly sharp skewering of the format: within the first 15 minutes, we’ve seen Alan bring on a horse and a fence for a guest to prance over in front of studio guests. Needless to say, it doesn’t go well. The show is full of such wonderfully observed details, from a house band (led by the brilliantly named Glenn Ponder), which repeatedly changes its name from Chalet to Ferrari to Debonair without explanation, to the cheesy use of ABBA’s titular track for the opening credits, climaxing with Alan’s signature “Aha!” as he greets the audience.
The guests, too, are delightfully conceived oddballs and grotesques. Whereas today, they might be real people prime for pranking, here, they’re played by a rotating cast of playwright Patrick Marber, comedy veteran and Armando Iannucci regular David Schneider, Doon Mackichan, and In the Thick of It’s Rebecca Front. They play their gormless parts with just enough depth to convince, whether it’s Marber’s Keith Hunt, the petty new host of This Is Your Life, whose relationship with his son sparks hilariously awkward arguments, or Front’s quiet equine enthusiast and, later, self-centred singer Gina Langland, not to mention Schneider’s clown chief, or John Thomson as a wonderfully terrible ventriloquist.
But it’s Alan himself that makes Knowing Me… such a hysterical treat; even in only in his second TV gig, creators Coogan and Iannucci have got the full measure of their remarkable presenter, understanding his motivations and foibles down to the minutest thing. While he’s younger here than in This Time, he’s got the same, recognisable desperation to be a success, something underpinned by his schoolboy-like blazer, oiled down hair and fanatical need to be the one who has the last laugh. He constantly grins with a faintly pathetic air, refuses to acknowledge when he’s made a mistake or something’s gone wrong and isn’t mature or professional enough to rise above petty one-upmanship with his guests – all things that are placed under heightened pressure by the faux-live broadcast format, as he’s got no chance to step off-camera and recover before each 30-minute episode is up.
Coogan’s performance is immense, continuously building layers to Partridge’s personality with every childish remark and rambling aside. A sequence involving lesbians is exquisitely tailored to expose Alan’s conservative prejudices and clueless ignorance, while an early episode introduces his obsession with James Bond 007 (Roger Moore, naturally, not Sean Connery). Today, those traits are still present and correct, but Coogan delivers Knowing You’s understated farce with a youthful exuberance and energy that emphasises Alan’s naive, egotistical ambition. And that foolhardy drive fuels Knowing You’s precisely paced escalation of chaos; a segment involving Moore, stuck on the Chiswick roundabout in traffic, is a masterclass in cringe-worthy joke building, and it paves the way for the series finale, which pulls the trigger on the whole programme with a shocking, audacious flourish. It would seem to spell the end of Alan’s career, after just six episodes that smartly take care not to let the joke suffer from overkill. The show, however, sows the seeds so well that it’s inevitable this fully formed character would return again and again, even decades later. Here, we’re only just getting to know him – and there’s so much more to know.
Knowing Me Knowing You with Alan Partridge is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.