Alan Partridge is, without a doubt, the most impressive character that Steve Coogan has ever played. I have tried my best to enjoy his other offerings but nothing compares to the perfectly executed radio DJ/TV presenter. Partridge was first introduced to the world thanks to his outings on the short-lived BBC Radio 4 comedy On the Hour in the early 90s. Since those days he has appeared in a wide variety of platforms and has gone through a few professional changes. With his inherent ability to say the wrong thing and commit career suicide whenever it looks like things might be going his way, Alan has always offered up an array of whimsical and cringe-inducing comedy. However, there will obviously be a possible danger when a beloved sitcom makes its way to the big screen. Would the delicate details that flourished in the half hour episodes get lost in translation? Would the film makers make the mistake of turning everything up to 11 to stick to Hollywood standards? Would Alpha Papa prove to be a worthy addition to his accomplished career? Well, a mere four months after it was released, I was all set to find out.
As it happens Alan Partridge’s first outing on the big screen begins in very familiar territory as, thankfully, Coogan was not tempted to move the action to an exotic new location. Instead, the eponymous DJ still holds his position as host of the mid-morning show on North Norfolk Digital and, along with his assistant Simon (Tim Key), attempts to get to the crux of society by asking the important questions, like “which is the worst monger: fish, iron, rumour or war?” There is certainly a sense in the first few minutes that this is simply going to turn into a lengthened episode of his TV shows.
Nevertheless, this is Partridge x100 and the hapless shock jock finds himself in one of those unbelievable yet sort of plausible situations. There is a necessity for sitcoms making their way to cinema that everything will become bigger and brasher and, despite all of the comforting Partridge trademarks, Coogan has certainly delivered. The station is being taken over by one of those conglomerates who are keen to throw around their corporate buzzwords and focus on revenue over content. In their haste to modernise they promptly fire veteran host Pat Farrell (Colm Meaney) who’s classic talk-radio style isn’t in keeping with the fresh approach. Understandably, Pat doesn’t take the news well and heads back to the studio during a welcome party, shotgun in hand, and takes the staff hostage. Alan then finds himself placed in the vital role of negotiator and becomes as widely known as he’s always dreamed of.
It’s not the kind of plot that would have required a great deal of stringing together but it does provide some moments for Coogan to show off his knack for physical comedy. The actor’s exchanges with his fellow cast are, more often than not, wonderful and it’s lovely to see the return of old favourites like Lynn (Felicity Montagu) his put-upon PA, his Geordie friend Michael (Simon Greenall), and rival DJ Dave (Phil Cornwell). However, within the confines of the siege plot, these old friends never really get the chance to do anything incredibly memorable or sensational.
As I see it, the main problem with Alpha Papa is that the scenario leaves very little room for growth. The supporting cast are pushed into the background for the most part and even Alan himself, to a certain extent, seems like something of an afterthought within this fairly pedestrian narrative. Unlike the set-ups offered within his TV shows, the siege drama doesn’t allow Alan’s natural buffoonish nature to really fly. Instead he must conform to the traditions of the genre. Instead of being the eternal loser, Alan is placed in a position of heroism and, in the process, finds his comic potential lessened. Partridge’s humour comes from his flaws which means something just feels off when his dreams are finally coming true.
There are moments within the middle section of the film that feel forced or stretched. There are some jokes that are just out-of-place and others that are pushed to their utter limit. The siege itself is a prime example. From the start, it is fun to see ‘normal’ characters within this extraordinary situation but it soon becomes tedious and doesn’t always allow the talent attached to flourish. Something that starts off as farcically amusing eventually becomes tired and leaves you wondering whether the character was quite ready for a prolonged outing.
That is not to say that there aren’t moments of brilliance. Naturally, considering the wealth of writing talent on board, the script is littered with great one-liners and more quote-worthy material. It is, at its heart, a wonderfully refreshing and constantly funny film. The talent is still on show even if it gets lost within the story of a vengeful Irishman. It is the opening sequences in particular that have the most in common with the Partridge we all know and love. He’s exactly as we remember but with a slight lack of ageing make-up. Steve Coogan has put his much-loved character to sleep a number of times by this point but there can no denying that he still knows what he’s doing. He slips back into the character with ease and continues to ensure there is always a tinge of self-awareness behind all of the outlandish behaviour. The film flies in the closer moments where Partridge is on full display doing what he does best and never really manages to top the opening scene in which the hapless DJ rocks out in his car to Roachford.
I guess the best way to sum up Alpha Papa is to say that is the kind of film that Alan himself would have wanted to make about himself. It has ideas of grandeur and hopes of something just slightly beyond its reach. It is good but it just doesn’t feel as good as it should have been. Watching this as a standalone film and you’d walk out happy; watch it after a Partridge marathon and you’d possibly feel a little let down. Everything was set in place for something fantastic but there is an ever present sense that the makers didn’t have enough faith in the character to let him do his own thing. It’s a shame.