17 years after we watched 14,000 unsold copies of the book Bouncing Back being pulped, Alan Partridge has finally bounced back. Steve Coogan’s radio presenter, TV personality and cheese-smelling scourge of corporate videos has been quietly working on North Norfolk Digital for years, hosting a mid-morning slot with his co-host, Simon Denton (Tim Key). But when national telly treasure John Baskell falls ill, leaving an empty space on the sofa of light entertainment show This Time, Alan’s handed an unlikely opportunity to step into the breach – and, for the first time, onto BBC One.
Coogan’s creation is one of the best comedy characters in British TV history, and has evolved with a subtlety entirely at odds with his brash, clueless persona. Once a hapless sports commentator on The Day Today, after his heady days hosting talk show Knowing Me, Knowing You went violently wrong, he became a figure of desperation, longing for one more shot at the big time – and so we moved from a spoof chat show to a sitcom taking us behind-the-scenes of this now off-air failure. When he graduated to the big screen for Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa, that format remained, but Alan himself had mellowed into someone more content with his local level of Norwich-centric success.
While that movie succeeded by keeping the pond small for this would-be big fish, This Time… works precisely because it does the opposite: Alan’s tiny step to BBC One places the small-time broadcaster in waters that are slightly too large for him. And so we get the best of both worlds: the public-facing persona of the mugging semi-professional (as the studio cameras are rolling) and the pathetic man craving one more taste of success (whenever the cameras stop broadcasting).
The result is a 30-minute episode that unfolds in real-time, and sees Coogan switch constantly between on-air Alan and off-air Alan – and, as tensions slowly, inevitably, hilariously escalate, the gap between the two gradually disappears altogether. Written by Coogan with Neil Gibbons and Rob Gibbons, who have taken on the character since Mid-Morning Matters, it’s an astute piece of comedy scripting, because it remains driven by, and obsessed with, Alan as a character. The trio have a wonderful ability to give us the briefest sign that he’s actually half-competent at his job: he dispatches puns and alliteration off-the-cuff when the cameras aren’t rolling, only for his co-presenter, Jennie (Susannah Fielding), to steal them when they are. But they also don’t buy into Alan’s bounce-back-ability, deflating every bubble of ego and self-delusion the moment they start to inflate.
What elevates This Time… from very good to truly great is that all of this happens at the same time as a pitch-perfect parody of magazine programmes such as The One Show. The series has just as much fun in sending up the bizarre juxtaposition of subjects that comes with the teatime format: Episode 1 sees Jennie and Alan tackle everything from seal pups to cyberterrorism. Needless to say, it becomes a crash-bang-wallop of a car crash when that collides with Alan’s increasing determination to make his mark on the show, and things gradually fall ever so slightly into chaos.
Fielding is impeccable as Jennie, holding everything together while trying to hide her surprise and dismay at Alan’s behaviour, or simply playing dumb to his facial expressions as they interview people. But Alan can’t help but derail proceedings, from a recurring mention of Shell Oil that becomes an elephant in the room to a demonstration of how to go to the toilet without dirtying one’s hands.
When Alan’s allowed off the leash, it’s glorious pandemonium – an interview with a hacktivist that takes a sideways turn is an perfectly crafted climax to events – but the real pleasure is seeing him being kept barely in check by those around him, as Lynn (Felicity Montagu, stepping back into those put-upon shoes like she’s never been off-screen) encourages his mediocre talents, Key’s over-eager Denton holds him back by failing to work a touch screen, and one guest (the always excellent Lolly Adefope) can’t resist correcting him. By the time Simon Farnaby has joined in during Episode 2, the series has mastered a seamless mix of verbal sparring, visual slapstick (keep your eye on the right of the screen during one audience segment), embarrassing monologues (two words: dimmer switches), and painfully forced smiles. You’ll laugh out loud, you’ll cringe and you’ll be crying out for someone to give him a second series. Partridge has bounced back – and he just might be better than ever.
This Time with Alan Partridge is available on BBC iPlayer until 1st May 2019, with episodes expiring 30 days after their broadcast.
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