Sunday, 8 September 2013

Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa (2013)

Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa (2013)
Directed by Declan Lowney; Starring Steve Coogan, Colm Meaney, Felicity Montagu

Rating: 4/5

When a popular television series finds its way onto the big screen, audiences approach with a certain degree of trepidation. The worry is that a feature length jaunt will feel like nothing more than an elongated episode, and end up feeling, dare I say it, a trifle moribund. On the opposite end of the scale, the temptation to provide a big adventure for the filmic debut has the potential to undercut the grounded, home-grown nature of the source material.

Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa wins at this game by managing to come somewhere in the middle, but the truth is that despite preconceptions these adaptations have provided some of the best received British comedies of recent years, from the teenage bawdiness of The Inbetweeners Movie (2011) to the razor sharp political satire of In the Loop (2009), adapted from Partridge writer Armando Iannucci’s The Thick of It. The risk here is even smaller: Steve Coogan already has a successful cinematic career. With both he and Iannucci having managed the transition to film, they were doubtless confident that Alan himself could also survive.

The strength of Alan Partridge is that he is a character, not just a sitcom. Each feather of the Partridge has been different, succeeding hilariously in sports commentary (The Day Today), chat shows (Knowing Me, Knowing You), sitcom (I’m Alan Partridge), webisodes (Mid Morning Matters) and pseudo-documentary (Welcome to the Places of my Life). He has endured, incredibly, over a career of more than twenty years; with Steve Coogan always willing to dust off the Pringle jumpers and slip effortlessly back in.

This time, he is assisted by the deft comic touch of director Declan Lowney, who has won BAFTAs for his work on Father Ted and Little Britain. Lowney has embraced an integrated technique of comedy direction, working closely with the writers and actors to get the best from each scene.

As a result, Alan works well film. The character has always managed to move with the times whilst staying true to his essence, reacting differently as the media landscape changes around him over two decades. And yes, the former pioneer of ‘sports casual’ fashion has changed; long gone are the Alan Partridge tie and blazer badge set, and the daydream of whoring himself out to various BBC executives (although he does at one point drift into a flight of fancy).

Most recently, Alan has settled comfortably into his stomping ground of local radio at North Norfolk Digital. He entertains his listeners with the typically bizarre topics of the day that were always a hallmark of I’m Alan Partridge and Mid Morning Matters (Which is the worst monger? Iron, fish, rumour, or war?).

The film works as a consolidation of Partridge. Long time fans will welcome the return of old faces: the banter continues with rival DJ Dave Clifton (Phil Cornwell), Lynn (Felicity Montagu) is still Alan’s long suffering PA, and ever the job-changer, Geordie Michael (Simon Greenall) shows up as a security guard at North Norfolk Digital. The only regret is that they are somewhat underused and do not have the same importance to the story as they did in I’m Alan Partridge. Tim Key returns in a larger role as Alan’s co-host Sidekick Simon, who has been a part of the team since Mid Morning Matters.

The title Alpha Papa is from the police phonetic alphabet (Alan’s initials), reflecting both the siege that forms the bulk of the narrative, as well as Alan’s continuing desire to become top dog. It’s unnecessary to spoil the intricacies of the film, but events are set in motion by the corporate takeover of North Norfolk Digital, bringing with it the risk of redundancies for long-standing DJs.

The plot does fall prey to some kind of cinematic obligation to place the characters in high octane situations that would be unlikely in the TV show, but it’s lucky that the writers didn't go overboard, managing to keep things relatively low key. It is an impressive exercise in film making to be able to set almost the entire film in the radio station itself, maintaining the humour and tension throughout, whilst keeping the audience’s interest alive for ninety minutes. Coogan continues to play the character with the defining selfishness and cowardice touched with a vein of pathos (Alan admits that facing death, his last words would be to ask his children why they don’t call him anymore. Then, realising he would never hear the reply, he elects to just tell them that he loves them).

Colm Meaney, who will be recognised by fans of a certain sci-fi franchise, draws a different kind of sympathy as the gruff but lost DJ Pat Farrell, who now occupies Alan’s old late night slot. Like Partridge, Farrell is the kind of radio veteran that the new ‘hip’ conglomerate is trying to whitewash.

Aside from the continuing gems in Alan’s seemingly inexhaustible catalogue of radio non sequiturs, comedy highlights include the straight faced reading of a conversation transcript between Partridge and Farrell about Banged Up Abroad and many more anecdotes that don’t go anywhere, and don’t need to so long as Alan has the last laugh.

Even though it risked falling into the big screen trap, Alan’s first feature is a higher calibre TV adaptation, worthy of standing alongside the other jewels in the Partridge collection. It’s always a treat to revisit old Partridge moments, and this film is a welcome addition to the repertoire. If you’re a fan, you’ll probably laugh all the way through. If you aren’t, you won’t be bothering with an Alan Partridge film anyway. The final question: is this the last hurrah of North Norfolk’s favourite son, or the start of a new era of Partridge? Let’s hope he sticks around.

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