This article contains spoilers for episode one of This Time With Alan Partridge.
Alan Partridge never got that second run of Knowing Me Knowing You, but more than 20 years after thrusting a block of cheese into the face of Tony Hayers he’s been thrown an unexpected career lifeline by the BBC.
Episode one of This Time With Alan Partridge drops Steve Coogan’s hapless broadcaster back onto primetime Beeb as co-host of a magazine show after regular presenter, John Baskell, falls ill. This Time is strikingly similar to The One Show, cartwheeling between the lightweight, ludicrous and deadly-serious within seconds (no wonder Mel Brooks was baffled).
For Partridge, it’s an unlikely shot at redemption… fortunately for us, though, Alan 2019 is as inept, calamitous and excruciating in front of the camera as he’s ever been. Unfolding in real time, This Time switches between Partridge in full flow for the cameras and, when the show cuts to VT segments, his more private, off-air moments. It kicks off with Alan gasping for water (“my mouth is dryyy!”) seconds before going live. It’s a moment of vulnerability, and one of the big reasons why This Time works so well. The ‘live’ TV format gives Partridge room to be his pompous, over-confident self, while the off-air moments see his insecurities and petty small-mindedness magnified under the studio spotlights at Broadcasting House.
Sitting alongside Partridge is Susannah Fielding’s Jenny Gresham, a mix of Alex Jones’s unwavering optimism and Susanna Reid’s eternal patience. On the face of it this is a straight-woman role, but Fielding’s subtle eye rolls, pained expressions and well-chosen comments to keep her co-host in check make her integral to This Time’s comedy dynamic. A running gag about Jenny stealing Alan’s off-air jokes and deploying them when the cameras come back on is a cunning power move that suggests tension will develop between the pair as the series progresses.
There are familiar Partridge faces, too. Alan’s loyal assistant Lynn (Felicity Montgu), absent from Mid Morning Matters and the Sky documentaries, returns to deliver pep talks and make sure Alan doesn’t let this BBC opportunity slip through his grasp. This Lynn is steelier and more determined than we’ve seen previously, transformed from put-upon to puppet master.
Tim Key’s Sidekick Simon is also back – he’s in control, in the loosest sense of the word, of This Time’s ‘digiwall’. Simon’s inability to work the device’s touchscreen controls is one of many cringe-worthy blunders in the inaugural episode.
In fact, the most impressive thing about This Time is how many gags it manages to pack into its 30-minute running time. There’s Partridge mixing up a studio guest’s surname, mistakenly calling her “Alice Clunt” instead of “Fluck” (“I see what I’ve done there.”), escalating slander over a Shell oil spill and a combative interview with a hacktivist who breaks into Partridge’s emails (“Guess who’s back in the big time?”).
Perhaps the episode’s highlight, though, is a pre-recorded segment that sees Partridge dispatched to investigate hygiene. Alan out in the field is usually a recipe for comedy dynamite (see his last outing, Scissored Isle, as a prime example), and that’s the case here as he lurks outside the BBC bathrooms to quiz staff on their toilet routines, becomes infatuated with an interviewee’s lathered up hands, and likens the overuse of antibiotics to the futility of giving a “miffed spouse” chocolates as a means of apology.
Alan’s return to the BBC opens up the possibility of him coming into contact with other familiar Beeb faces, and in episode one’s closing moments we get an appearance from Newsnight presenter Emily Maitlis. Naturally, the interaction is a painfully awkward one. More Beeb-centric cameos are surely on the way.
On the evidence of the first episode, This Time is a triumphant, hilarious BBC return for Partridge. Coogan and co-writers Neil Gibbons and Rob Gibbons use the magazine show format to devastatingly funny effect, and their willingness to experiment with Partridge and push him into new territory has been key to his longevity. It works brilliantly here, too. The character has spent so long in local radio exile it’s tricky for him to plummet any lower. This Time gives the character a genuine opportunity to bounce back, and watching him try to navigate this has resulted in an excellent addition to the Partridgeverse.
This Time With Alan Partridge continues next Monday, 4 March, at 9.30pm on BBC One.