While it had its moments, notably the section where Steve Coogan played an Irish guest with tombstone teeth and a repertoire of IRA songs, the first series of the spoof magazine show This Time (BBC One) was not Alan Partridge’s most successful outing. The past decade, since brothers Neil and Rob Gibbons joined as writers, has seen the character given endless new life. The books, I, Partridge and Nomad, and the From the Oast House podcasts are up there with his funniest work, with the travel documentaries and Mid-Morning Matters radio show not far behind.
It’s a remarkable achievement when you realise Partridge has been going for more than 30 years. In most cases, such a span would mean the character had long since retired, wheeled out for nostalgic “reunion” shows at regional theatres or Red Nose Day. Alan has ploughed on. The Britain of Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson is a more fertile background than the Blairite Cool Britannia he emerged from. When Alan first appeared, the Partridges felt like a fading force in British life, doomed to obsolescence. Now they’re back in the harness.
Without the intimacy of the audio formats or the character range of I’m Alan Partridge, however, the first series of This Time too often fell between the gaps. The magazine show structure ought to have given it freedom, but too many sections were underworked, playing against the series’ strengths in favour of surreal non-sequiturs or slapstick. It overindulged some running gags, like his cross-purposes chat with regional reporter Ruth Duggan (Lolly Adefope), at the expense of tighter gags.
Given that, and the team’s usual relentlessness with changing formats, it’s a bit of a surprise to see This Time back for another round. It picks up where season one left off. Alan’s long-suffering co-host, Jenny Gresham (Susannah Fielding), is still there, with a new boyfriend and an even more passive-aggressive brand of acid professionalism than before. She delivers her links faultlessly from the sofa – where Alan is always sitting slightly too close to her – then strides off to get away from her co-host the instant he’s off air.
Useless sidekick Simon (Tim Key) is still there, too, failing to understand his online message system. The gag wasn’t especially funny first time. They seem to be hoping that if they double down for long enough it will come full circle and start working. We’re still waiting. It doesn’t help that Piers Morgan’s real-world antics on GMB were as outlandish as anything you could script.
The final few minutes of this opener are satisfyingly chaotic, as Alan tries to stick to his planned broadcast in the face of an unscheduled and wholly unwelcome improvisation from his guest. Earlier, though, the out-of-the-office section, in which Alan visits a silent monastery, encapsulates the frustrations with This Time. Lumping the perpetual broadcaster into a silent world is a strong premise. But the scene ends up resting on a physical gag in which the monks continually let a greenhouse door shut on Alan while he’s trying to get out. It feels like a waste of the set up. There is nothing essentially Partridgean about the predicament. Partridge is at his best when he says things only he would say, convinced he’s the voice of reason: admonishing people for getting Bond wrong, musing on the working classes, pitching for a second series. In this new woke TV world, where he is constantly aware of what he’s not allowed to say, his wings are clipped. There’s also none of the slimy desperation, clinging to him like one of his cheap blazers, that characterised his early career. Don’t give him another series, you swines.
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