548. British Comedy: Alan Partridge (Part 1)

Continuing the comedy theme by analysing a character that most British people know but learners of English find difficult to understand. Check the page below for transcripts, notes and videos.

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Transcript

Hi folks, today I’m continuing the comedy theme, with an episode about British TV Comedy.

A while ago I did an episode all about British TV Comedy Programmes. It was pretty popular and I promised that I would do more episodes explaining specific comedy shows, so today I’m going to talk to you about a well-known and well-loved character from British Television culture – Alan Partridge.

I’ll tell you everything I think you need to know about him (all the context and background info), then we’ll listen to some clips on YouTube, see if you get the humour and we’ll use them to do some intensive listening to help you learn loads of real, natural English language and culture.

“British Comedy: Alan Partridge” – that’s the title of this episode.

As usual I’m wondering what the hell you will think of this, because it might be hard for you to understand and it might just go straight over your head. I don’t know. Also, I’m wondering if some of you will be a bit turned off by the title of the episode.

Maybe I should have gone with a more “click-bait” title.

Perhaps – “The British Comedy that only Brits can Understand” or “British people love it but learners of English don’t understand it” or “Learn the 10 Secrets of British Comedy that the Language Schools don’t want you to know!” or “Why British People Hate Mr Bean” or something like that.

Instead I’ve gone with a more functional title, and the assumption that you will just trust me whatever the title is.

British Comedy: Alan Partridge

So, this is an episode about an absolute legend of British comedy that most Brits know, but non-Brits often don’t know and learners of English struggle to understand or appreciate.

You may have heard me mention Alan Partridge before. I’ve often said I need to devote a whole episode to this subject, so here we go.

I have a feeling this is going to take more than one episode. It might require a few episodes. And you know what – if that’s what it takes, that’s what I’ll do. I will talk about this for as long as I think is necessary or until someone physically stops me.

You might be thinking, “Who is Alan Partridge?”

He’s a fictional comedy character who has been on British TV for nearly 25 years.
He is played by an actor and comedian named Steve Coogan, who you may have heard on this podcast before doing Michael Caine and Paul McCartney impressions on the TV show The Trip.

The character is a fictional TV & radio presenter.

Originally Partridge was created as a parody of TV and radio presenters – a way of making fun of the cliches you see and hear in TV news, sports reporting, factual and light entertainment programmes – particularly the cliches of how people speak on TV and radio.

Later, Partridge became a fully-rounded character in his own right. In later shows, we follow Alan closely through his life and the character has become more than just a parody of television presenters. He has become a parody of a certain type of British man. Somehow, so many of us can relate to the experiences and characteristics of Alan, even though the character is someone we laugh at and think is a truly awful person.

Here’s a run down of the shows and things that Alan has appeared in.

  • A parody news TV programme called The Day Today.
  • Three BBC Radio 4 comedy series.
  • 3 BBC TV series and one BBC TV special.
  • 2 best-selling books and audiobooks.
  • A web series on YouTube.
  • Two short TV series on Sky.
  • Several full-length TV specials.
  • A full-length feature film which was released in cinemas.
  • Several big live theatre tours.
  • Lots of other TV appearances on interview shows, charity telethons and more.

The character has won a BAFTA award and two British Comedy awards over the years.

This year Alan is coming back to the BBC with a brand new series.

Partridge is widely praised by reviewers and critics as one of Britain’s best comedy TV characters.

Many of the lines spoken by Alan Partridge have become part of the popular consciousness, including phrases like “A-ha!”, “Monkey Tennis” and “Smell my cheese you mother!”

I don’t mind admitting that I’m a huge fan of Alan Partridge as an excellent work of comedy by the performer Steve Coogan and the script writers Armando Iannucci, Peter Baynham the Gibbons brothers, and others.

Many of my friends and members of my family are also huge fans and it’s quite normal for us to communicate in Partridgisms when we spend time together sometimes, quoting lines of dialogue with each other.

In my opinion, if you have any interest in Britishness, British humour, British comedy, British pop culture and British English, you absolutely must know about Alan Partridge.

This is not as simple as you might think. Somehow I find it really hard to explain this comedy to learners of English. It’s very subtle, nuanced and layered. It sort of defies explanation, which is a strength in my opinion.

I think that comedy that is very easy to explain is often a bit basic, and probably quite rubbish.

The fact that Alan Partridge is complex and subtle is a strength for the comedy, but perhaps that’s also a barrier for non-native speakers who just can’t see where the humour is.

They always say that the hardest thing to truly understand in a second language is humour. It requires really good English in this case – the ability to read between the lines, to pick up on very slight verbal and non-verbal clues to understand the comedy – and to do it all instantly.

You need excellent listening skills. You also need to have a lot of context in order to understand what type of character this is, how to interpret what he says, what his attitude is in any given moment, how other people are reacting to him and also to understand how we the audience are supposed to feel about it all. Are we laughing with him? Are we laughing at him? Where is the comedy coming from?

So, perhaps if you’re not really aware of all the cultural and contextual clues and if your English isn’t quite up to it, you will never really get it.

You might think “Nah, this isn’t funny” or “This is british humour” that for some reason only British people understand but which in fact isn’t funny for any normal people.

But the high regard that people have for Alan Partridge, the awards, the recognition from the industry, the longevity of the character – these things all prove that this is genuinely good stuff.

Partridge is also popular in other English speaking countries outside the UK, notably Australia, New Zealand, and Ireland. He’s not a household name in America although quite a lot of people know about him there including lots of actors and comedians. For example Ben Stiller is famously a big fan.

Let’s see how it is for you. Let me know in the comment section as we go through some clips, listen, break them down and carry on.

Alan Partridge: Background Information

I have to give you some background information on the character first.

Read from the Wikipedia page a bit – first two paragraphs en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alan_Partridge#Character

Character
Alan Partridge is an incompetent (always fails) and tactless (he’s careless and his words often offend people around him) television and radio presenter from Norwich, England.[5][30]

He is socially inept (has no skill), often offending his guests,[31] and has an inflated sense of importance and celebrity (he thinks he’s more important than he is).[9] According to the Telegraph, Partridge is “utterly convinced of his own superiority, and bewildered (confused) by the world’s inability to recognise it – qualities that place him in the line of Great British comedy characters.

His need for public attention drives him to deceit (lying), treachery (betraying people who trust him) and shameless self-promotion,[30] and sometimes violence; in the Knowing Me, Knowing Yule Christmas special, for example, he assaults a BBC boss by punching him with a turkey.[7]

Alan Partridge lives in Norwich, Norfolk. Armando Iannucci (one of the creators) said the writers chose it as Partridge’s hometown as it is “geographically just that little bit annoyingly too far from London, and has this weird kind of isolated feel that seemed right for Alan.”[1]

Partridge holds right-wing views; Coogan described him as a Little Englander, with a “myopic (uninformed), slightly philistine (uncultured) mentality”.[32] He is a reader of the right-wing tabloid newspaper the Daily Mail, and supports Brexit because, according to Coogan, the Daily Mail “told him to”.[33][33] Earlier versions of the character were more bigoted (prejudiced), but the writers found there was more humour in having him attempt to be liberal;[32] Coogan said: “He’s aware of political correctness but he’s playing catch-up.” His underlying right wing views come out sometimes, even though he tries to be modern. [32]

Alan Clips

I’m going to play you a selection of clips now.

I’ll tell you a bit about the scene, including the basics of what happens.
This is important because, believe me, it will be quite hard to follow some of this.

I expect the first time you listen you’ll be like what?
So, I’ll explain some details and give you some things to listen out for.
Then you can listen to the clip and either get what they’re saying, or get some of it, get confused, have a laugh or whatever.

Then I’ll go through it again and break it down for you.

No doubt there will be useful language to be gained from all of this. In fact, I’m certain there is a tonne of language which will emerge from doing this.

Check the page for this episode. You will find it to be a treasure trove of transcripts, notes, vocabulary, youtube links and more.

After listening, and hopefully understanding each scene, we will go onto the next one and the next until we are done and you’ve had your introduction to the world of Alan, and you can then choose to continue and watch the series or read the books, or if you prefer, just never revisit the world of Alan Partridge again.

For App users, check out the bonus content for these Partridge episodes. There will be at least one bonus audio in which I’m talking to my friend Raphael from Liverpool about the complexities of explaining Alan Partridge to learners of English.

OK, let’s get started for goodness sake!

Sportsdesk with Alan Partridge (from The Day Today 1994)

Alan began as a parody of TV sports reporters in a BBC radio comedy called On The Hour, and then on the TV news spoof comedy The Day Today.

Then he became a parody of cliched television presenters in general, with his own chat show, named after an Abba song “Knowing Me, Knowing You, with Alan Partridge”.

Sometimes sports reporters have to keep talking and talking, even when there’s nothing to talk about really, and their commentaries become full of bad cliches and mixed metaphors to describe what’s going on. Sometimes the commentary lapses into personal experiences and bizarre tangents.

There’s also the tone of voice of the sports reporter. Somehow it’s very high. Everything is up in the air. It’s the atmosphere of tension, it’s the atmosphere of high stakes competition, it’s the atmosphere of the Sunday league cup final.

Sometimes they ramble and end up saying quite ridiculous things. This can be quite revealing about the reporter’s personality. Without intending to, they end up saying bizarre things that make you wonder about their personal lives.

This is a bit like the way some TV presenters will behave, on radio or on live TV chat shows, when things go a bit wrong and the presenters say some weird things or struggle in some way.

Clip 1: Alan’s Sporting Highlights

This is not the funniest of clips, but it gives you an idea of where he first came from – just copying the vocal mannerisms of sports reporters.

Alan describes cycling, athletics, boxing.

What to look out for:

  • The descriptions of cyclists that get a bit carried away (especially when describing their bodies)
  • The tone of voice in the helicopter
  • Metaphors that don’t work “cyclists that look somehow like cattle in a mad way, but cattle on bikes”
  • “Oh good he’s fallen!”
  • Too much personal information / Descriptions get carried away describing bare knuckle boxing (I witnessed bare knuckle boxing in a barn. It was a sorry sight to see men goading them on, and I’m ashamed to say I was party to that goading…)

Alan’s chat show

Somehow Alan managed to climb the greasy pole within the BBC and was given his own chat show on the radio and then one on TV which lasted one series.

The show was called Knowing Me Knowing You with Alan Partridge – a cheesy title inspired by a song by Abba.

“Knowing Me Knowing You, Ah Haaa” – that became Partridge’s most famous catchphrase.

Clip 2. Alan interviews a child prodigy (Knowing Me, Knowing You – radio series 1992)

This was recorded in front of a studio audience for radio.

Alan attempts to interview a child genius but the child is obviously way more intelligent and educated than him.

Alan attempts to keep the upper hand, but is constantly proven wrong by the child. It’s humiliating for Alan, but Alan doesn’t have the patience to tolerate being wrong and instead resorts to rudely bullying the child. Alan always needs to be on top, even if it means being very cruel to a child.

There is a live audience and it’s a bit weird because they’re laughing while the performance happens. The performers carry on like it’s not comedy, but there’s an audience laughing.

Still, the moments when the audience laugh tell you there has been a joke.

This sketch just shows how Alan’s interviews always go wrong because of his personal hangups – the underlying problems in his personality.

Laugh AT or laugh WITH?

Are we laughing at Alan, or laughing with him?

Sometimes we laugh at Alan because he’s awful, self-important, arrogant and ignorant, and yet we also somehow support him as the child is really annoying too.

So we’re against Alan and laugh at him, but somehow we are behind him and laugh with him too. It’s an interesting shift in perspective as we both relate to him and also want to distance ourselves from him at the same time. This happens with all of Alan’s comedy.

What to look out for:

  • The ways the child makes Alan look stupid, including references to Shakespeare
  • Alan’s attempt to win the situation
  • The switch to “entertainment mode” at the end of the sketch, as if he hasn’t just insulted this child and made him cry