How Alan Partridge’s return to the BBC reflects the changing media landscape

BBC WorldWide 2018/Andy Seymour

How Alan Partridge’s return to the BBC reflects the changing media landscape

Well, nobody died. And with Alan Partridge presenting, that’s always a bonus. A quarter of a century after accidentally shooting a restaurant critic live on air – and later assaulting a BBC executive with a turkey (and then a cheese) – the Norwich-based DJ has been given a second stab at mainstream television.

The return to TV presenting came as a stand in co-host of magazine show This Time, alongside the steadying presence of regular presenter Jenny Gresham. Given Partridge’s track record, the results were perhaps as expected.

Once described as a man “in whose hands the inordinately complex becomes essentially simplistic”, his everyman style was surprisingly well suited to the show, which required him to negotiate such varied topics as baby seals, hand hygiene and cyber terrorism.

True, he managed to turn the first item into an apologia for big oil, while getting his environmental disaster facts completely muddled. And his attempt to turn the tables on a disguised hacktivist interviewee by revealing his identity was not quite the big finish he had hoped for.

However the item on the importance of hand washing was largely factually correct, even if Partridge’s comparison between the decreasing effectiveness of continued antibiotic use and the gifting of chocolates to a female spouse was misjudged. In his assistant Lynn’s words – and on Partridge terms – this was a “solid” showing.

So, has the Partridge come home to roost? Or did he simply fly full circle? In many ways, his career represents the uncertain path (some might say the decline in standards) taken by popular media in the 21st century.

He got his television break as sports presenter on the BBC’s current affairs show The Day Today in 1994, and while his competence as a football commentator was questionable (“Shit! Did you see that?”), his enthusiasm was not.

But it was the BBC2 chat show Knowing Me Knowing You with Alan Partridge that brought his widest audience (though viewing figures soon declined, leading one critic to describe the show as “moribund” – a charge Partridge robustly denied).

Although KMKYWAP arguably followed the traditional light entertainment path trodden by the likes of Terry Wogan, Russell Harty and Michael Aspel, it could also be seen as representing a new breed: the independent television production.

As a result of the 1990 Broadcasting Act, broadcasters such as the BBC were now increasingly commissioning content from independent production companies, rather than making them in-house (a process that continues to the present day).

KMKYWAP was made by Partridge’s own company Peartree Productions. When a second series did not materialise – and various pitches, including one for a Norwich-based detective series called Swallow, were not taken up – Peartree was mothballed (though the presenter could have kept it going if he’d been willing to downsize his car to a Mini Metro).

Then in the digital age, Partridge cannily opted to go non-terrestrial, making military-based daytime quiz Skirmish for the UK Conquest channel. This was the era of cheap, mass-produced content, and Skirmish fit the bill perfectly.

Television trail blazer

In later years, Partridge’s career continued to reflect the changing habits of media production and consumption. Mid Morning Matters (2010-2016) was basically a webcam transmission of his radio show (“sustaining and maintaining our core listenership in an increasingly fragmented marketplace”).

While the first series was online only, the second was made by Sky Atlantic, which also secured rights to Partridge’s award-worthy documentaries, Welcome to the Places of My Life, and Scissored Isle, which saw him re-examine his attitudes towards “chav culture”, perform more than competently on a Tesco checkout, and take ecstasy.

As Partridge himself points out in a recent issue of Radio Times magazine, the fact he was no longer regarded as being “on TV” while working (fairly) regularly on these shows made no sense. He writes: “Do people say Netflix shows aren’t on TV? Of course not. They are and so was I.”

However, his return to the BBC on This Time does still represent his chance to make it, in his own words, “back in the big time”. Did he succeed? Well, he was certainly trying hard.

Partridge prep. BBC Studios/Andy Seymour

Although Partridge’s occasionally endearing but generally gauche amateurism seemed out of place on the BBC in the 1990s, it is a sign of how times have changed that he now looks quite at home when compared with British TV presenters such as Piers Morgan, Richard Madeley and Dan Walker.

As the first episode ended, following an awkward lift exchange with BBC journalist Emily Maitlis, a successful stint on This Time appears unlikely. Yet as the star has shown over the last 25 years, he is clearly able to adapt to changing circumstances.

The Partridge has bounced back. Again.