No one can accuse Steve Coogan and team of rushing into a big-screen transfer for his endearingly deluded foot-in-mouth TV and radio presenter Alan Partridge. He debuted on the Armando Iannucci-produced spoof radio show On The Hour on Radio 4 in 1991, when Coogan – a jobbing young stand-up impressionist and voiceover artist from Manchester with Spitting Image on his CV – would dress in Partridge clothes even for radio recordings: Pringle jumpers, slacks, plus the early comb-over. This attention to detail and total immersion may explain why we’re all still here.
Over 20 years later, Partridge is back on the radio, at the fictional North Norfolk Digital, for Alpha Papa, a boldly local and small-scale big-screen debut after so many successful series on TV. The movie was first announced in 2004, at one stage mooted to involve Alan stranded in Dubai, or possibly the USA. But the fallback, fish-out-of-water travelogue approach for TV staples transferring to the cinema was sensibly ditched. What worked for The Inbetweeners – who went on holiday to Malia after two successful series on E4 in what proved to be a box-office smash – might not sit as comfortably with Alan, whose discomfort with life does not need high concepts or far-flung locations to bring it out. Unlike, too, Sacha Baron-Cohen’s creations Ali G and Borat, or indeed Rowan Atkinson’s Mr Bean, Partridge would not be leaving the country to find large-canvas laughs.
The eventual Partridge movie has its modest roots in 2010’s laser-guided online shorts Mid Morning Matters, funded by Foster’s lager (and subsequently shown on Sky Atlantic), which found Alan in seemingly secure employment behind the mic and on a studio webcam. The film starts just like one of the stripped-back “webisodes” with Partridge in the booth with foil Sidekick Simon (the poet and comedian Tim Key). However, North Norfolk Digital has been taken over and rebranded by a soulless media conglomerate and when fellow DJ Colm Meaney is restructured and leaves the building clutching a forlorn archive box of his belongings, the story kicks in.
Alan quickly finds himself acting as mediator in a police siege (led by Sean Pertwee and Anna Maxwell Martin, heading a strong but not-too-starry supporting cast). Partridge seems to be about to have his day – and a rare moment in the international spotlight when footage of him goes viral on YouTube – but even in this potentially empowered new state, still manages to say and do the wrong thing. (For instance, he’s deeply confused by the notion that a woman is the superior of a male officer, shaking Pertwee’s hand then kissing Maxwell-Martin’s cheek.)
Alpha Papa has one or two moments of credible action, and a set-piece involving Alan’s trousers that sets him back to the embarrassment level of Knowing Me Knowing You, but in general the screenplay – co-written by Coogan, his new writing associates Neil and Rob Gibbons, with Iannucci and another mainstay from the Day Today era Peter Baynham – puts its energy into the dialogue. From his early on-air ticking-off of Sidekick Simon for an off-colour reference on-air to Islam (“Never criticise Muslims. Only Christians, and Jews a little bit”), Alpha Papa plays to its enduring two strengths: Coogan’s powerhouse performance, which has never stopped evolving with the times, and funny lines. Hilarious lines, for the most part. We’re used to watching Alan on TV, perhaps with a small group of friends; it’s a treat to be able to share the love with a full cinema, not least during a stirring, full-length in-car singalong to Roachford’s Cuddly Toy.
Though the siege (which, again, in early, rejected drafts involved Middle Eastern terrorists) eventually moves the action outside to the pier at Cromer, the film always stays true to its local, claustrophobic roots, and makes great tragicomic capital out of TV regulars including Felicity Montagu’s put-upon PA Lynn, Simon Greenall’s ex-army Geordie odd-job man Michael and Phil Cornwell’s damaged jock Dave Clifton. Declan Lowney (Father Ted) directs with unfussy economy and comic timing, and Coogan’s vanity-free performance is a perpetual turbine. It may not travel further than East Anglia, but it’s so refreshing to see a British comedy film that thinks small and stays local.