Alan Partridge returns to the BBC in time for Brexit

Presenter’s shambling persona is perfect for our political moment, says Steve Coogan

The official trailer for This Time with Alan Partridge, starring Steve Cooogan. Video: BBC

Last time Alan Partridge hosted a primetime BBC show, he was sacked live on air for punching his boss in the face with a turkey. Now that the world has "realigned itself along Alan lines", Norfolk's most famous radio DJ returns from years in the wilderness with This Time with Alan Partridge.

Steve Coogan said it "feels right" for his character to return now, particularly given Brexit: "There might be a missive at the BBC saying that a certain area of the viewing audience had been disenfranchised … Alan potentially represents that. You can imagine them thinking we might as well give this guy another bite of the cherry."

In an act of arch self-satire that rivals its own W1A, the BBC has brought Partridge back to front a live One Show-style magazine programme. Partridge becomes the stand-in presenter after the beloved host falls ill. "He didn't want to be back at the BBC," said Coogan, "but when an opportunity presents itself, he had to jump at it."

His creation has morphed over 25 years from "unreconstructed, uber-Conservative little Englander" to a more nuanced figure. "Now he's a bit more like David Cameron. He's economically conservative but he understands you've got to be socially liberal. He tries to embrace things and tries to be 'on message' … but he's not really."


Mocking people

The humour has moved beyond just mocking people who are intolerant. “It’s funnier to go for people who are attempting to adopt what is known as correct thinking and not quite getting it right.” Today’s woke world is rich pickings for Partridge: “He does try to be in tune with the zeitgeist. You don’t feel like you’re flogging a dead horse because you can adapt him to the times and his attitudes will adapt.”

Originally created by Coogan with Armando Iannucci and Patrick Marber for the Radio 4 comedy On the Hour in 1991, Partridge has become one of the most popular comedy characters of all time, with shows including I'm Alan Partridge and Knowing Me, Knowing You. More recently, Coogan has worked with the writers Neil and Rob Gibbons on the film Alpha Papa and spoof memoirs I, Partridge and Nomad, as well as defecting to Sky with shows such as Mid Morning Matters and Scissored Isle.

In fact, Partridge is so familiar to fans the production can essentially rest on its laurels. "You can just remove all the comedy and have Alan looking seriously at the camera," said Neil Gibbons, and be left with nothing more than "the anticipation of what he's going to do."

Hand hygiene

The magazine show format lets viewers see Partridge's rambles during live takes, as well as between-takes shots of his ego being soothed by Lynn, his long-suffering assistant. It also features Partridgean tirades on everything from hand hygiene (leading him to lurk outside the BBC toilets doing spot-checks on colleagues) to hacking.

There was one distinct problem of putting him in that setup, though, said Gibbons: “In the early days of Alan, there was a tightrope he was walking because there was an expectation of professionalism. If someone fluffed a line or got someone’s name wrong or said something stupid, it was mortifying. But nowadays, those are the sort of people who are given jobs on TV.”

He likened Partridge to presenters such as Piers Morgan. "The producers of Good Morning Britain are not tearing their hair out thinking: 'I wish he'd stop saying something offensive.' They're thinking: 'That's why he's on the show.' We had to ignore that, because if you put Alan in a world where his crass buffoonery is part of the selling point, there's nowhere for him to fall." – Guardian

This Time with Alan Partridge starts on BBC One on 25 February at 9.30pm