The competitors in this theoretical two-horse race were always - in second place - Sherlock Holmes and - winning it by a length - Batman.
Alright, mock all you want, but as I say, it's all entirely subjective anyway. It recently occurred to me, however, that there was a third horse I was overlooking: Norfolk's favourite son, or one of them, Alan Gordon Partridge.
Dispensing with the tired horse racing analogy, Partridge is, to my mind at least, easily the greatest British comedy character ever created, in a league of his own ahead of other greats such as Basil Fawlty and David Brent. As well as being funnier even than those brilliant and timeless characters, one quality Partridge has which they don't, and which he shares with Holmes and Bruce Wayne, is longevity. While he has some way to go to attain the levels of durability those characters have shown - 124 years in Holmes' case, 75 and counting in Wayne's - he has far outlasted all the other obviously comparable greats.
Fawlty and Brent lasted two series each (David Brent did of course return with some comic relief specials and Life On The Road in 2016), while Alan has been with us for well over a quarter of a century, since he first appeared on the Radio 4 series On The Hour, before the character was given his own chat show Knowing Me Knowing You the following year. A quite extraordinary lifespan for a comedy character, and one that shows no sign of ending anytime soon.
On The Hour made the transition from radio to TV in 1993, renamed as The Day Today, marking the first time we saw the inept sports presenter on our screens. Knowing Me Knowing You also made the move to TV, giving a wider audience the chance to see Partridge as a standalone character for the first time. The single series of the chat show ended with Partridge accidentally shooting restaurant critic Forbes McAllister through the heart, killing him live on air. The Christmas special saw Partridge punching a disabled guest, as well as BBC chief commissioning editor Tony Hayers. As the TV career of the character died, so the character itself could have, but Alan returned to our screens three years later in the sitcom I'm Alan Partridge.
The change in format proved to be a new beginning for the character. The limitations of the chat show and sports presenter format only hinted at the possibilities, but freed from those constraints, Coogan, along with writers Peter Baynham and Armando Iannucci, revealed depths previously only hinted at. Partridge, now divorced from Carol, was living in a Travel Tavern, compensating for the death of his TV career by working at Radio Norwich, killing time conversing with hotel employee Michael the Geordie, making ridiculous demands of put-upon PA Lynn and trading digs with fellow DJ Dave Clifton. The traditional sitcom format showed us the full extent of Alan's Daily Express-reader Little Englander political views, his anxiety problems, and his bizarre fixation on ladyboys. The portrayal of an eternally bored, bitter and resentful man also brought a pathos that had been glimpsed only briefly in previous incarnations, taking Alan into a realm beyond that of most comedy characters.
The second series of I'm Alan Partridge was the best yet. Now living in a caravan with his younger, 'mildly cretinous' Ukrainian girlfriend Sonya on site while his new home was being built, still killing time with Michael at the BP garage where he now worked and interacting awkwardly with the builders. In this series, Coogan had grown into the character to such an extent that literally every single thing he did was funny: his every facial expression, his increasingly hunched walk, his involuntary throat noises when nervous, displaying an ownership and understanding of the character that is unparalleled. Often asked where Partridge ends and he begins, Coogan recently said to Adam Buxton that there's a lot of him in Partridge and vice-versa - how could there not be when Coogan has now been playing Alan for the majority of his life - and this series was the first time that Coogan truly did disappear into the character, so much so that at times you genuinely forget you're watching a performance. Always a huge fan, it was now that my obsession with Alan Partridge truly kicked in. My day-to-day quotes and Partridgeisms increased exponentially, often to the complete bemusement of friends and family whose love of the character didn't reach the same deranged heights as my own. I had by now discovered that there is barely an everyday situation where a direct quote from partridge cannot be used. Even in the few situations where a quote is not applicable, I often find myself thinking 'what would Alan do?' and answering questions or making points in a deliberately Partridge-esque manner.
In 2011 came the web-only series of fifteen minute shorts Mid Morning Matters, funded by Fosters Lager, exclusively for the Fosters Funny website. Though fairly inauspicious for such a beloved and popular character, this series proved to be pivotal as it was the first outing to be co-written by two new additions to the writing team; brothers Neil and Rob Gibbons. At a time when Partridge had been around for exactly twenty years, Coogan was unsure whether he wanted to play him anymore, understandably wanting to take on more varied and challenging work. This introduction of new writing talent breathed fresh life into the character. The lack of canned laughter for the first time in the character's history added to the feeling that you were watching a real person. Partridge once again left the BBC, this time to move to Sky Atlantic for the one-off documentary Welcome To The Places Of My Life, and two years later, the long talked about Partridge movie was released.
Often rumoured to be about Alan travelling to America to try and find fame, Alpha Papa instead wisely played to the character's parochial strengths, keeping him very much in Norfolk, with Alan working, as he had been in Mid Morning Matters (which by now had also been broadcast on Sky Atlantic), at North Norfolk Digital 'Norf- North Norfolk's best music mix'.
The track record of great TV comedies making the move to the big screen is not good. What works over a thirty minute episode may not necessarily work over ninety minutes, and in most cases doesn't, but Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa managed to buck the trend, the ninety minute running time flying by, and Coogan and the writing team all on top of their game in writing and portraying a character that now seemed to fit them all like a glove. It stands the comedy acid test of continuing to be funny, or even becoming increasingly funny, with repeated viewings. I watched it for what I think was approximately the twentieth time last weekend, and I'm not even beginning to tire of it. More than this, the film showed beyond any doubt that there is much more life in Alan yet and, following on from a superb second series of Mid Morning Matters, Alan Partridge's Scissored Isle was broadcast on Sky Atlantic in 2016.
The tale of Alan's search for redemption, and the reinstatement of several lucrative endorsement contracts, in the wake of angrily calling a teenaged guest a 'chav', the programme, along with Mid Morning Matters and two superb books; I Partridge: We Need To Talk About Alan and Nomad (for full effect, listen to the audio versions of each, both read by Coogan), captured every essence of what makes Partridge so great. His hubris, his sense of entitlement, his cowardice, his cynical opportunism, his deep sense of loneliness, his Simon Heffer-reading Little Englander conservatism, balanced out by a genuine attempt in recent years to be something approaching a social liberal (witness him on Mid Morning Matters talking about being mates with Dale Winton when five years earlier he'd have spat in the face of anyone who suggested the possibility of such a friendship, as well as his new, longer hairstyle), his awful, awful taste in clothes and music. It also contains, in the form of the warehouse sequence, amongst the best five and a half minutes or so in British comedy history.
More than anything, though, Partridge is a man out of place in the world. Like Brent and Fawlty, he just doesn't quite fit in. Anywhere. He's not truly part of any group. He is able to maintain his friendship with Michael the Geordie primarily because of the gulf in intellect. Other than Michael, the only other constant presence in Alan's life is Lynn on her nine-and-a-half-thousand-pounds salary. They remain part of his life largely because they are both subservient. Everyone else just ends up annoying him or, in the case of sudden new best friend Dan, turn out to be 'sex people'.
Via Coogan’s 2017 appearance on The One Show, we learned that Alan Partridge was due to return to BBC television the following year. When the return came it was, appropriately enough, in a One Show-esque primetime magazine show This Time. Drafted in as an emergency co-host, This Time saw Alan on live TV for the first time since Knowing Me, Knowing You.
As with each new incarnation of the character, fans questioned whether the character would work in the new setting. After a solid opening episode, those questions were answered emphatically over the course of the series, as Alan, Coogan and the writers again grew into the format. Some classic Partridge moments, not least Martin Brennan from Sligo, were complemented by brilliant new characters Jennie Gresham and Ruth Duggan, superbly played by Susannah Fielding and Lolly Adefope respectively.
Then, in the midst of lockdown, came a tonic we desperately needed as a third audiobook was released. From The Oasthouse was a compilation of Alan’s new podcast, which saw him talking us through his deeply fulfilling corporate work, sharing awkward silences with a young offender and detailing his complex relationship with his dog Seldom.
The loose podcast format suited the character perfectly, and From The Oasthouse is up there with the best Partridge works. Now, on Friday 30th April, a second series of This Time will be broadcast on BB1.
This successful move back to the character’s spiritual home, and the branching out into audiobooks and podcasts shows that Alan Partridge is, to use his grossly inaccurate description of his doomed chat show; 'a very healthy duck, with plenty of legs'.
By Nathan O'Hagan