From slapstick to quiet horror, Alan’s return to the BBC secured his status as the vital, despicable saviour of us all
The most remarkable thing about Alan Partridge is that he wasn’t hard to invent. While making On the Hour, as the story goes, Armando Iannucci asked Steve Coogan to do a voice for a sports reporter. Coogan came out with the now familiar tampon-up-the-nose timbre and someone spontaneously said “he’s an Alan”, immediately followed by someone else concluding “he’s a Partridge”. From that moment on, Iannucci says, “we knew what his background was, how he felt about being a sports reporter, how he wanted to move on and be taken more seriously”. This is not what usually happens; to create a character that’s believable, consistent, original, funny, sympathetic and interesting is immensely difficult. Just ask Dan Brown. It takes hours of tortuous work, but Alan didn’t. Alan and his driving gloves were waiting to come out. They say truly great songs (say Cuddly Toy by Roachford) almost sound like you’ve heard them before, and it’s the same with great characters. There’s something awfully familiar about Alan Gordon Partridge.
Everyone’s met an Alan. The father-in-law who criticises your choice of motorway. The train passenger who frowns at people speaking Spanish. The pub bore who complains about the prominence of Fiona Bruce. Alan Partridge perfectly encapsulates a particular type of Englishman. And, whether you like it or not, he also encapsulates a part of you. The laughter he generates is one of relief; it’s a there-but-for-the-grace-of-god involuntary exhale. In fact, to write for the character Iannucci has said he and the writers actually had to become Alan by doing his voice and riffing from there. There aren’t many characters where this would prove fruitful because for that to work, they have to be perfectly realised. Characters like that a rarer than Alan in a Mini Metro. Basil Fawlty, David Brent, Del Boy, Patsy Stone, Mark Corrigan perhaps, but not many others. Alan’s character is so clearly defined that you know exactly how he would act in any given situation. This is true to such an extraordinary degree that he can sustain two autobiographies. Not just sustain but elevate them, and particularly their audiobooks, into works of comic genius.