“No offence Lynn, but your life is technically not worth insuring,” says Alan Partridge in a particularly memorable swipe at his personal assistant taken from his self-titled sitcom. The irony being that an appearance from Lynn Benfield (Felicity Montagu) is worth an awful lot to fans, as the character has become a firm favourite since her debut back in 1997.
That’s why it’s such a delight to see her back in the second series of This Time with Alan Partridge, where she is once again on hand to manage the bumbling broadcaster’s life in the fleeting sections where the cameras aren’t rolling. Unlike his on-screen persona, star Steve Coogan is well aware of the character’s popularity.
“In a way, we almost deliberately underuse Felicity really, probably annoyingly for her,” he said at a recent press event. “But I think it’s really great for the audience because they do just love Lynn so much, they really value when they get a glimpse of her. So you sort of tantalise the audience by letting Lynn peek out now and again, which gives us a nice visceral quality to the exchanges.”
It begs the question: why has Lynn Benfield made such a big impression on viewers over the past quarter-century? It helps that the character is just as well-realised as her questionable employer, making it easy to sympathise with her as she endures his callous remarks and careless treatment. But nor is she merely a helpless victim, as Montagu herself explains that Lynn’s work involves “a lot of wheedling behind the scenes” to get Alan his arguably undeserved opportunities.
“She’s not ‘poor Lynn’,” she clarified in a 2019 interview on Lorraine. “I think she’s very aware at the moment that Alan could be in a car crash [on This Time], so she’s a little bit more forceful on this series to protect him.”
This ferocious loyalty has been a consistent theme throughout the character’s history, although her exact motives are up for debate. In her early days on I’m Alan Partridge series one, there were some hints towards Lynn having romantic feelings for her boss, as she attempted to woo him on Valentine’s Day with a snazzy cardigan and offered to pretend to be his wife for a commercial video (the suggestion didn’t go down well).
This idea was seemingly abandoned by series two, with co-creator Armando Iannucci now positing that her dedicated work ethic stems from a combination of factors, including genuine job satisfaction and that enticing salary.
“I think she was always brought up never to rock the boat, you know, if you’ve got something hold onto it and don’t think of getting anything else,” he told RadioTimes.com. “I think she was probably taught to expect failure, so if she’s got this dynamic young personality who’s giving her eight grand a year, she’s avoided failure.”
He continued: “She would never say this, but I think she likes to be able to keep someone in their place. But she also likes doing a good job: I think in her car outside she does a ‘yes!’ whenever Alan makes it to an event on time or finishes on time. I think she sees that as down to her.”
I’m Alan Partridge co-writer Peter Baynham agrees that Lynn’s feelings towards Alan are less like that of a secret admirer and more akin to the “kind of protectiveness that an animal would have for its young”. He’s quick to point out that the character was not based on the assistant Coogan had at the time of writing the sitcom, but the team were interested in exploring the dynamic that naturally develops between two people working so closely.
“It’s not based on any one person, but it’s based on the relationship that people have with their assistants,” Baynham said in a chat with RadioTimes.com. “People have a strange intimacy with those people that they may not even have with their life partner. And so, it’s that thing where they know where the bodies are buried, metaphorically and literally – although I don’t think Alan has ever killed anyone.”
Iannucci added: “We just liked the idea of Alan, because he thinks big, thinking at some stage ‘I’m so busy that I need a personal assistant’ but not actually being able to afford anyone good so just going locally. And I think possibly he does like the idea of having a mother figure or an aunt – it’s almost like he’s got his aunt with him. So that was the sort of kernel for it.”
This Time with Alan Partridge returns to BBC One on Friday 30th April at 9:30pm. While you’re waiting, check out our TV Guide to see what’s on tonight.