It is the year of our lord 2012 and, true to his first book, Bouncing Back (which was ironically pulped) and perhaps one of Nostradamus’ less celebrated prophesies, Norfolk’s prodigal son Alan Gordon Partridge has risen again and returned to our unworthy, spittle-spattered screens.
The more cynical among us who have been subjected to one too many tawdry encores from once beloved comic characters may have groaned at this intelligence (particularly when it was accompanied by the news that it would be airing on Sky Atlantic (Sky Atlantic for God’s sake!)) but I, for one, rejoice. By and large, the latest series will leave patrons of Partridge fairly well satisfied. He is still besotted with the sound of his own richly nasal voice, he still a bastion of parochialism masquerading as profundity, he is still consumed by petty recriminations which he still does a hilariously poor job of hiding and he is still absolutely desperate to be loved.
The only issue I’d take with Partridge’s latest outing after the first two episodes is the slightly affected format. Whereas previously his provincial dogmas, carefully stockpiled grudges and misconceived prejudices were teased out organically as he struggled against the travails of terminal mediocrity, now he is basically gifted a series of platforms from which to vent spleen. Witness, for instance, the scene in the first episode ‘Welcome to the Places of My Life‘ where Alan is rambling through Thetford Forest where he pauses to inspect a field of sheep, imagining it to be populated by those who have wronged him in the past. “Anne Robinson there grazing by that tree. That one over there, Andrew Marr. The Dimbleby brothers. They’re just…. various builders.” Still funny, don’t get me wrong, but slightly contrived.
This may sound like nit-picking but I think it’s always funnier to observe a character (particularly one whose enormous ego begets an aspiration to constantly master events) flounder about in the choppy waters of chance rather than simply reel off a bunch of pre-cooked and reheated observations. One of the great joys of vintage Partridge was watching him try to reconcile his deluded self-importance with the repeated and increasingly humiliating reminders (be it a cow falling off a bridge or “COCK PISS PARTRIDGE” being daubed on his car by disgruntled youths) that he is, in fact, but a leaf in the wind of God’s twisted designs. That’s why they call it situation comedy and, incidentally, one of the many reasons why I consider stand-up a second-rate medium.
However, because this shortcoming stems from a neglect of narrative rather than dialogue or characterisation, the main man remains every bit as completely bloody brilliant as we remember him.
An almost a bottomless well of comedic potential is afforded by a character whose insatiable self-obsession remains uniquely untouched by any semblance of self-awareness. In fact, in this sense, Partridge is owed a great debt by subsequent comedic characters, not least Ricky Gervais’ David Brent who seems to have borrowed an almost identical modus operandi for himself. Both characters harbour debilitating delusions of intellectual grandeur, both are capable of inducing scrotum-shrivelling discomfort in any given social situation and both would give their eye teeth simply to be adored.
One of the things I love about Partridge is his innate ability to pick the most exquisitely inappropriate words and reactions to any given set of circumstances. On Steve Coogan’s Desert Island Discs he describes what he sees as the process by which human beings articulate their thoughts in civilised society. Basically, you conceive a thought, he says, which in its first iteration is often half-baked or vapid, sometimes embarassingly candid or undesirably revealing, sometimes tactless or downright offensive. The thought then passes through a filter, calibrated by a lifetime of social interaction and the conventions of etiquette so that what emerges on the other side is the “radio version” of the original wheeze: refined and distilled so as to render it fit for human consumption. Coogan says that when he writes for Partridge, he simply removes the filter. The thoughts trip freely from the tongue unsanitised and fully-formed like verbal floaters in the swimming pool of decorum.
Partridge’s utterances are not recklessly obnoxious, mind, or they would instantly ring false in the ears of the audience. The beauty of the Partridge patois is that it is just ever so slightly off the mark, just sneakingly amiss, like an orchestral interlude consisting entirely of flat notes. Their chief effect, in fact, is not even to offend the audience but simply to inciminate the speaker. A perfect example of this comes in episode 6 of series 1, Towering Alan, when Alan attends the funeral of BBC Chief Commissioner Tony Hayers. At one point Alan, wearing (in another delightful touch) a Castrol GTX bomber jacket, appproaches the weeping wife of the deceased and proffers a slice of classic Partridge: “Can I offer you my deep, deep…..despair…..on this very bad day.” Genius.
This joyous malapropism is one thing that the new series most assuredly retains (though with Ianucci and Coogan still manning the helm, one might expect it to) and in my book that is reason enough to give it a look. So do.
Also posted on Huffington Post.