It seems everyone from scandal-hit politicians to Richard Madeley has been given the Partridge treatment lately. Ed Cumming explores the curious position Steve Coogan’s hapless character occupies in the culture
No sooner had the leaked footage of Matt Hancock kissing Gina Coladangelo in his office appeared than someone overlaid audio from an old Alan Partridge episode. In the edited video, we hear North Norfolk’s finest DJ say, “Let battle commence” while Matt begins his face lurches and bum paws. “That’s first class,” Alan says, as Matt rubs his hands up and down Gina’s flanks. “What do you think about the pedestrianisation of Norwich city centre?” Alan asks, while Matt leans in to hear some sweet nothings. Both original documents were funny, but together they became something greater than the sum of their parts. At the time of writing, the clip has had 1.7 million views.
This is the fate that awaits scandal-hit politicians in the meme era. If resigning for horniness wasn’t bad enough, with all the embarrassment it brings on your friends and family, a disgraced MP must now endure waves of creative internet videos. Before you can say “apologised to my constituents”, images and clips combining your plight with pop-cultural reference points will have been beamed around the country via WhatsApp and Instagram DMs. In the olden days, your humiliation was spread across the Sunday newspapers or the 9 o’clock news. Now it unfolds by smartphone: on the bus, or in pub toilet cubicles, or at dinner parties where the conversation is a bit slow and someone cracks and says, “Have you seen this? Oh my God.”
Other memes about Hancock did the rounds, too. One compared him to Mark Corrigan from Peep Show. Another pointed out the similarities between his resignation video and a Simpsons episode in which Homer retreats into a bush. But it’s the Partridge video that lingers in the mind. Alan’s mix of awkwardness and enthusiasm, caught so perfectly by Steve Coogan, matches up beautifully with the former health secretary’s octopus-hands routine, caught so perfectly by CCTV. The doctored clip is oddly relatable. We’ve laughed at Hancock, and rightly so, but it’s nervous laughter. Deep down, we know this is how most British men would look if we were filmed snogging in the office. And of course, Alan’s anxious inner monologue contains more truth than any of us would admit.
This relatability reflects the curious position Partridge occupies in the culture. He has become a ubiquitous point of reference online, more so than Corrigan or Brent or Fawlty or Del Boy or any of the other candidates who are equally promising on paper. I have continued to use the Alan “shrug” reaction gif, taken from the episode where he is told he’s not getting a second series, long after it’s become irredeemably basic. The “Accidental Partridge” Twitter account, which celebrates inadvertent Partridgean moments from celebrities and broadcasters, has more than 380,000 followers. Richard Madeley is seemingly incapable of broadcasting for more than 10 minutes without invoking some comparison with Partridge, most recently during a discussion of returning “Isis brides” in which Madeley mused that during the Nuremberg trials, while many Nazis were hanged, the Hitler Youth weren’t.
When Coogan and Armando Iannucci came up with their hapless broadcaster in 1991, they can’t have imagined that 30 years down the line, they would find him living in such a germane world. Partridge is meant to be monstrous – a sexist, reactionary, delusional egomaniac dinosaur who can never tell when he’s put his foot in it or why. In 2021, he ought to be more antiquated than ever, but some broadcasters seem to be looking up to him as an increasingly heroic figure. In a piece celebrating a year of Times Radio, the journalist-cum-DJ Matt Chorley listed the lessons he has taken from Coogan’s character, including a repetitive catchphrase, filling dead time, and sending his assistant reams of bad ideas. As Chorley points out, Alan’s rarely been off the air.
It’s harmless enough. I wonder if there’s an edge there, too. Partridge’s broadcasts are funny because he’s not in on the joke. Madeley and his ilk are too smart not to know what they’re doing. At a time when TV success is measured partly by shares and likes, conjuring a few deliberate Partridgeisms is a shortcut to notoriety. Comments that raise the possibility of hanging teenagers who went to fight for Isis can be laughed off with reference to Alan. If the character wasn’t there, they might raise more eyebrows. You could argue that Alan’s presence facilitates an acceptably mild Middle England form of shock-jockism. It’s probably part of the GB News business model.
Alan’s views, once laughably small-c conservative, now sit him in the centre of the British spectrum. He would balk at some of the nonsense being peddled by the far right, and I’ve long suspected I’d rather have a pint with Partridge than Coogan. For all the talk about Bond and no-crease action slacks, at least Alan wouldn’t chew my ear off about phone hacking. Alan became famous as a fish out of water, a man insensitive to the world around him. Few would have suspected that we, the cynical metropolitan TV viewers, would end up being the out of touch ones. We all live in Alan’s world now – especially Matt Hancock – and that’s first class.