550. British Comedy: Alan Partridge (Part 3)

Here’s the final part of this trilogy of British Comedy episodes about Alan Partridge. This time we’re analysing some of the quieter and darker moments in Alan’s life as he rambles about flasks, cars, seat belts, badges and having an air bag go off in your face, and avoids the problems in his life. Expect analysis of both the comedy and the language. Vocabulary lists and transcript available. 

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Transcript

So here we are with part 3 of this British Comedy episode, hot on the heels of part 2. This series is all about this famous British comedy character called Alan Partridge.

If you haven’t heard parts 1 and 2 yet I recommend that you go and listen to those first.

The plan again is to listen to some clips on YouTube and then analyse them for language. Hopefully you’ll get the jokes and will pick up some nice vocabulary on the way.

3 episodes is quite a lot to devote to one thing like this, but I really like Alan Partridge and introducing this comedy to you successfully (so that you enjoy it) is a sort of personal challenge for me and also there’s so much Partridge content that I feel just one episode or maybe just two would only really scratch the surface. To give this a proper chance we need to spend a bit of time on it.

Listener Emails

Hopefully you’re enjoying these episodes. Actually, I don’t really know what most of you think. I’ve had a few messages from people saying they are looking forward to part 3 of this – emails mostly.

For example, here’s part of a message from a listener called Hanna in Germany.

Dear Luke, I just wanted to get in touch to tell you how much i like your podcast. I’ve listened to the newest Partridge episode today and loved it. I think you’ve done a brilliant job in getting across what’s so funny and weirdly likeable about him. I’m really looking forward to a third episode about him. And in fact to all the upcoming episodes. In the meantime I scroll through your fantastic archive and pick out my favourite topics to enjoy in my everyday life.

Thank you Hannah.

But on the website I have had hardly any comments on these episodes, which is making me wonder what you’re all thinking. I have no idea really… So please let me know in the comment section. Are you like Hanna, who thinks I’ve managed to do a good job of getting across to you the ins and outs of Alan Partridge, or does it all seem hard to understand and totally unfunny? Let me know.

I did get an email from a teacher in Japan. I think he’s a native English speaker. I have to share it with you.

Message: Hello Luke,
I teach English in Japan. My students often listen to your podcast. In a recent episode you had a TV show host interviewing a child genius. My students are split on whether this really happened, or whether this was staged. I think it is pretty clear that a real TV show host would not actually physically abuse a child on TV, but my students are not convinced. They think this (smacking children upside the head in public and making them cry) is an example of British humour. (notice I spelt that with a ‘u’). I noted that you said it was ‘a spoof, a parody” at the beginning of the segment, but they are not convinced. Please clarify and explain the meaning of ‘spoof’. Love your show.

This is the sort of thing I’m talking about. There’s always someone who gets the completely wrong end of the stick and misunderstands something quite essential about the comedy, like for example what is the target of the joke and what are the underlying meanings or assumptions.

I actually can’t believe there’s anyone out there who would think that Alan is a real person and that he actually slapped a child, and that’s where the comedy comes from. Slapping a child is an absolutely terrible thing to do and it’s certainly not funny. No, the sketch in part 1 where Alan appears to slap a child, is obviously not real.

It seems I might need to clarify something. I thought it was obvious, but you should remember that Alan is not a real person. He’s a character made up by comedians. The scene in part 1 when he interviews a child genius, the child is not a real child. He’s played by an actress called Doon Mackichan who is changing her voice to sound like a child. And anyway, Alan doesn’t actually slap anyone. It’s just a sound effect for the radio. Nobody got slapped in real life.

And in the sketch, we’re not really laughing at a child being slapped. That’s not the joke. Just slapping a child is clearly not funny. It’s awful. So we’re not laughing at a child being slapped, we’re laughing at the fact that Alan is a fatally flawed character who is so pathetic that he will slap a child in order to come out on top or to save face. It’s ridiculous.

I understand that in Japan social conventions are so different in some cases that it might be hard to notice where the comedy is in slapping a child, but it’s really about the character of Alan and how he reacts to being wrong in a situation.

Anyway, slapping a child isn’t really British humour, but featuring a character who would slap a child is more typical of British comedy. We often feature characters in our sitcoms who will do terrible things in order to get what they want and they often fail. We laugh at these people, not with them. They are the target of the humour. Alan is not a hero who we support, quite the opposite, we observe him doing all sorts of terrible and pathetic things. Another example… Basil Fawlty from Fawlty Towers springs to mind. He does lots of terrible things to make sure his hotel business doesn’t get closed down. We cringe at the things he does, but also are amused by what happens to this person who is essentially not very nice when he is put under tremendous pressure that he’s probably responsible for in the first place.

Anyway, for most of you I probably didn’t need to give that clarification but for the students at school (however old you are, I’m not sure) let me assure you – Alan Partridge is not real and none of it is real. He is a character played by an actor called Steve Coogan. Alan Partridge is a parody or a spoof.

Parody, Spoof & Satire

A parody is a humorous piece of writing, drama, or music which imitates the style of a well-known person or represents a familiar situation in an exaggerated way.

When someone parodies a particular work, thing, or person, they imitate it in an amusing or exaggerated way.

So a parody is an imitation of something, in order to make fun of it. Alan is a parody of TV presenters.

A Spoof is a show or piece of writing that appears to be serious but is actually a joke. It’s also like a “fake” show. The Day Today is a spoof of the news.

We often use spoof and parody in the same or similar ways.

A satire is a piece of comedy designed to criticise something by making fun of it. Satire is like spoof or parody but doesn’t always involve imitations and often has serious targets like politics.

Animal Farm by George Orwell is a satire of communism. It criticises and makes fun of communism with this fictional story about pigs running a farm.

So Alan Partridge is certainly a spoof or parody of television and radio presenters. Perhaps at it’s best it’s some kind of satire about television and culture in general. In fact he’s become more of a parody of a kind of small-minded English man.

Alan Clips

Let’s listen to some more clips. This is going to be good listening practice and there will be loads of vocab, but also let’s see this as a kind of little adventure where I take you into something new and you have to try and work out what’s going on.

I’ve chosen two more clips, and I’ve chosen these ones because they are slightly quieter moments for Alan, not the big moments with all the catchphrases, but moments when Alan is perhaps at a weak point, which reveal how restless he is and how flawed he is on a basic social level.

We get a bit deeper into his psyche in this episode.

So in these clips I’m asking you not to look out for jokes like in the Edinburgh episode. Alan doesn’t really do jokes although there are very funny lines. So, don’t look for jokes. Instead look for the way this character expresses himself, how he chooses his words, how he can’t really connect with people around him, how he’s isolated, how he’s actually not a very good person.

There’s a bit of tragedy to Alan. It’s just there, under the surface. You have to read between the lines.

8. Alan calls his son and then Curry’s to ask about getting a surround sound speaker system

This is a glimpse into Alan’s family life and his relationship with his son. You could say it is strained. Imagine having Partridge as your father. It would be awful.

It’s a Saturday afternoon and Alan decides to call his son Fernando, who is 22 years old – around the same age I was when I first watched this. Fernando is named after the Abba song of the same name.

Alan calls Fernando to see if he wants to go for a pint. He catches Fernando in bed with his girlfriend and ends up lecturing him about how he’s wasting his time when the weather is so good outside. The key line is “It’s a Saturday afternoon and you’re in bed with a girl, you’re wasting your life!” Alan couldn’t be more wrong of course.

Instead, Alan suggests that Fernando take her out to a local tourist spot, like a local fort or a Victorian folly. These are like the bog-standard local tourist attractions in the UK. You find things like this everywhere and they’re mostly boring. The fort is probably some local old remains of a castle. A Victorian folly is basically a fake medieval building made during the Victorian era to resemble something from the medieval times. In both cases they are very boring and no doubt populated by other such middle-English middle-Educated weekenders with their anoraks and cameras. For Alan this is a great way to spend a Saturday afternoon. Of course, staying in bed with a girl is a far better way to spend your time.

Alan can’t relate to Fernando and patronises him (talks down to him and lectures him), while also rambling on like a broadcaster.

His rambling goes too far and he ends up talking about how he used to make love to Fernando’s mother Carol in various places, even telling the story of how Fernando was conceived, making it sound like Fernando might have been a mistake, or that perhaps Alan wasn’t happy when Fernando was born.

We never hear Fernando’s voice. It’s just Alan’s half of the conversation, leaving us to work out the other side for ourselves, which is a good comedy technique.

We can see there are serious issues in their relationship. It sounds like Alan was probably a terrible father, making his son feel unloved and unvalued, and just lecturing him rather than relating to him on a normal level. Alan tries to be friends with Fernando, but he’s completely unaware of how much he mistreats Fernando.

Alan then calls Curry’s the electronics store to find out about buying some speakers and typically ends up either arguing with the sales assistant, lecturing him, or letting him into close personal details. Alan also talks about the speaker system in a weird, formal way, perhaps using the technical language you might read in the product manual, and even using some latin words. For some reason he feels this technical and formal register is appropriate when asking about buying some speakers from a hardware shop. You can imagine that there is a generation of people who are old-fashioned enough to do that too. At the end he even attempts to invite the guy from Curry’s to go for a pint with him, because he’s bored. The guy says no.

In the end Alan decides to walk up the motorway to visit the local garage to buy some windscreen washer fluid. It’s funny to see these utterly mundane moments in Alan’s life. He’s a bit lost and is living in isolation and obscurity. Nobody else in the Travel Tavern is there, so he just leaves, shouting slightly desperately in case anyone wants to join him.

What to watch out for

  • How Alan makes his son feel unloved
  • How Alan describes how Fernando was conceived and it sounds like he wasn’t happy when
  • Fernando was born
  • How Alan starts going on about flasks and Fernando just hangs up
  • How Alan talks to the sales assistant at Curry’s and expects him to know latin
  • How he fails to invite the guy for a pint of beer

Language

  • You both sound exhausted, have you been running?
  • We did it everywhere. Behind a large boulder on Helvellyn for my birthday.
  • Actually, that is where you were conceived.
  • We just didn’t take precautions (so Fernando wasn’t planned, maybe an accident)
  • No we were delighted! Well, at first I was mortified but then you were born and we grew to like you.
  • I left a tartan flask up there. One of those very fragile ones with a screw on cup/cap.
  • These days they’re much more resilient. They took the technology from NASA. Modern flasks today are directly linked to the Apollo space mission. Hello?
  • I’d like to make an enquiry about two supplementary auxiliary speakers to go with my MIDI hi-fi system apropos (with reference to) achieving surround sound.
  • What time do you knock off? Do you fancy going for a drink?
  • Breath of fresh air?

9. Extended Car Sequence (no laughter track)

It’s interesting how a laughter track totally changes the tone of what you’re listening to.

Friends with no laughter track makes Ross sound like a psycho.

In this case having no laughter track makes Alan better and it sounds a lot more authentic.

Alan & Lynn in the car

I’ve chosen this because I want to play a clip with no laughter and in which Steve Coogan and Felicity Montagu (Lynn) are clearly improvising a lot of the dialogue. There are no big laughs in there, but instead this is just Alan at a bored moment. It’s also perhaps one of my favourite Alan moments because of the improvisation. The characters are totally believable. It’s like we’re just observing them in a quiet moment during the day. As we listen to their naturalistic dialogue it’s possible to notice that Alan is slowly becoming a bit unhinged – I mean, the doors are starting to fall off. He’s bored. He’s isolated. He’s probably quite sad and perhaps desperate underneath it.

Alan is “at a loose end” and so he’s requested that Lynn come and meet him so he can ask her something that’s been bothering him. It’s a small thing really, but Alan makes Lynn travel quite a long and complicated journey to come out and see him.

They just sit in the car and Alan rambles about nothing in particular. The main thing bothering him is that his car is making a weird beeping noise and he doesn’t know why. But it seems he just needs Lynn to be there so he can lecture her, patronise her, belittle her etc as a way of escaping the dark feelings that are probably gnawing away at him. Lynn is very faithful to Alan, and has strong Baptist religious beliefs, but Alan is very mean to Lynn, making her take a taxi and to walk a long way just so Alan can have someone to talk to.

Alan doesn’t even believe Lynn when she gives her excuse for being late, which shows that she’s clearly had a long journey to get there. He’s very ungrateful towards her.

Lynn knows that Alan might be at a very vulnerable point here – he’s been thrown out by his wife, living in a travel tavern and he punched the BBC director general in the face with a piece of cheese, and it’s not having a good effect on his mental state. So she’s supportive.

Lynn is clearly concerned about Alan and offers to talk to him about his problems.

Instead of talking about his problems, Alan just goes on in great detail about the features of the car, clearly in denial about his situation and his depressed state.

By the way I think Lynn was the one who actually bought the car for Alan. Him criticising parts of it is also a way for him to criticise her. He’s subtly telling her that he’s not happy with the car she bought.

Obviously Alan is unhappy about more than the car, but he never talks about that. The only thing he can do is comment on minor details in the car. The more specific he gets about these trivial details, like the design of the badge on the steering wheel, the more he is essentially trying to escape the reality of his situation, which is that his life and career are a mess.

Alan’s weird broadcasting sensibility comes in as he starts reviewing the car, commenting on the way seat belts work and generally patronising Lynn.

The tension is palpable.

It’s hilarious comedy and is improvised.

But it’s 100% not obvious.

So I would say, don’t imagine this is comedy. Imagine you’re just listening in on someone’s conversation. Let’s imagine we’re spying on them, just overhearing two people chatting aimlessly.

Coogan’s ability to stay in character is incredible.
The absence of laughter track makes it 100x better.

I wonder what you will think but this is one of my favourite Alan moments. It’s so natural and the character’s avoidance of talking about his problems while focusing on meaningless details of the car, is very interesting from a character point of view, and shows there is real depth and pathos to the character.

What to look out for

  • How difficult it was for Lynn to come and meet him, and how Alan suspects this is a lie
  • The reason Alan asked Lynn to come out
  • Lynn’s suggestion about why the car is making a noise (the clock is wrong)
  • Alan’s reaction to Lynn’s suggestion that it’s because the clock is wrong
  • What Alan thinks of the car, particularly his disappointment about the badge on the steering wheel.
  • Listen to how Alan loves the sound of the electric sun roof
  • What Alan says about the seat belts

Language

  • I got caught in a taxi that broke down
  • Do you know what that noise is?
  • It wouldn’t be “engine faulty” would it?
  • It’s been irritating me all morning
  • Is it the handbrake?
  • Don’t touch the handbrake. We’ll roll back.
  • Just make sure it’s in neutral there.
  • If you ever learn to drive Lynn, when you stop the car, just give it a bit of a wiggle. Make sure it’s in neutral.
  • My mum always puts it in first (gear)
  • Some people do that to stop it rolling back when you park on a hill but it’s unorthodox. It’s a stop gap for a faulty handbrake, but I personally frown on it.
  • I’ve locked the doors there. That’s a design fault. Design flaw. Just pop your elbow on there, you’ve locked the doors. Sometimes you don’t want to.
  • I thought you’d like this.
  • It’s wood laminate.
  • Pop your seatbelt on.
  • These are inertia real seatbelts.
  • Suddenly a lorry rears in front of you. Impact! LOCK!
  • I’d rather have a few superficial bruises than a massively lacerated face. Ooh, awful.
  • I’d love to feel an airbag go off in my face.
  • What I like about this material is, just to get a little bit of extra purchase, it’s pricked vinyl.
  • Pricked vinyl will allow a certain amount of drainage of hand sweat.
  • The Rover badge on the old car was a lovely enamel beautiful crested thing on the steering wheel boss, whereas this one is just moulded into the vinyl.
  • All I do is sit here looking at this moulded badge where once there was an enamel one and I can’t pretend that doesn’t hurt.
  • The sun roof is a wonderful feat of engineering. Just listen to all these servo motors.
  • Precision engineering.
  • Whirring away.
  • And of course you’ve got the manual flap.
  • You go through a bad patch and you can smile at the end of it, probably.
  • I didn’t say I was going through a bad patch, I said I was at a loose end.
  • [Lynn suggests that Alan takes the car for a drive, but Alan beeps the horn while she’s talking, interrupting her. She tries to continue, talking about how there’s an arcade – games centre – up the road where there’s a fun camel race]
  • Do you want to know the quickest way to drain a battery?
  • [Alan tries to open the glove compartment and accidentally touches Lynn’s leg – plenty of apologising and it’s awkward. There’s no affection in the relationship, from Alan anyway]
  • Alan says the best way to drain a car battery is to leave the glove compartment open.
  • Lynn says you shouldn’t leave your sweeties in there on long journeys because it might pop open and you wouldn’t notice and the battery would get drained. [Alan has no idea what she’s talking about.]
  • You’ve lost me. Boiled sweets, you sound like a lunatic.
  • It isn’t the inticator is it?
  • Inticator? Indicator.
  • Actually, I am low on windscreen washer fluid.
  • They wouldn’t set off an alarm if you’re low on windscreen washer fluid. It’s far too alarmist.
  • Just a light would come on to say, you know, you’re a bit low. But not a big alarm like that, it’s just a panic measure, you know like someone going “Oh my god you’re low on windscreen washer fluid!” You don’t need to say that. Just say, you need a nudge. The car needs to effectively say, “excuse me, I don’t want to distract you from your driving, but you might like to know the windscreen washer fluid is getting low” and they do that with a little light, which has come on – you can see it there.
  • Well the clock’s not right is it. That’s a possible.
  • I’m sorry Lynn. I’m normally patient but the idea that an alarm would be triggered because the clock isn’t right is cloud cuckoo land. Alice in Wonderland.
  • Could you cool me down with the hand fan.
  • [Lynn holds the hand fan too close and Alan turns and hurts his lip on it]
  • Come on I’ll drop you at a cab rank.

Ending

There is a massive amount more of Partridge and almost all if it is excellent – great performance, great writing, great characters. Perhaps I’ll revisit Alan one day on the podcast.

I wonder how you feel about this. My aim has been just to introduce you to some stuff you didn’t know about before, and teach you some English in the process. If you’ve enjoyed it and want to check out more Alan stuff, great. If you didn’t really get it, well – so be it. At least I tried.

Some Alan recommendations.

TV series: I’m Alan Partridge Series 1 & 2
TV specials: Welcome to the places of my life, Scissored Isle.
Web-series: Mid-Morning Matters with Alan Partridge
Audiobooks: I, Partridge, Nomad
Film: Alpha Papa (not exactly the same as normal Partridge, but still good)

Do let me know everything you think in the comment section. It’s impossible for me to predict how episodes like this will be received by my audience – I really do scratch my head and wonder what the hell people in China, Russia, Japan or closer to home in France or any other place will think about some of the content I share with you. The only way I can know is if you write to me and tell me what you think. I’m certain some of you completely won’t get it, but some of you might get it and for me it’s worth doing these episodes even if only some of you get it.

At the least, if you didn’t get into the comedy, I think we can agree that there’s been a lot of language to be learned in these episodes. Check the page for this episode to see all the notes and transcripts. I should do a premium episode covering it all, just to make sure it really goes into your head properly! For example, what’s the phrase Alan uses to describe how he’s bored and has nothing to do?

He’s at a loose end, right?

That’s the sort of stuff I do in the Premium episodes. To sign up for the price of 1 coffee per month, go to www.teacherluke.co.uk/premium

BONUS CONTENT: Talking to Raph about Partridge (Part 1)

More videos

Alan Partridge’s Scissored Isle (one of the most recent TV specials)

Alan Partridge: Nomad (Audiobook)