When comedy shows reach a peak of popularity, a big screen adaptation can’t be far off. The premise is invariably to remove the situation that makes it popular and to put the characters into new similarly invariable situations. Thus On The Buses went on holiday and Kevin and Perry went large. Borat and Mr Bean went Stateside; The Inbetweeners went to Crete. Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa (2013, 90 mins.) is the little piggy that stayed home.
From his first appearance as an inept sports desk reporter in On The Hour over twenty years ago, the character of Alan Partridge (Steve Coogan) has seen his popularity grow inversely proportional to his broadcasting career. Despite having had his own BBC chat show — the ABBA-flavoured Knowing Me, Knowing You with Alan Partridge — he is now working at North Norfolk Digital. Despite his ups and downs (downs, mostly) one thing hasn’t changed — he’s still as egotistical as ever. And in this first big screen outing for the character — set, as ever, in his beloved Norwich — this self-obsession makes itself visible throughout.
The aforementioned North Norfolk Digital has now been swallowed up by a media conglomerate and renamed Shape. Through-the-night broadcaster, Pat Farrell (Colm Meaney), has bore the brunt of cost cutting and has found himself dumped from the station. His response is to take the station hostage at gunpoint and, refusing to negotiate directly with the police, makes clear that he will only speak to them via Alan. This situation, as it develops in the media, sees Partridge become its face and in this he senses the opportunity to exploit the goings on in the name of his career.
While the movie is set in an English city, its premise is more Hollywood than Pinewood. However, this being a comedy, the British knack for self-deprecation undermines the convention throughout. A high stakes affair in regional England may not be glamorous, but it serves two purposes. It both provides plenty of opportunities for humour and makes the film’s story more plausible. In the case of Alan Partridge this is important as Coogan’s development of the character has seen him grow increasingly complex; more tragicomic than simple comedic cypher. To put him in a new fabricated situation purely to generate laughs would be to betray the character’s inherent capacity for eliciting them unaided. Thus Alan makes his way through the movie, doing and saying things that are typical Partridge.
There are a perhaps a couple of notable risks in elevating a television character to the cinema. The first is expanding the usual small situations into a feature-length story, where the audience expects a beginning, middle, and end. The second is a question of accessibility. Despite prior successes, a new audience inevitably comes to the character without that knowledge. The first few minutes are their introduction and in the opening credits we see Partridge driving to work, singing along to Roachford‘s Cuddly Toy. Coogan’s delivery is excellently exaggerated, but in each gesture — as Alan — you can see he means it. It’s both comedic and creates some common ground for the audience. Who, after all, doesn’t sing along to their favourite songs or at least know someone who does? And since scant reference is made to Partridge’s past career in the film, whatever baggage he displays on screen comes solely within the movie’s scope.
As adaptations go, the team behind Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa appear to have nailed it. Given that in the past he has appeared on radio, television, and in print, the step up to film seems simply natural. Although it certainly feels as if he’s been toned down for the movie, this doesn’t detract from what makes him a genuinely funny character. Laughs come thick and fast and there are enough supporting characters given space to breathe and assist in subplots. Alan may be an unlikeable person — awkward, pedantic, oleaginous, tactless — with ultimate consideration only to Brand Alan, but it’s this brilliant dramatic irony that makes him loveable.