Until now, I have somehow managed to never see any of Steve Coogan’s best known character Alan Partridge. I can’t even remember seeing any clips, although surely I have! And yet, when the trailers for Alpha Papa started doing the rounds I knew it was a comedy that I just had to see.
In Alpha Papa, Alan Partridge is happily DJ-ing on his mid-morning show at North Norfolk Digital when a company takes over and turns it into Shape: The Way You Want It To Be. He is initially not remotely bothered, but night shift DJ Pat Farrell (Colm Meaney) is paranoid, forces Alan to talk to the bosses and ends up fired himself, whereupon he takes hostages at the office party and forces Alan to be his go-between with the police. Pretty dramatic stuff for a comedy!
And yet it gels together perfectly. The presence of guns and the police provide ample opportunities for more violently physical comedy than is often the case, as best seen in the final showdown, and every single one of Alan’s interactions with the police is delightfully awkward. A good one is when the plan changes and Alan has to take pizza boxes inside to Pat instead of the police: “Top one.” “Yeah, top one mate.”
I presume this is standard for Alan Partridge, but there are all sorts of brilliant one liners sprinkled throughout, and even whole radio conversations based on making stupid jokes; personal favourites are Pat’s delightfully simple “I Googled it on Yahoo” and basically everything Simon (an understated Tim Key) says.
Even ignoring the comedy side of things, one of the film’s biggest strengths is something that many forget about as soon as the door blocks it out behind them: the music. Opening with some very foreboding (as described by Partridge) sacred music, we are put on edge as it’s not what we were expecting before we zoom into the studio and find out that it was diegetic music from the radio. Similarly, the recurring use of ‘Always On My Mind’ at some crucial points in the story makes the emotional side of the song even more poignant, and is also appropriate for two radio DJs, as Alan and Pat work with and think about music like this everyday. Even the credits focus on music, as we get some fun juxtaposition between the taste of Alan and that of a much younger generation.
Although I’ve never spent any time with Coogan’s most famous character before now, that didn’t matter as the film was totally accessible; perhaps there were things like subtle nuances to Partridge and some in-jokes, but nothing to ever make the casual viewer feel excluded.
This is absolutely to the film’s strength, because it never compromises, and every single character has their own worth: particularly Alan’s “executive assistant” Lynn who got ideas above her station, corporate man Jason who can’t say “waa waa” right and the two police officers in charge of the siege who are both totally deadpan.
British comedies are generally seen as being quite small-scale, so for Alpha Papa to succeed like this with the inclusion of rifles, bulletproof vests and a (very slow) police chase, it is proof that such a balance of big ideas and plain good comedy is perfectly possible. It also shows how casual viewers need never be excluded from a previously known brand; if anything, they can be welcomed in with open arms and then let loose to buy boxsets and practise the Partridge talk.