There are dark rumblings abroad in the offices of English local radio station North Norfolk Digital, which serves the North Norfolk area with music and chat, much of it rather twee. However, there's rumours of a takeover which will see the output modernised, and many of the staff there are worried about what that will mean to their jobs, although one of the DJs is putting a brave face on it, not seeing a revamp as a bad thing if it means he can stay on. Alan Partridge (Steve Coogan), for it is he, may not be too comfortable with the zoo radio format which will now precede his Mid-Morning Matters show, but he's confident about his job security. Late night DJ Pat Farrell (Colm Meaney) on the other hand...
Alan Partridge was a character who began as a lampooning of sport reporters on the spoof radio comedy On the Hour, not the most mainstream of origins, to become, by the point his movie Alpha Papa was released, something of an unlikely British institution. Part of the reason for that appeal had been his ability to change depending on the format of the vehicle Coogan and his fellow writers, among them Peter Baynham and Armando Iannucci, dreamt up for him, be they parody chat show, sitcom, or a pretend radio series actually broadcast on the internet, which had Alan moving with the times to eke out his living on the most neglected of media, yet ones audiences were all too familar with.
But of course, savvy on the part of the writers about where to place him next wasn't the whole story, as seen in the inevitable movie which arrived over twenty years after Partridge had made his debut, springing from the minds of the successors to the United Kingdom's alternative comedy scene of the eighties. What made the character the success he was was quite simple: the British could not get enough of embarrassment. Whether he's embarrassing himself or others, but mostly himself even if he didn't twig, Alan was perfect for conveying the fear of social mortification the Brits feel about saying or doing the wrong thing in public situations, private ones too: as long as it was him putting his foot in it, we could easily laugh at his lack of aptitude.
Possibly the funniest television series this team made was 1997's I'm Alan Partridge, which took a documentary approach (without being an actual documentary) to its subject and saw the protagonist as his lowest ebb. A genuinely hilarious comedy of awkwardness, ever since Coogan and company found it difficult to top, with the second series a notably poor quality successor (the only really funny moment involved Alan repeatedly shouting "Dan!"). Recognising the need to recharge some humorous batteries, it was a while before Partridge returned in the web-based Mid-Morning Matters which in a way harkened back to the radio roots of the character, and served as a set-up for the movie two years later, which was promptly embraced by the Brits once again.
There were grumbles that the comedy had become slicker and more mainstream by this stage (weirdly, Alan looked younger), and it was accurate to say a great deal of Alpha Papa was decidedly televisual in a way that translating a sitcom to the big screen can only be - veteran TV director Declan Lowney of Father Ted fame was at the helm - especially from this country where television comedy thrived far more than its cinematic equivalent, which made it odd that so many of its talents should aspire to that. Taking the form of a siege at the radio station as Pat reacts badly to losing his job, there were plenty of opportunities to mock Alan's parochial point of view, only here we were eventually asked to see him as a heroic figure, still an object of mockery but one who had the potential to save the day too, which tended to work against the original concept.
But if this was an Alan ever-changing, the important thing was whether he was funny, and though Alpha Papa wore out its welcome a little, the relief for the fans was that he was able to make them laugh as much as they would want. There were returns to the franchise for old characters such as Lynn the P.A. (Felicity Montagu) who gets a makeover courtesy of a TV crew, and Geordie Michael (Simon Greenall) who helps Alan out but does get disappointingly little to do in a story which juggled a number of newer characters - Tim Key returned as Simon, the radio sidekick from the webisodes - yet kept the focus on how they react to an Alan who basks in the warmth of a situation which could paint him as a hero, the go-between for Pat and the cops. With a light satire on facile media (and a facile public who consume it) to take or leave, and an even more tentative rumination on the culture which leaves vast swathes of people on the scrapheap, professionally and otherwise, mostly you chuckled at Alan's foolishness while cringing at any sympathy you might have with him. Worth it for Cuddly Toy.