As a dedicated fan, I am delighted and relieved to report that Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa is miles ahead of the summer’s competition in terms of laughs. In a season of apocalyptic comedies, it’s oddly reassuring that there’s actually more humour in 89 minutes of silliness set almost entirely in a Norwich radio station.
Steve Coogan first played Partridge on Radio 4 in 1991 as an incompetent radio reporter, and the character has inevitably risen to the big screen – fittingly, still in the world of radio. After two decades, the persona is so beautifully crafted (without over-exposure) that he easily fills up the running time. Similarly, I imagine newcomers will only need a few minutes to appreciate the local DJ’s traits: a very minor celebrity trapped in a circle of arrogance, pathos and loneliness. But there’s so much more to the character, and Alpha Papa throws in a surprisingly dangerous premise that would never suit the TV platforms.
Set at North Norfolk Digital, a sacked DJ (Colm Meaney) takes the building hostage and hogs the airwaves. Meaney’s bitter DJ informs the police he will only negotiate with his ex-colleague, Partridge, who now has the chance to save the day – but by ending the siege, or sticking up for a fellow supporter of old-fashioned radio?
As Dog Day Afternoon (and to a lesser extent Airheads) proved, Stockholm Syndrome is a lubricant for tense humour (Tim Key is forced to joke at gunpoint), which is where Partridge’s character has always thrived – making accidentally offensive comments in a nervous atmosphere, whether on TV, radio or pitching ideas to the BBC’s commissioning editor. When hostages open up, it becomes a sudden death version of The Breakfast Club with an even cheesier soundtrack.
The script boasts an astounding gag rate that had me laughing fairly consistently. My packed screening suggests other journalists felt the same way. It’s the kind of rapid comedy that you can tell requires repeated viewing, which wasn’t always the rhythm achieved by Partridge’s early laughter-track vehicles or the semi-improvised Mid Morning Matters. Partridge has always been based on verbal humour, having originated from two radio series and inspiring an autobiography, and the dialogue flourishes in the film’s editing.
It doesn’t all work. The two moments that spring to mind are moments of physical (and lavatorial) humour that completely flop. I’m also still unsure if any of it justifies the transition to big screen, other it being funny enough that paying audiences won’t mind.
There’s undenable joy at how Coogan inhabits Partridge in a much more natural manner than any of his real-life appearances. The supporting cast are similarly excellent, with return appearances from the likes of Lynn (Felicity Montagu) and Michael (Simon Greenall). So many small details are faultless, from the character-specific soundtrack to the anti-Hollywood setting of Norwich.
Alpha Papa is undoubtedly the most quotable film I’ve seen this year. Partridge fans will be entertained, and I suspect fans of comedy will feel the same way.