Harriet Walker: Alan Partirdge: Welcome to the Places of My Life, Sky Atlantic
Partridge is back – and he's still making us grateful for the indignities of bad television
As anyone who has grown up in the British provinces (so most of us, then) will know, there's nothing more entertaining than the self-important and unintentional, clanging hilarity of regional programming.Coming of age in Yorkshire with newsreaders who seemed engaged in a dirty war of ambitious attrition from the plush red sofa of the Look North studio, taught me exactly how to pinpoint the pulsing vein of comedy that comes with the smalltown myopia of those as obsessed with their own locale as they are with their own navels. Interviews with police chiefs and civic cheeses, always caught in corridors or coming out of the loo; questions such as "and how did you feel about witnessing the brutal murder of this poor woman?"; hard-hitting investigations that began with lines like "people have been living in Huddersfield for literally thousands of years".
And the time when, for a few godforsaken months after a particularly ferocious storm bent our aerial, we were forced to watch the local news from Hull rather than from Leeds. That taught me a lot, not only about the bathetic tragedy of the human condition but also about Hull's premiere aquarium, The Deep. It's actually the Humber's only surviving tourist attraction, seeing as the rest of them have already fallen (or jumped) off the cliffs and into the sea.
It's precisely this seam of mediocrity that Steve Coogan has mined for his latest Alan Partridge venture. And before anyone accuses me of being all metropolitan and sneery, let me also point out that it has been at the heart(ridge) of Partridge since day one. He's a depressing and slightly tawdry character built from the pomposity of the distinctly average, for a knowing middle-class fanbase that revels in poking fun at such things. There's even a Guardian joke thrown in to highlight his provincial bigotry, so we know it's OK to laugh.
Welcome to the Places of My Life is a charming info-mercial for the his native Norfolk – "the plump peninsula, the Wales of the East" – co-produced with the Norwich Chamber of Commerce. It's a "Partridge pilgrimage, or a Partrimage, a pilgrimartridge", and it makes for a rich feast of snide laughs and superb characterisation crafted from the crass crumbs of some of bad telly's most pompous banquets. Apparently, Hitler had intended to use Norwich City Hall as his base, had the invasion gone as planned.
"The more I learn about Hitler," Partridge intones meaningfully, "the more I dislike him." I was reminded of that old adage about Les Dawson – that to play the piano that badly on purpose, you actually have to be rather good at it. By that token, Steve Coogan is a consummate pianist, not to mention writer and producer, given the brilliant slip-ups that his protagonist hands us with every cyclist he abuses, every rolled "r" and micro-expression, every accidental overdose of prescription drugs.
We might not be grateful for the existence of David Starkey very often, but the mock-canticle theme tune (sung, we can infer from its nasal tones, by Alan himself), the disembodied shouts from Norwich councillors past as they debate the issue of city centre parking after 7pm, the earnest walk-throughs and quasi-intellectual register have all the hallmarks of that historian's grandiloquent one-man shows. (You can expect your local pub to resound with cries of "brouhaha!" every time the saloon doors twitch from now on).
The strengths – that is to say, the inherent crapness – of this genre give our old friend a new dimension. As Alan interviews a local hydrotherapist, the grunts of him trying not to drown are brilliantly audible throughout her pieces to camera. When it pans back, he is floating competently in the shallows, his reactions re-recorded post-production to save not only his face, but his elaborate pompadour too.
Some of the best bits of Welcome to the Places of My Life are when we get a sense of the cameras rolling for about four seconds longer than they should have done, just like in Knowing Me, Knowing You, Partridge's first TV outing, but also to what Coogan himself is mocking – the overblown ceremony and rubbish incompetence of low-budget telly.
And it's the deliberate roughness that really sticks in the mind. Because in this age of high gloss and HBO, there's a real danger that some of our worst regional programming could well die a death.
No doubt, that's what we think we want. But then where would we be? Poking fun at glossy vacuous crap that even the producers know is rubbish isn't half as satisfying as laughing at something someone you probably don't like thinks is a masterful piece of broadcasting. And that is the point of Alan Partridge. Aha!
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