“I could get tables at a moments notice. I was stopped on the street by people telling me how ‘unbelievable’ my show was. I was hot and it felt goooooooood. And then, live on the air in the sixth and final episode of my chat show, I shot a man through the heart with a gun.”
— From Chapter 13, “Lift Off, Show-Wise”, of I, Partridge
Upon finishing I, Partridge on January 3rd I made the somewhat rash declaration that it would be the best book that I will read in 2012. I suspect that devoted Steve Coogan/Alan Partridge fans that get their hands on this endlessly quotable book will back me up. This sort of hyperbolic reaction is probably common from Americans who peg their comedic sensibilities to certain figures in the British comedy world (I don’t even need to go back a week in Splitsider’s archives to find an example of this in a profile of Simon Pegg and Jessica Hynes’ Spaced). As far as I’m concerned, these shows and comedians go beyond being just funny or clever into the realm of the brilliant and profound. However, with I, Partridge such exalted terms seem justified, as somehow Coogan (along with Armando Iannucci, Neil Gibbons, and Rob Gibbons) have perfected the Partridge voice nearly three decades since its inception and in its third medium.
Many first met Alan as the Sports Reporter on Chris Morris’ brilliant news parody The Day Today:
For Steve Coogan this case for artistic brilliance is a little easier to make given the range of his critical successes (from comedic turns on television in The Day Today, I’m Alan Partridge, and Saxondale to more dramatic film roles in 24-Hour Party People, A Cock and Bull Story, and most recently The Trip), each of which generates a new series of reflections on the man behind these creations. Would a mere comedian show up in The New York Review of Books and be written about thusly: “With his fetishistic parochialism, supreme literal-mindedness, and rancid bourgeois complacency, [Alan] Partridge was a parody not just of English talk show hosts but of contemporary England itself”?
In honor of the Republican primaries, Alan’s “rancid bourgeois complacency” as a debate moderator:
In John Lahr’s richly detailed 2007 profile for The New Yorker he muses, “Coogan’s characters are, in a way, his confessional,” later pausing to consider Coogan’s broad, philosophical conclusion that “Saxondale is a comic reflection on the existential challenge of his middle years.” This treatment validates ones belief that there is something of deep substance behind this man’s work.
As the book jacket promises, I, Partridge is “deeply respectful of the autobiography genre” and “has followed its conventions faithfully — remembering things that have happened in [Alan’s] life and writing about them in a roughly chronological order.” Though the book fleshes out a world behind Alan’s three major television roles on The Day Today, Knowing Me, Knowing You, and I’m Alan Partridge, in some respects it can work independent of any familiarity with the character. It is a brilliant subversion of the celebrity memoir, luxuriating in the absence of life defining traumas and successes. After a four page restaging of his struggles with childhood bully Steve McCombe, Alan triumphantly announces “McCombe rarely, if ever, strays into my consciousness now. But in some ways I thank him. The ribbing that he orchestrated…has given me a thick skin that has served me well. I grew a teak-tough, metaphorically bullet-proof hide, essential to the very real warzone that is broadcasting.” These literary flourishes/misfires and the relentless revisiting of past slights — especially by those in the British media landscape — work on their own merits. Like other successful character-driven comedy books (Wigfield by Amy Sedaris, Steven Colbert, and Paul Dinello comes to mind) the prose flows easily by not being dependent on a string of set-ups and punchlines, but rather by tone and voice.
But I find it hard to imagine sitting through the 300 plus pages of this book if you weren’t already a Partridge devotee. A character who we first meet on television often has an awkward transition to prose, but there are certain stylistic features of I, Partridge that capture Alan’s voice brilliantly. He has constructed his own soundtrack (Abba, The Cars, Wings, China Crisis), which he cues in a series of footnotes — a forum exploited to great effect on the topic of Alan’s repulsion/attraction to homosexuality (Incidentally, this is a topic that gives some legs to my friend’s claim that Rick Santorum has a little Alan Partridge vibe).
Alan on Bangkok Ladyboys:
Two sets of photos, many from Partridge’s long TV career, allow for some beautiful revisionist history. My favorite comes from a screenshot of the first episode of Knowing Me, Knowing You:
Me, Sue Lewis, a stable lad and a horse (second left). There were concerns that it might get spooked by the noise from Glen Ponder’s band and run into the audience. We knew there were going to be school kids in the front row, and Health and Safety estimated that if things went wrong, up to 20 children could be trampled before the horse could be lassoed and destroyed. In the event, however, the beast behaved impeccably. It was a credit to itself.
There is even an Index that gives one final coat to Alan’s particular form of self-obsession — the Partridge, Alan Gordon entry runs four pages and has subheadings such as “Fartridge” affair; inquisitiveness; daytime drinking, avoids; ‘when in Rome’; muscularity of physique; and high-brow/low-brow, switching between.
So why think this will be the best book that I’ll read in 2012? Surely there are weightier subjects to be treated in what will most likely be another turbulent year. Maybe it is because comedy writing and genre-satire are so difficult and it is such a rare pleasure to see them done well. Chapter 12, “Glen Ponder, Musician” is a master class in comedic economy and perfect example of how I, Partridge is able to play on our familiarity with the television shows without simply transcribing what we’ve already seen.
Here is Alan firing Glen on Knowing Me, Knowing You:
And here is how Alan writes about the subsequent lawsuit in the book:
After several years, Glen and I managed to patch up our differences. We shared the common ground of both despising our respective lawyers and would often laugh about how much we were spending on their unnecessary legal advice (Glen lost his flat as a result and lived in a YMCA for six months).
Or perhaps it is the peculiar completist mentality that is so prevalent amongst comedy fans (the pressure leading to the Arrested Development and Party Down movies are perfect examples of this). We’ve have been given plenty of material to build up our own images of Partridge and to see that image push back and take new forms is a wonderful thing. But, at its most basic level I, Partridge is an occasion to expand upon a character and sensibility that I and a good many others find tremendously (and consistently) funny and insightful. Instead of trotting him out for a cash grab from a loyal audience, Coogan and his co-conspirators have achieved what Alan would call enthusiastically call excellence. A high bar for 2012 indeed.
Michael Schapira is an occasional teacher and writer who was once called “totally un-American” by a student. He is not helping himself here.