Author A.J. Black returns with the latest in his Horror in the Britcom series. This time, he explores the (Nor)folk horror lurking in and around Steve Coogan's hilariously appalling Alan Partridge...
There is a mythology as presented around the Norfolk inhabited by Alan Partridge, the radio and television broadcaster as played by Steve Coogan, who as audiences we have followed for almost thirty years across his wide, varied and often tragic career.
Norfolk has a strange geography both in practical terms and in the psychology of Britons. As we see in ‘Basic Alan’, an episode of I’m Alan Partridge (BBC, 1997-2002), Alan’s friend Dan Moody (Stephen Mangan) reminds us it’s considered ‘the rump of Britain’ before his wife chips in with ‘I think it looks more like a boob.’ The innuendo is intentional, they are after all as Alan calls them ‘sex swappers’, but the point is designed to highlight Norfolk’s difference. Tucked away in the eastern corner of the nation, with a flatter, cod-European sense of natural flat surface made up of fields, farmers and livestock, with towns, villages and the odd city dotted in between, Norfolk feels distant. It feels a long way from anywhere which perhaps explains why Partridge’s origin derives, so memorably, from Norwich. Alan is, and always has been, an isolated figure both internally and externally, and the place and space he inhabits reflects that.
It is in this we can see the connections between Alan Partridge’s Norfolk and traditional British ‘folk horror’ in cinema and television. The term is surprisingly recent – attributed both to Mark Gattis & earlier Piers Haggard post-2000, but the roots of such work go back much further, particularly to what is considered, retrospectively, the ‘Unholy Trinity’ of folk horror films – Witchfinder General (Michael Reeves, 1968), The Blood on Satan’s Claw (Piers Haggard, 1970) and The Wicker Man (Robin Hardy, 1973). Though only one is set in any kind of contemporary time period, they all subscribe to the same evocation of a primal terror lurking in what would otherwise be a pastoral, bucolic British landscape, as Andrew Michael Hurley has described:
‘It’s a recurring motif in folk horror that the countryside beckons to the characters as a place of hope. That events often culminate in graphic violence is a given: this is horror, after all. What is more interesting is the way in which these stories show how we’re seduced by the idea that the natural world is where we’ll find some kind of restoration, enlightenment and, ultimately, peace.’
Though we never see graphic violence in Alan Partridge’s array of series, the threat of it without doubt exists. It nonetheless took those behind the character a while to truly understand this. When we first met Alan, as a sports correspondent for the On the Hour radio show in the very early 90s, he was not framed as distinctly by a sense of geography. Designed by Coogan, and later fleshed out with him by writers Patrick Marber, Peter Baynham & Armando Iannucci, Alan was designed as an amalgam of particular sports commentator figures with distinct voices, such as John Motson & Jim Rosenthal, though Iannucci has claimed that in developing the backstory early on, the assortment of writers swiftly came to feel Alan’s genesis:
‘Someone said, ‘He’s an Alan!’ and someone else said, ‘He’s a Partridge!’ Within minutes we knew where he lived, we’d worked out his backstory, what his aspirations were. We knew he felt the political reporters looked down on him as not a proper journalist; we knew he wanted to be in light entertainment, on television rather than radio. We knew he came from Norwich, because no one knew of a comedy character from Norwich. It was instant.’
It was the advent of I’m Alan Partridge in 1997, arguably the series that transformed Coogan’s character from amusing, cult comic figure into a genuinely iconic British comedy creation, that cemented Alan’s connection to not just Norfolk, but a Norfolk that teetered on the edge of the disturbing and ever so slightly uncanny.
We didn’t see that direct tether in Knowing Me, Knowing You (BBC, 1994-95), the light entertainment chat show which catapulted Alan from sports radio into the limelight as a Michael Barrymore meets Michael Parkinson of his day, but there were flickers of the psychological darkness that would exist on the fringes of his world. Alan brings onto the show Joe Beesley (John Thomson), a broad Northern entertainer who made Alan laugh on holiday with his ventriloquist act ‘Cheeky Monkey’, but Joe dies on stage of nerves and displays what appears to be a near-psychotic attachment to his appendage – indeed Joe returned after almost three decades on Alan’s newest chat show, This Time (BBC, 2019-) and while age had mellowed him, the trauma of Cheeky Monkey remained. Moreover, the final episode of Knowing Me, Knowing You (or KMYWAP) sees Alan unwittingly shoot vile food critic Forbes McCallister (Patrick Marber) to death live on air with an antique shotgun. Alan tries to present a fun, perky half-hour of chat and laughs but at every turn is suffused with trauma, pain and even death.
This reaches a crescendo that sets him on the path toward I’m Alan Partridge in Knowing Me, Knowing Yule (BBC, 1995), his chat show Christmas special devised inside a TV studio mock-up of his house. Aside from leading to him punching BBC boss Tony Hayers (David Schneider) on air, Alan also reveals that over the Christmas period his wife Carol has left him, as have his two grown-up children. The mocked-up house becomes a remnant of family trauma Alan, as he says goodbye to the audience, is left to bear, broken and shaken by events of the broadcast. It is, on one level, the darkest of comedy. Alan is established as an arrogant, self-obsessed and borderline racist chat show host in KMKYWAP but by the end has been abandoned and told he will ‘never work in television again.’ He subsequently does what anyone might do – he retreats to the sanctuary of home, of Norwich, of Norfolk.
The brilliance of I’m Alan Partridge lies in how it transforms Alan from the arena of mockumentary into a traditional sitcom format, replete with laughter track, and allows us a glimpse behind the curtain. The first season presents him as a man caught between two worlds – his past and future. The reality of life working the graveyard shift in local Norwich radio against the aspirational belief that he could return to the BBC. He lives in a ‘travel tavern’; a motorway service station/hotel essentially equidistant between London and Norwich ‘that’s the genius of its location’ Alan stresses. It is, in truth, a depressing existence, especially as he immediately in ‘A Room with an Alan’ is rejected by Hayers at the BBC in a polite meeting which he has no idea is pure BBC courtesy. In 1997, no commissioning editor in their right mind would hire a broadcaster who killed a man on-air (nowadays, all bets are off). Alan exists in a null space; a trapped world where, across the first season, he balances eking out a career, maintaining a profile, and desperately trying to claw back some semblance of the career he believes he deserves.
This series begins, across the six episodes, to explore aspects of the weird Norfolk surrounding Alan’s mid-life crisis attempt at regaining his career and self-respect. For a start, I’m Alan Partridge introduces Michael (Simon Greenall), a Newcastle-born porter and general dogsbody at the Linton travel tavern; the only character beyond Alan’s perennially put-upon PA Lynn Benfield (Felicity Montagu) to move with Alan beyond the first series. Michael is well-meaning but strange. Part of the comedy lies in class and cultural barriers; he ascribes to the ‘comedy northerner’ trope with a thick accent and odd customs the more cultured, refined South find alien. Michael living in Norfolk, a very different space to his Northeast roots, is an open question in itself. He claims to be ex-military, enthralling Alan with talk of battlefield experiences and wild nights in Bangkok etc…, but there is the distinct possibility he could just be a fantasist. There are strong hints that Michael is an aggrandiser. He also could be a coward, given in ‘Basic Alan’ he legs it rather than face the consequences when he & Alan get pulled over by a police officer while stealing a traffic cone.
Either way, Michael neither quite fits the travel tavern nor indeed the petrol station he later goes to work in during the second series of I’m Alan Partridge, in which Alan sees who has by this point become a friend whenever he fills up his car (and you suspect often when he doesn’t need to). Alan in ‘The Colour of Alan’ goes to Michael’s terraced house on what looks a fairly impoverished street, and a strange-looking man walks out, saying nothing to Alan. Is he a flatmate? Brother? Lover? Alan doesn’t know and nor do we. Michael’s life, to some degree, is shrouded in the kind of mystery that creates an underlying sense of threat. He talks in the same episode about his fantasy of gunning down a man he used to know in a helicopter. ‘Oh, he’s just a mate,’ he tells an unnerved Alan when pressed. Michael is at the very least disaffected, possibly delusional and at worst just a little bit psychotic, but Alan is attracted to him as a friend because he is precisely the kind of person he can impress and aggrandise to. Michael is the kind of target audience who cannot see Alan for the abject, chronically self-defeating failure he is.
What we find in I’m Alan Partridge is that however strange and idiosyncratic Alan can be, and whatever odd behaviour he might exhibit, he is frequently outdone by either the eccentrics around him or those he encounters beyond the limits of the travel tavern, in wider Norfolk. Just look at some at the people who call into his radio show. Alan is frequently unnerved by some of the strange folk who contribute to the show. Take the guy who calls in after Alan asks about how you would like to be buried, and Alan reads ‘I’d like to be buried with a couple of Page Three stunners. They’re alive, he says…’ and Alan refuses to read the rest, repulsed by what we are left to imagine in some kind of deeply disturbing, nihilistic combination of sexual allure and necrophilia that is almost too horrendous to contemplate. What about Frederick, the died in the wool nihilist who replies to Alan’s question ‘what happens after we die?’ by talking about his lovely wife and children, including a new baby boy, who claims ‘after death, there is… nothing.’ In so many of these examples, death casts a chilling pallor over the residents of Norfolk who respond to Alan’s oddball questions. Strange attracts strange.
Look at Mary, a caller who he talks to about what people will look like in a billion years’ time, who suggests humans will have no hands, eyes or sex organs. Alan wonders openly what that would look like. ‘Look in the back of a spoon…’ Mary says. ‘In the bathroom…’ and Alan quickly cuts the call, weirded out. She exists in that spectrum of weird Norfolk, the strange voice on the phone, who represents a different threat to Michael. Rather than the coiled spring from an alien part of England who could snap at any moment, Mary is the folk example of the strange, unknowable force who could be anywhere – even next door. Alan will go so far with these people before shutting them down completely. He is eccentric. He is embittered. He is narcissistic. But he’s not weird in the manner of being unknowable. Alan will say strange things, but they are usually a symptom of his random, unfiltered, often poorly judged thought process. He is not one of the Norfolk ‘folk’ residents who might walk past you in one breath and imagine your horrific death or some violent sacrifice on the other, or who might simply be purely insane.
The best example of when Alan is confronted with folk horror is in the episode ‘To Kill a Mocking Alan’, in which he hosts in the travel tavern a rather sad and desperate ‘live’ version of Knowing Me Knowing You, attended largely by a gaggle of middle-aged female fans he has no interest in, and a pair of producers from the Irish RTE (played by Father Ted scribe Arthur Mathews & the other guy who wrote it with him) who he wants to impress. On discovering a super fan has turned up, a guy called Jed Maxwell, Alan ends up recruiting Jed to help him look good in front of the producers but in his blagging, ends up unwittingly pretending Jed’s house is his home, embarrassed by what was described as his ‘sordid little grief hole’ in another episode. On arrival, Alan is confronted by what he didn’t realise was his worst nightmare – not just a super fan but an obsessive stalker and crank caller who has a room filled with Alan arcanum; posters, cuttings, life-size dolls, masks etc… and it immediately terrifies Alan. He wants nothing more to be venerated but entirely on his terms, with such fans at a very clear distance. Fans are a means to Alan’s end of broadcasting success, respect and ultimately financial gain. Jed is so far beyond that line that Alan goes into immediate panic mode.
It is interesting how Jed, much like Michael, is from the north. He is from Leeds, or certainly Yorkshire, and mentions a brother but he lives alone in a sparse house which has an air of unreality. Alan’s null space is a horror of its own making—the desperate retreat of a man whose life has entirely broken down—but Jed’s teeters on the rabbit hole of pure insanity. He has one chair, suggesting nobody visits. He has a picture of Alan on top of his old TV. He has a plate outside on the wall of his garden. ‘What’s that for?’ one of the producers asks. ‘Just… friends…’ a confused Alan claims, himself finding the image strange. Jed’s house is otherwise innocuous. Anyone could live there. A family, an elderly person. There is that haunting feeling that this might not even by Jed’s house. What if the real owners are buried under the patio or in the garden? The 1990s had, remember, been spooked by the horror in increasingly daring soap opera of serial killers lurking amongst traditional urban communities – take Brookside (Channel 4, 1982-2003) and Trevor Jordache being murdered and buried in the garden by his wife. True crime as a concept and sub-genre was a few years away but that existential fear was creeping into British society. Jed is the modern, folk horror approximation of that. He is the cliched obsessive fan, from an alien Northern world, representing Norfolk’s deepest terror.
The climax of that episode is the closest Alan gets, across any of his series, to facing that terror head-on. Escaping a headlock from Jed when he tries to run away, Alan pretends to find simpatico with Jed, who says ‘I just want to be your friend’ imploringly. He plans for Alan to come with him to see his brother but in escaping in his car, Alan calls him ‘a mentalist!’ and drives off, a betrayed Jed raging ‘I’ll rip your bloody head off!’. Alan soon runs out of road and is forced to run, almost tripping over his feet in terror as he races across fields—across the pastoral, supposedly safe Norfolk landscape—aimlessly, screaming for help. It’s both a comical and haunting final moment for an episode that finds a great deal of comedy in Jed, and the revelation about his mania, but it teeters enormously close to horror in the implications. What if Jed had caught up with Alan? Would he have locked him away in the shrine devoted to the man? Would he have turned Alan into a living exhibit? Might he even have killed him to protect, perversely, the secret of his own obsession?
The implications of comedy are often not rigorously considered, as the point is to enjoy the pain or suffering or comeuppance of characters like Alan. He is not designed to be sympathetic, hence why it is much easier to laugh at him being trapped by a maniac than it would be for, say, his assistant Lynn. We are able to appreciate the comedy in much the same manner as Mrs Warboys being trussed up in a sack and thrown down a hill in One Foot in the Grave (BBC, 1990-2000); we can vicariously enjoy the misfortune of an annoying human being. Yet this combination of horror and comedy is different from how the Trotter’s encounter a maniac in Only Fools and Horses (BBC, 1981-2003), how they engage with a psychopath within slasher movie tropes. I’m Alan Partridge exists in less of a safe and ordered world. It is a comedy universe laced with threat and punctured by death. Tony Hayers falls from a roof off-screen and dies, much to Alan’s delight. His successor, Chris Feather, has a heart attack just as he’s about to renew Alan’s contract and dies right in front of him. ‘Here’s to the future!’ Alan thoughtlessly toasts as he fakes the dead man’s signature – though his amoral ruse is clearly rumbled as he never does get that five-year, million-pound contract with the BBC.
As time passes, and Alan thaws as a character somewhat with age, perhaps as the world around him grows ever more aligned with the kind of extreme prejudices Alan once subscribed to, the humour of Partridge moves away from horror into eccentricity. We are provided some sympathy with Alan’s position as a dinosaur—such as when he becomes an unwitting party to a siege in big-screen outing Alpha Papa (Declan Lowney, 2013), created by a colleague who has been put out to pasture and is even more embittered. As a result, the comedy strays less into the folk world of creeping Norfolk horror and by the 2020s, as Alan has finally returned to prime-time BBC television with This Time, he in some ways has come full circle. Norfolk, nevertheless, remains a key part of his DNA as a character. He is inexorably tied up with that strange corner of our isle, that somewhat unknowable land filled with both strangers and familiars, either of whom could have dark secrets and terrifying truths lurking underneath the beautiful landscape.
We laugh at Alan Partridge’s Norfolk, but if we’re ever confronted with the horror within, perhaps we would not be a-ha’ing as much as we thought.