It's strange to think that Steve Coogan's alter ego, incompetent broadcaster Alan Partridge, has only appeared in a handful of TV programmes actually doing his day job (The Day Today, Knowing Me, Knowing You, and webseries Mid Morning Matters). His most famous outing, the award-winning sitcom I'm Alan Partridge, instead took a tragicomic look at his sad life as his career declines. And that makes Welcome to the Places of My Life all the more special to me, because it puts the character back in the spoof genre he originated from. Sky Atlantic's offering was a side-splittingly funny mockumentary, with Alan taking us on a guided tour of his beloved Norfolk ("the Wales of the east"), meeting the locals and extolling the county's virtues and history along the way. Wait until you hear what Hitler had planned for Norwich..
As a bonafide Pear Tree Production, I was particularly amused by the shoddiness of Welcome to the Places of my Life (hereafter Welcome)—with its many editing errors in a desperate attempts to create something usable. Take the hilarious moment when Alan was interviewing a swimming instructor while treading water in a pool, suddenly losing stamina halfway through, meaning the remainder of the piece was blatantly completed by inserting post-interview footage of a composed Alan asking questions to thin air. Plus there were the usual examples of Alan trying to keep a look of professionalism, when members of the public wander across his path, or he stumbles and valiantly tries to hide his gaffes from the camera. Sure, it's not entirely plausible that this programme would have reached the airwaves in such a slapdash state, but to hell with realism if it's this funny.
Coogan's a virtuoso when it comes to performing in character, and Alan Partridge remains his masterpiece because he's spent so long in the character's shoes. Even knowing Alan's not real (a sad thought), he exists in an alternate universe Coogan occasionally lets us peer into—and with a recent autobiography, a second Sky special, more Mid Morning Matters, and the long-awaited Partridge movie just round the corner, it feels like Coogan's happier to oblige his fans. There was a troubling mid-'00s period where it felt like Coogan considered Alan to be a millstone around his neck, and fled to America to find success without Partridge hanging over him. Moderate success did indeed follow in movies like Tropic Thunder and Night at the Museum, thanks to showbiz pals like Ben Stiller, although his career hardly thrived as it did for Peter Seller (a comic actor he was often compared to, until it became cooler to compare Sacha Baron Cohen). Whatever the reason for this profusion of Partridge projects, as a fan of the socially-awkward DJ from Norfolk, I'm just grateful Coogan's giving us plenty more to laugh about.
And make no mistake about it, Welcome was the funniest thing Alan Partridge has been involved with since 2002's dicey second series of I'm Alan Partridge. This faux-documentary played to the character's every strength: his ham-fisted presenting technique (count the times Alan ends a link with a gormless stare or off-camera remark), the superiority complex (a heated argument with a Land Rover dealer over motoring particulars), the snobby attitude (looking down his nose at a gregarious fruit n' veg seller), the impatience (a chat with a reverend in a graveyard whose incessant pauses were untidily tightened in the edit), the silly facial expressions, the moments of bullying (seizing a chance to settle a score with an old schoolteacher), the peculiar turns of phrase, a clear hatred of the public (venting road rage at an old cyclist), his hysterically effusive and complex sentences, or his pitiful attempts to look cool (a visit to a dry ski slope). The character's a gift from heaven if you write comedy, as this quote alone will attest:
"The Black Death was very much the HIV of its day; but rather than be transmitted by blood transfusions, sexual intercourse, or heavy kissing, this plague was airborne. Let me put that in context for you: flying AIDS. (to a butcher) Two handfuls of sausage meat, please."I have no idea if that reads funny without imagining Alan's voice and toothy grins, but that's the thing with character-based comedy: they rely on the audience knowing, understanding, and believing in the fiction being presented. And when it works, it's arguably the funniest brand of comedy around, and one Britain excels at.
written by Steve Coogan, Neil Gibbons & Rob Gibbons / 25 June 2012 / Sky Atlantic