There is a chance, especially if you are living in America, that you may not know who Alan Partridge is. Played by Steve Coogan, Partridge is easily one of most popular personalities to emerge from England alongside David Brent and Ali G. Alan is a parody of the worst of British television hosts, complete with blatant self-promotion, an overinflated sense of importance, and just a total lack of skill at interviewing, broadcasting, or interaction with people in any form. First appearing on the brilliant radio news spoof On the Hour, Alan has endured as he’s gone from radio, to television, to his own memoirs, and even into his own film, Alpha Papa. The first time he appeared solo was in December of 1992, which means that Alan Partridge as a fully-formed character has just turned 25. Today, we look back at his first show, a radio chat show known as Knowing Me, Knowing You.
Not to be confused by the television version of the same name that would premiere two years later, Knowing Me, Knowing You marked the first time Alan was given more than two or three minutes to appear, and initially his creator wasn’t convinced it would work. In a recent interview, Coogan says that he didn’t believe Partridge “could sustain half an hour. There’s not enough of him.” One of his fellow On the Hour cast members, Patrick Marber, who had pitched the idea to Coogan and producer Armando Iannucci, managed to convince him otherwise by “interviewing” Alan, asking him probing questions about the details of his life, forcing Steve to plumb deeper into the depths of the character that he didn’t realize were there. Using this more three-dimensional version of Alan, as well as the other cast members of On the Hour to serve as Partridge’s guests on the show, BBC4 had a brand new program for their station.
One anecdote that comes up when Knowing Me, Knowing You comes up relates to the look of Alan. Obviously, since this was a radio show, the listeners at home weren’t able to picture Partridge, but the show was recorded in front of a live studio audience. On the day of recording the first episode of the show, Coogan ran out to the store, returned with a variety of golf sweaters, and swept his hair to the right, and the first stages of Alan Partridge were born.
Knowing Me, Knowing You is, at its core, a chat show, and as such it is the perfect venue for a bunch of British sketch performers. The show strikes a very fine balance with its guests. No matter who comes on as ABBA’s “Knowing Me, Knowing You” plays, Partridge is going to be the butt of the joke, but each of these guests elicits a different type of reaction from their host that causes the show to go off the rails. For example, the second episode of the show first brings out a nine-year-old child prodigy named Simon Fisher along with his father. Initially Alan is welcoming and excited to meet the young genius, but once he refers to the boy as “very unique” he’s rebuffed by the lad, owing to the fact that “one can not have gradations of uniqueness. One either is or is not unique.” This does not sit well with Alan, though he tries to laugh it off, and slowly the animosity between both of them grows until ultimately Alan slaps the child then apologizes, saying, “I’m sorry. I’m bad with kids. I’ve got a temper… But you are a little shit.”
His next guest is Janey Katz, a hypnotherapist. After a clumsy introduction that combines confused idioms (“She’s American as chocolate chip biscuits and mum’s apple tart”) and sexism (“…but that’s where comparisons with a tart must end, because she’s not a tart! … She’s a lady hypnotist with a set of pins that’ll hypnotize any bloke!”), he immediately stumbles into degrading her profession as a mere parlor trick. He then undergoes the process himself where he relives a few embarrassing situations from his childhood involving a local bully. Once he’s snapped out of it, he insists that he’s over those childhood incidents, especially since he has checked extensively over the years just how unsuccessful his bully is today, while he’s on BBC4! In a final example of his obliviousness, he plugs her book telling his listeners to pick it up and amuse themselves for hours by hypnotizing their friends. She protests, saying it’s a serious book, so he amends his plug and tells people to “slap it on top of Stephen Hawking’s book on your coffee table and impress your friends.”
His third guest is Nick Ford, a “bad boy” lawyer who has been in the papers lately. The interview is immediately off to a combative start when we learn that Nick has asked a producer to play “I Fought the Law” as he walks out instead of Alan’s preferred ABBA tune. He asks Nick to name names before singing the song himself and reintroducing the guest. Things get worse from there as Nick interprets Alan’s comments about his wardrobe as homophobic and Nick attempts to get Simon’s father to sue Alan for striking his child, at which point Simon corrects the lawyer, insisting that it wasn’t technically assault as Simon was directly provoking Partridge, which basically turns everyone against the boy. Flustered, Simon makes a grammatical error, saying “to who” when he means “to whom.” Alan pounces on this as he and Nick began chanting “Whom!” with such vigor that it causes the young boy to announce to his father that he has wet himself live on BBC4. And with that bombshell, Alan Partridge ends another episode of Knowing You, Knowing Me.
From radio, Coogan and Iannucci would then bring Knowing Me, Knowing You to television on BBC in 1994. In the final episodes of that series, Alan shoots and kills a guest with an antique rifle and attacks a BBC executive, which ends his chat show career. His follow-up series, I’m Alan Partridge, expands his world even more, following his day-to-day life after his wife has left him and his television career has completely dried up. Each series or special reveals a little more (often too much more) of Alan’s life and his refusal to see himself as anything less than perfect.
Perhaps the greatest element of Partridge is the number of levels one can enjoy him on. If you want just a satire of late night television or small-town radio, you can appreciate that. Or, if you’re more interested in the uncomfortableness of real life, Partridge led the way with the “cringe comedy” that would later continue in such shows as The Office and Curb Your Enthusiasm. But ultimately, like it or not, we see some of our worst qualities in Alan, but some of our good ones as well. He may have started as a buffoonish cartoon character, but gradually over his 25 years, he became more fleshed out, and viewers began to see themselves in him.
He’s still very much a buffoon, don’t get me wrong. But he’s our buffoon. Here’s to 25 more, Alan. Aha!