There’s no true American analog for Steve Coogan’s Alan Partridge, a character that Coogan’s been playing for 30 years as of this month. Sure, the United States has long-running characters that blur the line between the persona and the portrayer. But a list of fictitious citizens with a detailed universe like Partridge’s 30-year career will be short: Pee-wee Herman, Ernest P. Worrell, and Jiminy Glick come close, yet they lack the continuity and malleability. Over three decades, Coogan has turned Alan into a hyper-specific parody of an aging British conservative and broadcaster. He’s such a part of U.K. culture that when Christopher Nolan sold the world on his James Bond riff, Tenet, he evoked the character, saying, “I know as much about the Bond films as Alan Partridge does.” His fellow Brits know that Alan is the country’s biggest Bond buff.
This might explain why Partridge’s work is notoriously hard to find in the United States. On its face, the character may be a tad too English for Americans, so there’s no market for official home video releases here. It’s unfortunate that Americans are only offered fleeting opportunities to meet the man. The most readily available portion of Alan’s library is the 2013 film Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa, which can be found on most major streaming platforms, including Amazon Prime, Kanopy, and Vudu (if you don’t mind ads, which Alan certainly doesn’t). Unfortunately, Alpha Papa isn’t the greatest starting point, and the rest of the catalog becomes very difficult to locate.
The first season of This Time With Alan Partridge, Coogan’s latest series, is available on Britbox, which you can watch during a free trial. We assume the latest season will also be available there soon. His earliest series, Knowing Me, Knowing You With Alan Partridge and I’m Alan Partridge, were both briefly available on HBO Max and can still be found on DVD. Though, if you’re looking to own the whole collection, you might want to pick up a region-free DVD player or search a very popular video service that rhymes with “MooMoob.”
In August 1991, Steve Coogan and Veep creator Armando Iannucci gave birth to Alan via the BBC Radio 4 news parody On The Hour and its television spin-off The Day Today. Alan was the show’s sports commentator, and his work must’ve impressed execs at the BBC because they awarded him his own show, Knowing Me, Knowing You With Alan Partridge, a late-night chat show, which became both a TV and radio interview series. It was a huge mistake for the BBC. In the defining moment of Alan’s career, he shoots an elderly restaurant critic dead on the air before being removed from the network.
Coogan and Iannucci’s follow-up, I’m Alan Partridge, sees the character “bouncing back.” While living at a roadside motel and attempting to capitalize on his modest notoriety, he eventually lands a DJ gig on the local radio station Radio Norwich, where he hosts “Up With The Partridge” and “Norfolk Nights.” Alan’s moderate success, thanks to classic segments like “Alan’s Deep Bath” and “Cock-a-Doodle-Who?,” keep him on the air for the next decade. When we catch up with him again in 2010’s Mid Morning Matters With Alan Partridge, he’s hosting the titular program, which now airs on the local radio station North Norfolk Digital, North Norfolk’s best music mix. The job lands him two documentary specials, leading to a second chance at the BBC, where he becomes the replacement host for This Time, an evening news magazine show, which is where we find our hero today.
There are two distinct eras of Alan Partridge: The Iannucci-Coogan period, which runs from On The Hour through the first season of Mid Morning Matters, and the Partridge projects that followed, which are a collaboration between Coogan and brothers Rob and Neil Gibbons. In Alan’s early incarnation, Iannucci and Coogan focus on his social shortcomings, pushing the limits of cringe comedy and good taste. Alan is meaner, crasser, and less sympathetic during this time. These seasons reflect the tight rope Iannucci was walking on his political comedies The Thick Of It and Veep, which often feature offensive insults as characterization, more damning for the person spouting the insult than the one who receives it.
The modern era saw Iannucci exit to focus on Veep, and Coogan and the Gibbons brothers making Alan a more grounded person. The Gibbons era is not a reaction to Iannucci, but there is a difference between the two. As Coogan’s age and Partridge’s age began to line up in the last decade, the trio softened the character, showing sides of his personality we’d never encountered before. During segments, he recalls cherished memories with his grandfather and reflects upon the confidence he felt during his first marriage. He occasionally borders on a legitimate interviewer, too, digging into questions while shrugging off his guests’ defenses. In one episode of Mid Morning Matters, Alan disarms a Christopher Hitchens-type free speech crusader, who emotionally shares a story about a real hero in his life. By the time Mid Morning Matters’ second season aired in 2016, Alan’s repression of his sensitive, empathetic side had become a regular and welcome occurrence. He’s the result of generations of socialization that taught him and men like him to squash the emotions that do not reflect traditional masculinity. He’s always a racist moron, but like many American buffoons, whether they be Michael Scott or Kenny Powers, the more time you spend with him, the more his humanity reveals itself.
Alan Partridge’s Scissored Isle, This Time With Alan Partridge
Every Alan Partridge series or special is a winner, so there is no wrong way to dive in. Don’t let his history scare you—each installment provides enough runway to understand the character basics. Still, some places may be more welcoming to contemporary viewers than others. With that in mind, we recommend starting with the 2016 mockumentary Alan Partridge’s Scissored Isle. This special is a quick introduction to what Alan does best: hosting and bantering. Modeled after British travelogues (think Top Gear), Scissored Isle sees Partridge attempting to understand the “schasm” (a portmanteau of “schism” and “chasm”) between the haves and “haven’ts” of Britain. Bordering on a sketch movie, the special sees Alan work in a supermarket, go dumpster diving with a freegan, and accost a local moneylender over exorbitant rates of interest. Welcome To The Places Of My Life premiered four years earlier, but it feels like a lesser version of Scissored Isle, as if all the best material went into the latter.
Coogan and the Gibbons brothers bring a similar energy to This Time With Alan Partridge. His first BBC series in about 20 years, This Time is a return to form for Alan, who hosts a live studio audience for the first time since Knowing Me, Knowing You. However, the character is sharper and more incisive than he was 30 years ago, with greater pathos and dimensionality. As he closed out his third decade in the role, Coogan and company have made Alan more lifelike, grounding him with real emotion. They also carry over the sketch show vibe from the mockumentaries, working a running storyline throughout the season in between various segments that get Alan interviewing, reporting, investigating, and accidentally making advertisements for the IRA.
The writing was never funnier, but Coogan’s performance is on another level. Not only does Coogan understand modern culture, but he understands how people in the media talk about modern culture. His turns of phrase, speech patterns, ridiculously labored alliterations, and physical gestures are always in the pocket, nailing the sound of corporate puppets trying to be hip while being a step or two behind society. In one episode, following the death of a media star, Alan practices shrugging off his pre-written sentiments so that he can “speak from the heart.” The end result (him asking the audience, with a forced sigh, “guys, do you mind if I speak from the heart?”) recalls market-tested attempts at sorrow. It leads one to wonder how much time Coogan spends studying the people that Alan respects—people with the job titles “thought leader,” “finance guru,” or “director of marketing and communications.”
Knowing Me, Knowing You With Alan Partridge, I’m Alan Partridge
Many Partridge fans will suggest starting from the beginning (British fans will probably hate our recommendation to start with new stuff first), but Knowing Me, Knowing You can be a bit of a minefield. There’s plenty to marvel at, whether it’s Alan’s attempts to innovate (becoming the first late-night show with a hot tub) and try out original segments, such as “Alan’s Big Pocket.” But the standout of the season is a French punk mime troupe called “Cirque du Clunes.” Their silent but violent act creates one of the many times that Coogan’s cast really wow viewers with their physical comedy.
The follow-up series I’m Alan Partridge is probably the most traditional show of the bunch. A true-blue sitcom, I’m Alan Partridge’s first season sees Alan attempting to recapture his fame while making the people around him miserable, particularly his personal assistant Lynn (Felicity Montagu), one of the few characters to jump from series to series. Much of Partridge’s history comes from these two seasons, which unpack his personal life. The show doesn’t try any formal tricks, instead relying on Coogan and Iannucci’s ace writing and Coogan’s unreal commitment to the character to drive it forward.
While Knowing Me, Knowing You and I’m Alan Partridge are unbelievably funny and vastly influential, it only seems fair to alert newcomers to what they’re getting into, which is that Alan Partridge can be transphobic, homophobic, sexist, and racist. Coogan and his company players know their targets and make Alan play the daft bigot against a changing culture. Yet moments into KMKY’s second episode, for example, Alan is disgusted by
a transgender Playboy columnist played by Minnie Driver. Though it is more sympathetic to Driver’s character than other comedies of the period (such as the ending of Ace Ventura: Pet Detective), it doesn’t excuse the transphobia on display. Alan Partridge is always prejudiced—Coogan and the Gibbons brothers just find better, funnier, and more nuanced ways of expressing it. In these early outings, though, the politics of the period make it more tempting to tap out.
Mid Morning Matters With Alan Partridge, From The Oasthouse: The Alan Partridge Podcast
2010’s Mid Morning Matters With Alan Partridge is a formal experiment. Told from the perspective of the North Norfolk Digital webcam, the show is shot from a low-angle camera on Alan’s desk, a higher angle in the corner of the room, and sometimes from the adjacent studio. Though Mid Morning Matters was produced initially as a Foster’s beer promotion before going to YouTube and receiving a proper series order, it’s very much its own brilliant thing. Alan is best when working as a presenter or host, and Coogan, Iannucci, and the Gibbons excel when working with spatial limitations. The constraints open a world of jokes for the writers, who succeed in making the most out of the small space. Even Coogan’s physical comedy, some of the best in the business, gets a workout. Do yourself a favor and watch Alan peel and eat an orange in one fluid motion. It’s perhaps the most daring bit of comedy since Buster Keaton let a house fall on him. (Alan could’ve choked!) There are also quieter moments of absolute lunacy that help build out Alan’s character. There are few things more Partridge-esque than watching him wrestle with Moviefone over a solo ticket for an afternoon screening of Inception. Honestly, this could fit in the Introductory or Intermediate courses if not for the visual conceit, which might scare some new fans off. It’s more likely people stick with the character if they already like him.
With This Time on hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Coogan and the Gibbons brothers produced an 18-part podcast series for Audible. Both a narrative exercise and a parody of several podcast forms (self-help, business, true crime), From The Oasthouse is not just one of Partridge’s best outings to date; it’s also some of the best comedy podcasting, period. Though, it’s unlikely that newbies will want to spend six hours with a character they don’t know very well. This goes for the Partridge memoir, I, Partridge: We Need To Talk About Alan, as well. For a taste of I, Partridge, the hour-long special Open Books With Martin Bryce offers readings and discussion from Alan himself. Additionally, both of his books (I, Partridge and the follow-up, Nomad) are available in audiobook form and read in character. They’re both painfully funny.
Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa, The Day Today, On The Hour
Though pitched as one of the first attempts to get American audiences aboard the carriage Partridge, Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa is the closest the character gets to fan service. Unfamiliar audiences might find the film mildly funny. Knowledgeable fans will have a better time with it, though.
As seen on The Day Today and On The Hour, early-era Partridge is also very much worth your time. The shows are barely canon, but no one would regret checking them out.
1. Alan Partridge’s Scissored Isle: The most accessible entry point is also the funniest. This special gives you everything you need to know about the character, and shows all of Coogan’s strengths (from wordplay to physical comedy to pathos) without getting bogged down in history. Just a clean entry point.
2. This Time With Alan Partridge: His latest series, which is currently airing a second season, does away with any worries that the character is growing stale. Coogan’s endless commitment to playing Alan is beautifully displayed here. The show feels fresher and more innovative than almost any comedy on TV today (Suggested readings: Episode 1, Episode 5)
3. I’m Alan Partridge: The ur-text of modern cringe comedy, I’m Alan Partridge only stumbles because its aim and its looks are a little dated. But Coogan’s on fire from start to end. (Suggested readings: “To Kill A Mocking Alan,” “The Colour Of Alan”)
4. Mid Morning Matters With Alan Partridge: Alan is best when he’s working, and that’s what this is. Don’t be put off by the formal device of the show. Before you know it, you’ll see the stationary camera as an asset, providing some of the strangest and funniest views of Norwich’s best-loved broadcaster. (Suggested reading: “Alan’s Sad Story/King And Car”, “Grundy + Snow”)
5. Knowing Me, Knowing You With Alan Partridge: You owe it to yourself to see where it all began. Much spottier than the other shows, but you can still see genius break through frequently. And, again, that mime act is unbeatable. (Suggested reading: Show 6)