O cursed spite

I’m on a roll / I’m on a roll this time…

It’s remarkable, if you conjure it in the mind’s ear, how comically appropriate Alan Partridge sounds reciting T. S. Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock: how well the poem’s own range of voices, dovetailing sententiousness and whimsy, is matched to Steve Coogan’s mimetic repertoire. Venturing a questionable simile in complete seriousness: “like a patient etherised upon a table”. Anxious mock-questioning: “Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?”. Exasperated expostulation: “it is impossible to say just what I mean!”. Vaguely thirsty wistfulness: “I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each” — ahhh. It’s only a coincidence that Alan Partridge and (J.) Alfred Prufrock share the same initials — Alpha Papa — but it feels like it was meant to be.

The question of what one was “meant to be” hangs over This Time with Alan Partridge as much as it hangs over Prufrock, although Prufrock of course has an answer: “No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be; / Am an attendant lord, one that will do / To swell a progress, start a scene or two”. But Alan is not convinceable that he is not Hamlet — that he does not belong at centre-stage, and that he does not moreover have a vengeful purpose to fulfil. Next to his impeccably slick co-host, he appears as a walking anachronism, a gloweringly incongruous revenant from the BBC’s shameful and hastily-forgotten past. What time is it?

Alan Partridge believes, and has always believed, that the BBC is his home, but he has been a Flying Dutchman figure since the end of the first series, a permanent exile in the world of modern broadcasting, restlessly circulating from one limbo to another. In the first series he was driven by an indefatigable refusal to accept that the cultural forms around which his personality was moulded were irretrievably moribund. As the poet and critic Sean O’Brien wrote about the “paradox of England” in the poetry of Geoffrey Hill: “it won’t lie down, but it appears to be dead”. His subsequent tenure in local radio was about the strange survival of this defunct sensibility in the provincial margins, where it could still be mined for commercial value, its listener-base an ageing and eccentric population. In This Time, this population journeys to the capital in search of recognition and connection (literally, in the case of the guest in episode 2 who travelled down to the London studios twice a week from Sunderland), and is met with the neutralised affect and professionalised hospitality of The One Show.

This Time is less about second chances — we already know that Alan has literally no chance in this environment — than it is about the merciless imperatives of the present moment. The figure most keenly under observation here is not Alan himself, but Susannah Fielding’s superbly realised Jennie Gresham, who projects a coiffed and competent femininity tailor-made for the readership of the Mail Online, her sexual allure simultaneously carefully disavowed and ruthlessly instrumentalised. Where The Day Today pilloried contemporary televisual clichés through surreal mockery, This Time emphasises a glacial normality, bouncing Alan’s meandering and always-inappropriate externalised inner monologue off its imperturbable surface. Can he break through? Already the cracks are showing. Alan Partridge is always at its most engaging when it allows its hero some small triumph: a retort that sticks, an undeniably true observation that no-one else would have been tactless enough to make. He may not come out on top, but he seems likely to bring the house down.