It’s so easy to take things for granted. In Alan Partridge, Steve Coogan created one of the best comic characters of the last quarter-century. In particular, the six episodes of Knowing Me, Knowing You, and the first season of I’m Alan Partridge approached comedic perfection, striking a perfect balance between satire and pathos that endures to this day and is pretty much endlessly re-watchable. But after the second season of I’m Alan Partridge, released in 2002, Coogan seemed to want to distance himself from the character for a while, pursuing other projects for much of the rest of the decade.
I can certainly understand that. In his other work Coogan has demonstrated an impressive range not only as a comedian but as a writer and a serious actor. I’ve not seen the well-regarded film Philomena but the TV series Sunshine, in which Coogan plays a gambling addict, is a very tragic, moving and humane story and one of the best portrayals of addiction that I’ve seen on television. But in the UK, for long periods he has been almost entirely associated with the Partridge character and not necessarily for the most benign of reasons.
In light of that, it’s really something to be thankful for that Coogan has returned to the Partridge character with such gusto in the last five years or so. What’s even better is that he has done it so well. Although not everything has hit the heights of the first TV shows–which nobody should expect–the different material he has put out has consistently ranged from good to excellent. The Mid-Morning Matters web-series of shorts, in which Partridge is filmed delivering his horrendous radio show alongside a put-upon junior colleague, Sidekick Simon, was very good; and the energy from this continued into the movie, Alpha Papa, which was very enjoyable. It may not have been non-stop hilarity but it had a number of great moments and was certainly an effective entry in the Partridge universe.
The film was also a lot better than I think many people expected, and Coogan deserves a lot of credit. He has spoken about how hard it can be when people (ie, the media) are waiting for you to fail and deliver a dud, especially considering the run-ins he has had with most sections of the UK press over the years. So to continue making this stuff is actually quite brave, even setting aside the fact it’s generally very, very good. But Coogan has spoken about the benefits of having his own comic creation (I don’t want to say alter ego) into which he can dump all his own dysfunctions and awkward interactions. So perhaps it just does him some good.
The recent Partridge work for which he deserves most credit, to my mind, is the autobiography, I, Partridge. I’m re-reading this for the first time and it’s a really terrific work. It’s very funny, featuring some wonderful turns of phrase and highly original imagery, and full of biting satire on the media and various aspects of British life and culture. It’s also profoundly sad and, like much of Partridge (and indeed much of the best comedy in general) at times captures the essence of some of life’s moments and interactions better than any other genre.
I think this is one of the things that gives the series its enduring qualities. I would personally hesitate to crown it as the best TV comedy from the British Isles over the last thirty years (for me, that has to go to an Irish comedy: Father Ted), but if we take into account all formats and also its longevity, Partridge has to win. He’s been around for over 20 years now doing stand-up stand-up, radio, TV, cinema, and books (printed and audio).
And this is what I mean about taking things for granted. I really don’t see that Coogan has received much acknowledgement in our popular culture for this, which only struck me recently since I started reading the book again and watching the old shows on Netflix. His work carries the torch of the best 1980s and 1990s comedy at a time when so much of our comedic landscape has been shaped by misanthropy or sneering at the less fortunate. I’m looking forward to Partridge’s appearance on TFI Friday later this week–I hasten to add, a show I would never normally watch–and maybe that will bring the point home to a few more people.
Keep it up Alan, I mean Steve.