Domnhall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac and Alicia Vikander star in Alex Garland's directorial debut
When local radio station North Norfolk Digital is taken over by Gordale Media, jobs are at stake, with a planned rebranding as “Shape” leaving little room for old hat chat. Parochial tensions escalate into a national news event when disgruntled traditional DJ Pat Farrell (Colm Meaney) decides to literally fight back.
Let’s take a moment to consider that by many people’s yardsticks, Alan Partridge (Steve Coogan) is a relatively successful guy. He has anchored a primetime light entertainment show on BBC1, hosted innumerable hours of chat-based radio, written two books, presented sundry Comic Relief specials, fronted UK Conquest’s military-based quiz show Skirmish and been named sports reporter of the year in 1988. Yet this hard-working character is seen as one of life’s losers, with the cancellations, Toblerone addiction, public humiliations, book-pulpings and clinically fed up period looming large on his résumé. Are the events of feature outing Alpha Papa, then, an opportunity for unalloyed glory of the sort that has somehow eluded him over the course of an eventful career in broadcasting?
In short: no. At least, not from the perspective of Alan himself, whose unseemly enjoyment of his time in the media spotlight illuminating a siege ultimately gives way to all manner of ignominy. From the perspective of the viewer, this makes for a fantastic comedy. The plot, which focuses on how to resolve Pat Farrell’s extended armed standoff at a Norwich radio station, has resulted in contradictory takes from critics. Some reviews praise the decision to keep the frame of reference recognisably modest, British, and North Norfolk-based, while others would have preferred the broader canvas apparently more befitting the scale of cinema. Funnily enough, others applaud the decision to amp things up with a bit of Hollywood-style gunplay, which still others criticise as needlessly bombastic, claiming the charm of Alan is the low-key nature of his adventures.
Actually, we’re in something like Four Lions territory, as we observe very ordinary people caught up in extraordinary circumstances. It’s not slick, it’s not Hollywood - but neither is it business as usual: it’s an emergency happening in a prosaic setting. This is fertile ground for drama, and provokes that same sense of weirdness you sometimes get watching rolling news like the Raoul Moat Northumbria manhunt unfold, where current events start to feel a bit like a peculiar film; it can be hard to visually process that sometimes emergencies happen in defiantly unlikely places. Certainly Alan’s own mood lurches convincingly between experiencing genuine terror, imagining he’s in a film, and falling back on what he knows: the fine art of chat.
Needless to say, it is Alan who has the last laugh. As events progress, Gordale Media honcho Jason Tresswell (Nigel Lindsay), a man who has that catered-to air people acquire when they’re overly used to people agreeing with them all the time, is soon begging Alan to accept a primetime slot. Tresswell is a kind of spiritual successor to Tony Hayers, the late director of programming at the BBC who was responsible in the 1990s for breaking the news of the death of his career to Alan. Alan didn’t respond by instigating an armed siege, but he did flee a restaurant with an unpurchased dairy product. It’s not on the same level as taking hostages with a firearm, but it’s arguably in the same traumatised ballpark, or if not the same ballpark, then the same jointly-owned chain of leisure facilities. All of which is by way of saying that psychologically, Pat Farrell and Alan Partridge haven’t handled rejection as differently as Alan might like to think - they are both men who live for their work - and it makes a certain sense that Pat comes to see Alan as a kindred spirit, while it’s also abundantly clear why Alan might get carried away with himself at the prospect of a man like Tresswell now seeking his approval. With this solid understanding of the characters underpinning everything, the movie is free to riff ridiculously and to great comic effect on everything from local radio to the relative acceptability of offending different religions.
A hilarious addition to the ever-expanding canvas of the versatile Norwich DJ, Alpha Papa provides solid proof that the bouncebackability of Alan Partridge knows no bounds. Lovely stuff.
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