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LONDON – Comedian Steve Coogan steps back into his comfort zone with this first feature-length outing for his long-running signature character, Alan Partridge, a satirical creation born over 20 years ago on BBC radio and television. Alpha Papa is a sharply scripted comic thriller that playfully references Hollywood blueprints with the same affectionate irony that Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright use in their transatlantic genre homages. There are subtle allusions to Dog Day Afternoon, Die Hard and Falling Down here, drawing comic energy from the pointed contrast between these big-city thrillers and this film’s cosy setting in the sleepy provincial English city of Norwich.
The joint creation of several comedy writers, including Coogan himself but also Veep and The Thick of It creator Armando Iannucci, Partridge is a much-loved household name in his native Britain. A former sports reporter and spoof chat show host, he embodies an uncomfortably familiar kind of Middle English conservatism: outwardly worldly and confident but essentially prudish, parochial, chauvinistic, narcissistic and mildly sociopathic. Domestic success seems assured when the film opens in the UK next month. Prospects in other markets will depend on Coogan’s box-office appeal, and how well these local cultural references translate, though most of the jokes feel universal enough to travel.
One of the pleasures of Coogan’s most famous creation is how the Partridge character has evolved in real time, chronicling two decaes of shifting fortunes through various radio shows, TV series, live concerts and even a best-selling mock-memoir in 2011. As a consequence he has grown into a layered, almost novelistic creation, vain and pompous but not entirely charmless. The narrative of Alpha Papa follows on from both the book and most recent TV series, Mid Morning Matters, although it functions as a stand-alone story. For first-time viewers, no background reading is required.
Partridge is now in his mid fifties and clinging onto his career as a show host on an ailing digital radio channel in his home city of Norwich. But changes are imminent from the station’s slick new management team, with either Partridge or his Irish DJ colleague Pat Farrell (Colm Meaney) likely to be fired in a cost-cutting, rebranding exercise. Farrell gets the boot, partly due to Partridge privately back-stabbing his friend, but soon afterwards the mentally fragile Irishman gatecrashes a staff party at the station with a shotgun. He takes 12 hostages, with Partridge becoming the go-between with police negotiators, a role he cynically relishes as a chance to boost his media profile.
In shifting from quickfire, dialogue-driven farce to darkly funny thriller, Alpha Papa loses some of its comic edge. While the film’s opening half hour is packed with perfectly honed one-liners, the siege section delivers a more uneven mix of slapstick and tension. Meaney is a heavyweight actor, and does a fine job of suggesting simmering madness beneath bluff surface charm, but the light-hearted hostage scenes never quite muster a convincing sense of jeopardy. Likewise the final chase sequence in the station’s mobile broadcasting truck, with Partridge and Farrell co-hosting a live radio show as they drive. An inspired climax, but the delivery feels contrived and clumsy.
Shot largely in hand-held close-up by the veteran small-screen comedy and music director Declan Lowney, Alpha Papa feels like a great hour-long TV special that has been stretched to accommodate its thriller narrative. Though not the finest screen outing for Coogan’s best-known alter ego, this is a worthy addition to the ever-growing Partridge archive, with enough weapons-grade comic zing in the first half to excuse the less sure-footed second.
Production companies: Baby Cow Films, Baby Cow Productions
Producers: Kevin Loader, Henry Normal
Cast: Steve Coogan, Colm Meaney, Felicity Montagu, Tim Key, Monica Dolan, Simon Greenall
Director: Declan Lowney
Writers: Peter Baynham, Steve Coogan, Neil Gibbons, Rob Gibbons, Armando Iannucci
Cinematographer: Ben Smithard
Editor: Mark Everson
Rating: 15 (UK), 90 minutes
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