Today: June 12, 2024

Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa

There have been rumours of an Alan Partridge film for nearly as long as there have been Alan Partridge TV series. Trapped in development hell, the project changed and changed again as Alan himself was re-invented by his creators. Over the years, Alan has evolved from a deadpan spoof of sports reporting to a scathing critique of minor celebrity before finally coming to rest as a grotesque comedy dad made up of equal parts self-importance, horrific taste and shameful internal life. The problem is that while this process has transformed Partridge into a truly memorable 21st Century comedy grotesque, it has also served to make him a less accessible character, as recent Alan vehicles such as I, Partridge and Welcome to the Places of My Life draw much of their comedy from not only the audience’s familiarity with the character but also the details of his life explored in previous projects; the more the writers refine Partridge, the less suitable a subject he became for mass-market cinematic adaptation. Though far from a complete failure, Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa shows every sign of a conflicted creative history.

The film opens with a corporate takeover of the digital radio station that employs Steve Coogan’s Alan. Supremely confident in his own popularity, Alan barges into the boardroom in an effort to protect his colleagues but the sudden realisation that he himself might lose his job prompts him to immediately throw his colleague Pat Farrell (Colm Meaney) under the bus. Depressed and broken, Farrell takes everyone hostage and demands that his old friend Alan serve as an intermediary between him and the police. Initially terrified, Alan soon realises that his role in the siege has generated a lot of media interest and so he is trapped between the desire to keep the siege running for as long as possible and the desire to keep out of Farrell’s way lest the maniac discover who was really responsible for getting him fired.

Most DVD releases contain making-of documentaries that are really little more than advertising designed to convince everyone that actors and crew all had an amazing time making the film. Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa breaks violently with that tradition by inadvertently laying bare the film’s tortured production history. The first warning sign appears when Steve Coogan apologises to his fellow actors for the lack of a finished script. From there we move on to talk about on-camera improvisation and some absolutely extraordinary footage in which Colm Meaney appears to be working out his character’s motivations on set while other actors mention the fact that they were frequently given their lines on the morning on which they were due to film the scene. This lack of a clear vision going into the project is evident not only in the sloppy narrative but also the comparative weakness of many of the jokes. Compared to your average cinematic comedy or TV sitcom, this film’s gag-rate is surprisingly low and when the jokes do come they invariably feel as though they could have been improved by a couple of re-writes. In fact, aside from a few good lines and a genuinely funny dream sequence, Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa is not a particularly funny film. It is not only less funny and less well made than such recent comedies as Bridesmaids, it is significantly less funny than Michael Lehmann’s 1994 comedy Airheads, whose plot is almost identical to that of Alpha Papa.

The main problem is that, while the film takes its cues from the series in attempting to draw its comedy from the characters, much of the film’s characterisation feels sloppy and unconvincing. For example, when we first meet Pat Farrell, he is calm and thoughtful about the possibility of losing his job. The next time we see him, he is dressed as a Mexican bandito and wielding a shotgun. This lack of clear characterisation not only undermines Meaney’s performance, it also disrupts the film’s comedic energies as it is impossible to construct character comedy from characters with no fixed personality or motivation. This lack of care and attention is also evident in the way that the character of Alan seems to wander aimlessly between self-serving cowardice and arrogant professionalism with no real indication as to why his attitude should change so drastically. This lack of consistent characterisation is made doubly frustrating by the fact that Alan’s sidekicks and foils are chronically underused throughout the film. Rather than following the TV series and using Felicity Montagu’s Lynn and Tim Key’s Sidekick Simon as means of exploring Partridge’s twisted inner life, the film relegates both characters to providing simplistic sight gags about silly hats and too much make-up.

Visually, Alpha Papa is rather unimpressive as the decision to have most of the action take place inside the radio station means that the Alan Partridge film actually feels significantly less cinematic than the average Alan TV show. Part of the blame can be levelled at a script that locks the film in three rooms for the majority of its running time but one can also point to the decision to use Declan Lowney as a director despite his lack of cinematic experience. In fact, the DVD extras provide some insight into this problem as Coogan is shown browbeating and undermining his director at almost every turn. Coogan is undoubtedly a great performer and a talented writer but he is not a director and this project clearly needed someone to a) demand a finished script and b) step back from the continuous re-writes and rounds of improvisation and look at the film as a whole.

Though not without its good moments, Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa is a wasted opportunity. Under-written, under-thought and under-directed, this is a textbook example of what can happen when you allow a single actor to dominate all aspects of production. Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa lists five separate writers and yet none of them managed to assemble a final script suggesting that this project never really left development hell.

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