Review: This Time with Alan Partridge – this is Cringe TV at its finest
PUBLISHED: 10:48 26 February 2019 | UPDATED: 13:28 26 February 2019
TV review: Fresh from North Norfolk Digital, it’s a welcome return to the BBC for Alan Partridge who guided us brilliantly between seal pups, post-poo handwashing and cyberterrorism on his new show. And did he give us a hint as to which Norfolk presenter he based Alan on?
It’s been a long, hard road from shoving a wheel of cheese in the face of the BBC’s commissioning editor to a presenting slot on a primetime magazine show on the corporation’s flagship channel, but with luck one day the A11 will be fully dualled and it’ll cut minutes from the drive time.
Stephen Fry, Delia’s football club, Horatio Nelson, James Dyson, Boudicca, Princess Diana, one of S Club 7, one of Hear’Say, Sir John Mills, Davros from Doctor Who, Colman’s Mustard – Alan Partridge joins them all in the Norfolk Hall of Fame and he’s the only one with a new BBC1 show.
Gifted an unexpected return to the small screen, Partridge has been called in to provide sickness cover on an evening show much like The One Show, a fast-moving half-hour of television which covers current affairs in a conversational manner: as a comedy vehicle, it’s like a Ferrari.
Steve Coogan and writers Neil and Rob Gibbons know exactly how to steer Partridge, a man who is a terrifying blend of neediness and rampant ego, whose opinion is formed every morning by The Daily Mail and who is so desperate for this last chance at mainstream broadcasting that it’s written all over his face at all times.
And what a face it is: Coogan as Partridge has mastered a whole range of expressions which see him spin from trivial froth to important and bleak news items and for the segments when we see him off-air, nit-picking with icy co-presenter Jennie (Susannah Fielding) or complaining of a dry throat as the countdown to going live began.
At every moment, you know exactly how Alan is feeling, because his face signposts it – his fury when Jennie steals the line he’s mentioned just before an on-air segment, his self-admonishment when he takes the wrong tone during a segment about baby seals, the justification he feels as he realises just why he’s confused Alice Fluck’s surname and called her Alice Clunt. He is an excruciatingly wonderful watch.
This Time is carefully crafted to reflect the kind of nonsense which we see on TV every day: the awkward and uncomfortable chemistry between presenters who clearly struggle to sit next to each other at times (Piers Morgan/Susanna Reid, Richard Madeley/Judy Finnegan, Eamonn Holmes/Anthea Turner), the anodyne subject matter which veers from issues of national importance to segments about seals, all bound together with wince-worthy nods to social media responses.
And it works on two levels, both as a parody of this kind of show with its breakneck race through a diverse range of topics threaded together with the flimsiest of links (on this subject, there is a brilliant clip on YouTube of veteran comic Mel Brooks appearing on The One Show in 2017 and calling presenters Matt Baker and Alex Jones out about how utterly random the programme is, oscillating between tragedy and comedy: “You gotta tell me when to be happy, when to be sad…”) and also as a reward to Alan Partridge fans who have waited so long for him to take to the air again.
I sometimes struggle with Alan P because – in between his outings on the small or big screen – it feels like he is reduced to a series of slightly dull catchphrases parroted by men of a certain age who recognise themselves in the broadcaster - “Back of the Net!” “Dan! Dan! Dan!” “Smell my cheese!” “A-ha!” – but Steve Coogan’s creation is far more clever and nuanced than his soundbites.
Partridge’s continual need for recognition, to be appreciated and to be revered leads him to be not only ruthless, but also desperate to please and desperate to be relevant, hence him shoehorning Sidekick Simon (Tim Key)into proceedings by giving him control of the Digiwall, an up-to-the-minute glimpse into instant social media reactions…which Simon has no idea how to work. Then again, Partridge yells at a tweet read out on air as if he expects the writer to answer.
Also back, albeit in a small role, is PA Lynn, Felicity Montagu, who chats to Alan in between his on-air segments and at one point managed to suggest that Jennie reminded her of a sex worker she’d seen outside a train station (“she wore a red top and red lipstick, too”), undermining her in the same way she undermines Alan.
It’s clear that several elements of This Time are being carefully built up in order for Alan to knock them down in his usual spectacular fashion: those outside broadcasts (this week, Alan was hanging around outside the toilets at the BBC asking to sniff people’s hands) and his relationship with Jennie.
Jennie combines Susanna Reid’s exasperation with Piers Morgan with Alex Jones’ unbreakable positivity, like a primetime Stepford Wife, underneath the light entertainment veneer she’s clearly a viper in the grass who will scythe Alan down without a second thought while keeping that stiff, fake smile on her face throughout.
I loved Partridge’s awkward walks to different areas of the studio, I loved the interview with the correspondent about Fixed Odds Betting Terminals in which the reporter corrected every single statement that Alan made, the hands-free train toilet drill in which he introduced the nation to the concept of “the thigh budge, his arousal at watching a video of a scientist washing her hands and the pointless (but much-loved by the media) graphic that likened the over-use of antibiotics to giving “a miffed spouse” chocolates every time you’ve annoyed them.
The Clunt/Fluck exchange was priceless, as was Alan’s baby seal research which had led him to discover that the seals in questions enjoy tossing penguins around like bloody rags for fun and that they’d been trained by the military as suicide bombers: I have met reporters who are as guileless as this. I’ve probably been one myself at times.
But it was the closing segment where Alan went Full Partridge as he interviewed a “bedroom-based do-badder known as a ‘hacktivist’” who was wearing a giraffe mask rather than the usual Guy Fawkes mask adopted by protest movement Anonymous and who Alan chose to call “Mickey” which stole the showThere followed a brutal interview in which Mickey revealed he’d hacked into Alan’s email and then read out a selection of his correspondence – “back in the game!” messages sent to Richard Hammond, for instance – before telling him that he’d also found out the presenter was being paid £2,000 less than a certain Wally Banter at North Norfolk Digital.
Wally Banter? SURELY this is the biggest clue to date from the Coogan camp that a certain Radio Norfolk presenter has provided inspiration for their creation…?
As the tables turned, Partridge donned a mask of the hacktivist’s face and then harangued him about his work, following him Jeremy Kyle-style as he legged it from the studio, barking at him Jeremy Paxman-style to answer his questions and then, Alan Partridge-style, forgetting himself when faced with BBC newsreader Emily Maitlis in a lift. Quite brilliant.
The overriding genius of Coogan and Gibbons is that they have created a terrible egocentric monster that you can’t help but root for in some small way. Every single thing that Alan says or does is on the “off-kilter” register, veering from “a bit off” to “crassly offensive” and yet it’s him and not Jennie that you want to win this small screen battle. Alan Partridge really has bounced back.