Alan Partridge V Larry Sanders
Billen, Andrew, New Statesman (1996)
When Alan Partridge began his radio talk show, Knowing Me, Knowing You, five years ago there were Radio 4 listeners who believed there really was a chat show host as boorish and incompetent as Partridge. When the show moved to television - both in Partridge's fictional biography and in real life - the illusion evaporated. Coogan did not look as old as Partridge sounded. The show, with its daft sets, was a phoney.
In I'm Alan Partridge (BBC2, 10pm, Mondays), the oaf has returned to his radio roots. "It's 4.25 am," he explains to Radio Norwich listeners, although only Partridge could be surprised at being consigned the graveyard shift. His television series has not been recommissioned, a fact he can just about accept but cannot admit to his staff, for whom he believes he is a hero. Instead of declaring them redundant en masse he picks them off one by one, preferring to be thought a tyrant than a failure.
I'm Alan Partridge is a comedy of manners, a satire on a new Briton whose mind has been furnished by Radio 2. Every morning he serves his listeners a curious fact, such as that crab sticks contain no crab, facts that add up to nothing. He wears string-back driving gloves for that "extra purchase" and speaks with authority when he celebrates the "Saniflow 33" chemical toilet installed in the Norfolk Broads cruiser he is advertising. Yet he thinks a throat cancer survivor's voice box is a toy shop novelty.
Cursed with a DJ's fluency that nevertheless splutters out half-way through third sentences, Partridge knows the words for everything and the meaning of nothing. Like Bottom being introduced to Mustard Seed and Cobweb, when faced with a more inflected verbal world, he bolts into literalism. Thanking his sluttish mistress Jill for their one "stolen afternoon" together he reminds her, "but it was stolen and must be given back".
Conversely, when faced with too much reality, Partridge escapes into fantasy: witness the sequences where he gyrates as an exotic dancer. His innocently bizarre imagination leads him into episodes of almost surreal inspiration, as when he takes Jill, to "a cracking owl sanctuary I know".
Having been reduced, as I very rarely am, to tears of laughter by this programme, I am loath to find fault with it. Duty calls, however. The fictional return has reinvigorated Coogan, but for his co-writers, Armando Iannucci and Dominic Brigstocke, it also signals a formal retreat. This is not comedy drama masquerading as live talk, but a conventional sitcom complete with studio audience. …