Upgrading a TV character or show to feature film status is often a tricky if not misguided affair, especially in the realms of comedy. Fundamentally the two formats serve different functions, and where half an hour of something can be just about right, 90+ minutes can see certain jokes wear crushingly thin. And whilst Steve Coogan’s Alan Partridge is one of our more robust comedic treasures, its tough to push past failures from the mind.
The League Of Gentlemen’s Apocalypse fell short of the mark and not for a lack of ambition, whilst the less said about the likes of Kevin and Perry Go Large or The Inbetweeners Movie the better. Let alone such, ahem, classics as On The Buses. In short, Alan Partridge Alpha Papa was never a sure thing, and I’ve been tentative about the whole project throughout its long gestation.
Full disclosure; I’m a big fan of Coogan’s down-on-his-luck chat show host. Exiled to local radio in Norwich, the two runs of I’m Alan Partridge were superb – they’ve stood the test of time and remain as deliciously cringe-worthy as they are quotable. Such glowing previous form leaves Alpha Papa with a lot to live up to. Nevertheless, following the heavy promotion of the (admittedly very good) trailer, I entered this one as a cautious optimist.
I haven’t been let down. Though it takes a little time to find a rhythm, Alpha Papa is likely to appease the fan base who hold the ageing broadcaster in such high regard. The opening is a little stilted; the credits play over Alan miming to Roachford as he warns fellow commuters to turn off their fog lights. Though it’s purpose is filler to get those titles out of the way it still feels like a diminished callback to the Partridge of yore, playing air bass to Gary Numan. Initially one might be forgiven for thinking we’re about to run through a cycle of old gags in new clothes.
However things hit a stride once the main premise kicks into gear, and sees Partridge take a tonal shift from the TV show thanks to a plot that lands somewhere between Dog Day Afternoon and Airheads. Corporate restructuring has led Partridge to recommend a fellow veteran disc jockey, Pat Farrell (Colm Meaney), be fired in order to save his own skin. Farrell reacts badly to this, returning to the station with a shotgun and creating a hostage situation. Somehow Partridge gets the job of negotiator, acting as a go-between for the police.
Most of the Partridge alumni are involved. There’s Dave Clifton (Phil Cornwell), looking particularly gaunt following a downhill slide into substance abuse from which, one suspects, he hasn’t completely bounced back; there’s Michael (Simon Greenall) who has swapped a BP garage uniform for that of a security guard; and of course there’s Partridge’s ever-doting PA Lynn (Felicity Montagu). True, all signs of ‘Ye House’ and Sonya have been excised, but neither are particularly missed.
Coogan and his creative team wisely stick to jokes and Partridgeisms to fill-out the majority of the running time, letting the actual ‘plot’ of a siege hang loose in order to fit their needs. As such the bulk of the film ticks over breezily, even gaining momentum once Alan clocks that he can swing the press coverage to his advantage. Happily the end result is that laughs are pretty much guaranteed. This is a genuinely funny film that rarely gets too bogged down in its high concept. The concern here is less for set pieces than for overall consistency. Nevertheless, there is a hysterical set-up involving a window, a pair of trousers and (un)timely paparazzi.
Following the template of Dog Day Afternoon further is the final stretch which breaks the film free of the confines of the hostage site in order for a less predictable conclusion – one which toys cannily with fans’ fears that this could be a curtain call for Norfolk’s Maddest Man, whilst also featuring a ridiculously slow ‘hot pursuit’ and a gloriously physical moment of nonsense from Michael (Greenall’s Geordie continues to be the only character who can be counted on to steal a scene and Coogan appears happy to let him).
Occasionally there’s a line or turn of phrase that seems slightly out of step with Partridge’s past form, and there’s a sense that Alan (and to a lesser extent Lynn) has been given more youthful traits than we’ve seen previously, but overall Alpha Papa is a success and a welcome one. With Richard Curtis’ nauseating-looking About Time just around the bend, if you’re inclined to shell out for a cinema ticket this summer, Coogan’s character piece is surely the safer bet.
It might not quite feel like a balls-to-the-wall classic, Felicity Montagu’s Lynn feels a little sidelined, and the cringe-factor of the show has been dialled down a shade (presumably to broaden appeal), but there’s nothing particularly wrong with anything on offer in Alpha Papa. Unless you find the character insufferable, you’ll likely have a ruddy good time. I’m Alan Partridge is still the character’s crowing glory, but this movie will sit beside it just fine.
And isn’t that exactly what we were all hoping for? Abso-bloody-exactly.