Alan Partridge: an invitation to sneer
The autobiography of the fictional broadcaster and all-round master of naff is undoubtedly funny, but, like creator Steve Coogan’s recent pronouncements, it is fuelled by large doses of liberal snobbery.
In the eyes of those accustomed to viewing themselves as right thinking but oh-so-left leaning, it’s definitely been a good year for Steve Coogan.
Back in February, he laid into the leader of Britain’s right-wing masses, Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson – for a crap joke about Mexicans no less. Better still, he also had a pop at the people who watch and enjoy Top Gear’s mix of cars and achingly politically incorrect banter. ‘They often remind me of the National Rifle Association in the US who, I’m sure we can all agree, are a bunch of nutters.’
However this was only the start of Steve’s mission to stick it to the thick. Come the summer, the gift that won’t stop giving self-styled liberals their illiberal fight – the phone-hacking scandal – gave Coogan a chance to impress Guardian readers. That’s right, on the BBC’s current affairs show Newsnight, Coogan gave both barrels to Britain’s tabloids, and trashed a long-fought-for liberty in the process. ‘The whole notion of press freedom’, he railed, ‘is a smokescreen for selling newspapers with tittle tattle’. Again, as with Top Gear, the target wasn’t just those who produce the product, but those who consume it, too, in this case, the tittle tattle-loving tabloid readers.
And then, in November, at the Leveson inquiry into press ethics, there Coogan was again criticising tabloid hacks, backed only by large parts of the liberal media and the British state. ‘Many other celebrities, for want of a better word, have told me that they agree with me and they would like to come (to the inquiry) but they don’t have the stomach for it and they fear what will happen.’
So quite the year for Coogan. And one in which it could be easy to forget that, professionally, he remains a great comic talent. Fortunately, there is currently a perfect reminder of that talent in the form of I, Partridge: We Need to Talk About Alan, an ‘autobiography’ of Coogan’s greatest comedic creation, ex-sports reporter and broadcaster Alan Partridge.
Written alongside Coogan’s long-time collaborators, Rob Gibbons, Neil Gibbons and Armando Iannucci, I, Partridge successfully recreates on the page a character that has worked so well on the radio and TV over the past 20 years: that is, the pompous, not-a-little malevolent, but ineffably tasteless character of Alan Partridge. As with similar albeit literary creations, from Charles Pooter to Adrian Mole, the lack of self-awareness, the ironic distance between what the character thinks of himself and how we are encouraged to view the character, is the key. And here it works beautifully.
Take his recollection of his colleagues at the long-defunct record retailers Our Price instore radio team: ‘Brian Golding. “Bonkers” Bri combined a wacky sense of humour with genuine mental illness and went on to co-host Drive Time on Signal Radio before killing himself in 1991.’ What Partridge takes for a sensitive, modern understanding of eccentricity reads as a piece of gloriously perfunctory insensitivity. Likewise, his appreciation of his childhood ‘guardian angels’, the Lambert family, fails to convey what Partridge thinks it does: ‘The father Trevor was an asthmatic, but what he lacked in being able to breathe quietly, he more than made up for with his parenting skills. He always found time not to hit his children and I thought that was tremendous.’
As that ‘tremendous’ indicates, Partridge’s hilariously contrived literariness – based on a mixture of ‘Clancy, Archer, Rushdie’ – is constantly undercut. ‘Thump, thump, thump, went my heart, like Phil Collins hitting one of his drums’, is his choice of simile for his first date with wife-to-be, Carol. Other attempts at lyricism fare little better in the midst of Partridge’s attention to superfluous, often car-related detail: ‘Pitter-patter goes the rain on the window. Pitter-patter, pitter-patter, and outside cars zoom up and down the road, some of them dropping down to second to turn right into Gayton Road.’ And alliteration? ‘I love alliteration. I love, love, love it. Alliteration just makes everything sound fantastic. I genuinely can’t think of anything with matching initials that I don’t like: Green Goddess, Hemel Hempstead, Bum Bags, Monster Mash, Krispy Kreme, Dirty Dozen, Peter Purves, Est Est Est, the SS, World Wide Web, Clear Cache.’ There’s a footnote for the SS: ‘More the font they used, rather than what they did which was pretty awful’.
I, Partridge also works as a satire of the celebrity memoir, particularly those of the ubiquitous abused, bullied and traumatised celebrity. As Partridge explains to the reader in true misery-lit style, his account will be ‘Searingly honest. Brilliantly honest. Painfully honest. Needlessly honest. Distressingly honest.’ Predictably, his anecdotes don’t quite measure up to Angela’s Ashes: ‘my home life was one of neglect and sadness. Mother was cold, distant. After school, between the ages of 13 and 14, I would routinely have to let myself into the house, where I’d be on my own, unfended for a minimum of 45 minutes, before she came home from working in a shoe shop.’ As for his ‘drink and drugs heck’, this is best grasped as A Million Little Pieces of Toblerone: ‘[S]ure, maybe there’s something glamorous about a boozeman swigging whiskey on a sidewalk or a junkie “chasing the dinosaur” in a squat, but take it from someone who knows: both physically and mentally, confectionery addiction is the worst kind of addiction there is. Nothing comes close to the shame, desperation and unsightly weight gain of chocoholism.’
But there’s something else here, too. Whether it is Partridge’s predilection for Murray Mints or his admiration for Redrow or Barratt homes, his education at East Anglia Polytechnic or his liking for C&A clothes, his is a carefully crafted invitation to sneer at what is nothing more than a parody of lower-middle-class aspiration. Created originally in the early 1990s as a caricature of the Elton Welsby-era sports presenter, Partridge has morphed over the past 20 years into a full-blown caricature of Britain’s supposedly silent but ignorant majority, to be laughed at for its suburban tastelessness and mocked for its supposedly right-ish politics. The only surprise with the Daily Mail reference is that comes so late in the book: ‘I sometimes flirt with the Telegraph or peep at The Times, but it’s with the Mail that I’ve stuck ever since [adulthood]. It really is a rock-solid daily. I especially love Richard Littlejohn. He doesn’t just shoot from the hip. He fires bazookas from it. Immigrants, travelling tinkers, and especially homosexuals – many of his pieces are so good I cut them out and laminate them. I keep them in my downstairs loo, a simple, wipe-clean tribute to one of the most progressive thinkers in the United Kingdom.’
And it is in this that we see in Partridge the same unashamed liberal snobbery so grimly on display during Hackgate and the current Leveson inquiry. Because as funny as Coogan’s Partridge is, it panders to the fantasies of those who believe, Tolkien-like, in middle England, who lambast Daily Mail readers as if this constituency were a social movement, who, at the last, love to dismiss vast swaths of the public as selfish, materialistic, energy-guzzling, immigrant-hating masses, each, no doubt, tabloid readers to a man. Little wonder the Guardian actually called Alan Partridge a pin-up for Daily Mail readers. In its editors’ minds, he really is.
Tim Black is editor of the spiked review of books.
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