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NYFF 2013: Steve Coogan revisits his most famous character in ‘Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa’

NYFF 2013: Steve Coogan revisits his most famous character in ‘Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa’

Alan Partridge: Alpha PapaAlanPartridge_poster

Written by Neil Gibbons, Rob Gibbons, Steve Coogan, Armando Iannucci, and Peter Baynham
Directed by Declan Lowney
UK, 2013

The subtitle for the new film Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa is intentionally, comically irrelevant. Movie posters can be found on the Internet promoting equally nonsense subtitles such as Gunbird and Hectic Danger Day, in keeping with the overblown confidence of the title character. The comically self-centered Partridge was first played by Steve Coogan about 20 years ago as a sports reporter on the BBC news parody program On the Hour, and has bounced around from parody news to sitcom to web-only video series before finally arriving on the big screen. Though Alan Partridge has found its way to American shores as part of the New York Film Festival, it compromises nothing for American audiences. This is among the most British of British comedies.

At the start of the film, Partridge has found his way into the mid-morning show for a small-town radio station. When a major conglomerate moves in and buys the station, long-time employees fear for their careers, and the aging Partridge hangs an older colleague (always-reliable character actor Colm Meaney) out to dry to save his job. When Meaney returns with a shotgun to take the station hostage, Partridge finds himself in the middle of a media circus: exactly where he’s always wanted to be.

The Britishness of this comedy lies in its rapid-fire dialogue. In a tradition that goes back at least as far as Monty Python, missing even one line of dialogue is likely to deprive an audience of a good laugh. It helps that the team of writers behind this film (including Coogan and Armando Iannucci, director of In the Loop and creator of HBO’s Veep) have worked on the Partridge character and his style of comedy all the way back to the beginning.


However, for an American unfamiliar with the character (such as this reviewer), the film is not at all unclear or cluttered with in-jokes. The characters are established easily and broadly, each one carving out the comic space that he or she will occupy for the remainder of the story. Although the idea of capitalism taking older workers and tossing them aside could be a heavy issue – observe the 2010 Oscar-bait drama The Company Men – here, it is as light and handled like a feather. The personal drama of these characters is tiny compared to the amount of comedy potential that is fulfilled.

Aside from one slapstick sequence with a nude Coogan, the direction matters very little. Scenes are broken down into a series of straight-on shots of characters delivering their dialogue, with the only exception being a West Wing-style “walk and talk” that openly and hilariously acknowledges the source material it is ripping off. British television veteran Declan Lowney doesn’t bungle any of it, but neither does he put any stamp on the film; that’s Coogan’s job, and he is the director of this project as much as anyone. Indeed, Coogan said during a press conference for the film in New York that he changed the ways scenes were shot to excise camera movements he found unnecessary.

If anyone has that right with any character, it’s Coogan with Partridge. He’s been playing the character for so long that it’s a British institution, to a degree that most American television characters cannot match (the closest equivalent might be Kelsey Grammer’s lengthy run as Frasier Crane). With that degree of familiarity going on, the biggest dangers would be for Alan Partridge to operate on autopilot, like a cash-in or a foregone conclusion. None of that occurs. Americans looking for rapid-fire, dialogue-heavy British comedy should not let the character’s history intimidate them, for the movie is so breezy and simple that it draws out laughs with no apparent effort at all.

-Mark Young


The New York Film Festival celebrates 51 years and runs from September 27 to October 13, 2013. For a complete schedule of films, screening times, and ticket information, please see the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s official site.