When I had sat down to watch Alpha Papa I was nervous on multiple levels. From a long-term viewpoint, Alan Partridge has been my favourite comedy series and I had a lot of self-worth at stake in being able to quote them encyclopaedically. I was very doubtful of whether the show’s subtly brilliant humour could be translated into any bigger audience than an off-peak talk show, let alone a movie.
From a worringly short-term viewpoint the number of horrific comedy trailers that preceded the film gave a foreboding wait. They depicted the saturated world American comedies starring Jason-Sudekis as someone who is meant to be funny, Jennifer Aniston as someone who rarely wears clothes, and Mark Wahlberg as Mark Wahlberg. This is the world that Steve Coogan, the brainchild and enactor of Partridge, had tried to become a part of starring as bit-roles in sub-par films such as Tropic Thunder and Night at the Museum 2. And I worried that, even with the aid of British modern comedy greats such as Armando Iannucci and Peter Baynham, the film would bow out to popular demand and make Partridge into a diluted version of something Ricky Gervais would think of.
Fortunately the film seemed to show no fear of succumbing to the larger crowd. In fact they decided to premiere it in Norwich, Alan’s hometown, before flying off to London. Indeed there was something self-deprecatingly British about the whole thing: that this summer’s comedy blockbuster is Alan Partridge, a keystone of British comedy for the past 20 years, yet one who many people have actually never heard of. And so an immediate balance had to be struck in making Alan’s established character accessible to first timers without betraying his long-standing fans. Fortunately this balance was achieved. The jokes were consistently funny without ever breaking Partridge’s character in order to get a few more laughs. Nor did the film ever fall back onto easy ‘Partridge’ tropes of casual prejudice and awkward moments. In fact Coogan’s character on the big screen was of a carefully weathered but also fresh depiction of Alan Partridge. Indeed considering the most recent portrayals of Alan have been of his an increasingly senile man, it was refreshing to see a somewhat livelier version. This energy had much to do with Alan’s chance to fulfil a fantasy of being a pseudo-hero straight from an Andy Mcnab novel. For the plot follows Alan becoming a middleman between the police and a co-DJ who has taken the North Norfolk Digital Radio Station hostage after being sacked.
Above all this vitality showed a real dedication to making good comedy. Surprisingly this depth was most noticeable in the comedy’s physical aspect. I don’t mean slapstick, but more that every time Alan made any extended movements it was hilarious. The best example is at the start of the film when Alan is singing along to hideous New-Wave Cuddly Toys tune for around two minutes. The intensity and variety in his facial expressions are enough to make a music video. But of course Partridge’s true brilliance comes from the wording, and once the dust has settled there will certainly be a hangover of people throwing around the ‘I am siege-face’ and ‘what is your favourite monger?’ in conversation. But even these quotes show Partridge’s true depth. Because while someone repeats a quote in a Guy Ritchie film, there is usually a cocky feeling that with a good-enough Cockney accent one could actually have said the original. But with Alan Partridge the one-liners only scrape the surface. Coogan’s multi-faceted genius is best expressed in a superb bit of acting where within a minute Alan transitions from boasting about a sexual encounter to mourning how he never really knew his mother. Coogan has produced a whole pool of comedic genius where the lines are only the diving board. Moreover, they’re non-stop- his quips are near-tourettic.
However, of course what would always be a problem was that Alan is such an all-encompassing character, that the other characters may become obstacles. So perhaps unsurprisingly, the secondary characters from the series such as Lynn his assistant, Michael the Geordie and Sidekick Simon take a more diluted, or at least less comedic role. This seemed justifiable when the Alan seemed very capable of carrying the film’s comic load. Yet nevertheless the plot occasionally focused on some of the cameo roles that made no sense at all, most notably squeezing in a few lines from other DJ Jason Cresswell about his dodgy past, which basically equated to dead air.
Indeed the film’s only failing was that it still constricted itself to the classic constrictions of a TV show being made into a film. Firstly, that it needed to drag all the original characters to the forefront and let them be aired a bit, even if the only result is that we know they exist. This leads to the second point- that time is immediately a constriction. So Michael, who is a great and quite deep character, had to have his role reduced to one that shits in a lunchbox. Thirdly there is this ball-tightening dedication to storyline- as if fans go to see their favourite TV comedies in the cinema because of the plot. This is often why comedies tend to slacken near the end of the film, because the humour has to take backseat to allow the storyline to wrap up. Having said this Alpha Papa coped quite well with this plot hurdle, and in fact some of Alan’s best lines are at the film’s climax. It was more a general complaint from me that I would much prefer movie versions of TV shows to be more like a 2-hour long episode, without the need for everything blown out into Hollywood proportions. Indeed the real bleakness and joy of Alan Partridge is that nothing really monumental happens at all, and a plot could revolve around a walk to the petrol station.
Having said this, Alpha Papa maximises its potential within the limits of a TV comedy converted to the big screen. The jokes, and just evident hard work that has gone into the script and direction leaves other British comedies quaking by the wayside. Coogan has re-affirmed Partridge as one of the most engaging comic characters to come out of the past 20 years.