Alan Partridge is back, but on digital radio. And YouTube. It’s certainly still funny, but it’s also a comment on the state of the art, the infancy of the internet and how we watch comedy on it.
Reports of the death of Alan Partridge as a screen presence had been wildly exaggerated, but the now-legendary creation's return didn't come in the format that many might have expected. For a start, Steve Coogan and Henry Normal's production outfit Baby Cow had always hinted at the possibility of a Partridge movie (presumably one that didn't involve a jaunt abroad and lots of zooming-in on tourist attractions), and the tantalising prospect of a third series of 'I'm Alan Partridge' was never officially ruled out. What was probably furthest from most people's minds though was a format overhaul in the manner of 'Mid-Morning Matters'.
Taking Partridge from the relative comfort of Radio Norfolk to the digital doldrums of the fictional North Norfolk Digital might not seem like an inconceivable leap, but squashing the sitcom format into a series of 13-minute shorts with fixed cameras and rarely more than one room per episode is certainly alien. Getting it sponsored by Foster's beer and committing it to YouTube rather than showing it on the BBC has also irked some, but the Friday morning release date for each weekly segment has offices across the country grinding to (more of) a halt. This format is the work's trump card. More than that, it's the reason why it has become more relevant than any other Partridge project - it's a document of the technological failure we are all experiencing, lovingly realised and superbly detailed.
Limitations of the Internet are gloriously debunked, from the fixed, unflattering webcam angles to the "press escape to exit full screen mode" message that pops up at the beginning of each episode.
The various limitations of the Internet are gloriously debunked, from the fixed, unflattering webcam angles to the "press escape to exit full screen mode" message that pops up at the beginning of each episode. When Alan mistakenly reads out an internal memo on the air, its content makes a telling statement about the health of digital radio - fictional or otherwise. "North Norfolk Digital, sustaining and maintaining our core listenership in an increasingly fragmented market," could surely have been stolen from a filing cabinet in any number of low-rent stations - it just so happens that Partridge has gotten hold of it.
Having the familiarity of Partridge act as a float for the evocation of poor technology works exceptionally well throughout the episodes. Because of that, beyond the still-excellent writing and cringe-inducing features (wine-tasting, attempting to cycle ten miles in thirty minutes, Alan being interviewed by a recording of his own voice), there's a level of textural flimsiness that wouldn't work on television. Mostly, that’s because television still doesn’t know what to do with the Internet. Whenever we see the online world depicted on screen, it's usually a news reporter attempting to look comfortable with Facebook and telling you about child abuse, or Alex Zane smugly destroying his career by showing heavily pixelated YouTube videos. What 'Mid Morning Matters' cleverly realises is that the best way to view the Internet is actually on a computer screen, preferably at your desk and with headphones on.
Its still got the quotability of previous Partridge works (devotees will doubtless already be guffawing at Alan's preference for "hot hot hot hot hot hot hot hot ham" at the water cooler) and the milieu retains that air of manic desperation, but it is the innovative staging that makes it relevant. Each time we see Alan alone at his desk, attempting to stuff an entire orange in his mouth or staring at a dissolving Berocca tablet, it's funny, but not for the sheer silliness of it. It works because this is the sort of thing that really shouldn't be being streamed live on the internet. When people are caught doing odd things blissfully aware that people are watching, it’s inherently funny and the digital age has made it easier to stumble across instances (proof here). All Alan Partridge has done is fail to realise. The Internet has brought us myriad opportunities for humour, but few examples are so inventive and reliant on it as North Norfolk Digital’s backwards radio hell. And there aren’t many videos on YouTube that can make a claim like that.
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