The British film industry has a long and largely unfortunate history of transferring TV comedies to the cinema. From Are You Being Served? to Ali G, many have attempted the jump to the big screen, and with a few honourable exceptions, most have fallen short of success. It’s not an easy task for a writer used to small budgets and limited horizons to up the stakes without taking away what makes the original distinctive, and it also appears to be pretty tricky to decide how to up the stakes, if the number of Britcom films about all of the characters going on holiday together are any indication.
Luckily for all concerned, the writers of Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa have wisely eschewed the chance to bring us Partridge in the Canaries and have instead decided to drop Norwich’s finest into the midst of a siege situation where he’s forced to balance doing what’s right with making the most of the chance to be the centre of attention. Will Alan save the day? And more importantly, is it funny?
I’m relieved to announce that the answer to at least one of these questions is yes. The film successfully manages to include enough familiar faces and references to Partridge past to please the devotees, while not being so stuck in the past as to completely baffle newcomers. There’s both subtlety and slapstick, intelligence and silliness, a couple of good action set-pieces and some lovely shots of the East Anglian coast. The plot’s different enough to make the film distinctive from what’s gone before, yet not so much so that it might as well be an entirely new film which just happens to share a name and setting with earlier works.
That’s not to say it’s a classic by any means. While the laughs come regularly, it never quite hits the heights of the best of the TV work, and while it’s certainly not been sanitised or Americanised, it seems a little softened, somehow. The Alan Partridge of this film somehow looks younger than he did in 1997, and while he remains the pathetic, self-obsessed, hopelessly naff creation we know and sort-of love, he’s not quite as utterly despicable a human being as he used to be. While it seems a little odd to complain that a comedy film isn’t bleak enough, The World’s End has very recently demonstrated that a film can be funny, action-packed and melancholy all at the same time, and it’s that same sort of low-level provincial hopelessness that’s comparatively lacking in Alpha Papa.
The plot rambles a little, and it’s often unclear whether it’s Partridge or the script-writers who can’t decide whose side he’s on. There’s also a slightly odd underlying theme about the selling out and dumbing down of local radio, as if local radio has ever been anything other than complete rubbish. (I suppose the difference is that at least it was local rubbish, whereas modern local commercial radio stations seem completely interchangeable wherever you are.) Having the new character as the main antagonist is an unusual choice, and there’s the problem common to many comedy films of the third act not entirely delivering on the promise of the build-up.
But none of those flaws are fatal. It may not be perfect, but it’s a pretty good stab at taking an old character somewhere new. The new characters and developments fit in perfectly with what’s gone before, and the soundtrack’s excellent (as Alexis Petridis noted in The Guardian a couple of weeks ago, Alan Partridge actually has surprisingly good taste in music). One may question whether they really needed to up the stakes – one of the best episodes of I’m Alan Partridge has no plot other than Alan being bored and having nothing to do – but then again, while half an hour of an awful man being dull can be comedy gold, ninety minutes of the same would stretch the abilities of the writers and the patience of the audience to breaking point.
In the end, Alpha Papa might disappoint some of the hardcore, and confuse some of the uninitiated, but for everyone in-between it proves that even after the best part of thirty years, there’s potential in Partridge. It’s not amazing, but it’s solid, not quite as good as it could be but not nearly as bad as it might be. To say it’s better than the average sitcom film – not as good as In The Loop, a little better than The League of Gentlemen’s Apocalypse, vastly superior to Keith Lemon: The Movie – is to damn with faint praise, but in a way, that feels rather apt.