Like the return of a once favourite show that has long since jumped the shark, news of an Alan Partridge movie was greeted with both joy and trepidation among keen students of the provincial disc jockey.
Let’s face it - the history of beloved English sitcoms hitting the big screen is a sordid roll call of execrable TV shows like Are You Being Served? and On The Buses being made into even more execrable films. With the noble exceptions of The Inbetweeners Movie and the way The Thick of It escalated to DEFCON 3 with In The Loop, small screen Brit comedy does not happily make the transition to the big screen.
With the fictional Norwich DJ's long-awaited (and agonised over) transition to the big screen, Steve Coogan and his team of writers have not, to coin a Partridgism, shot the golden goose by supplanting him somewhere outside his natural habitat.
Aged 55, he is still pompous and still bitter and he is still festering on his mid-morning slot on the broadcasting backwater of North Norfolk Digital. But like those dreadful Seventies sitcoms, the interesting thing about Partridge is that the pungent odour of naffness hangs around everything he does - from the paintings of Spitfires in his study, his salt-and-pepper collar-length mane, to his cringe-inducing Little Englander, Daily Mail-reading myopia.
This is good news because as Alan himself might say, doing a direct-to-camera intro in his best crested sports casual jacket, Alpha Papa could very well be the top comedy dog of the year. You will laugh like a drain. You will shout “back of the net”. You will quite possibly be moved to dig out your Wings and Gary Numan cassettes as you are re-submerged in Alan’s small and small-minded world.
We meet the fallen TV star and minor local celebrity as a battalion of number-crunching managers descends on North Norfolk Digital. The marketing droids re-brand the place with the amorphic and meaningless name of 'Shape' and lay-offs are in the offing. When Alan learns he’s in the firing line, he essays one of his classic acts of spineless self-interest and manages to have his fellow DJ Pat Farrell (Colm Meaney) shafted instead.
The disgruntled Farrell duly marches into Shape's re-launch party with a shotgun and places the station under siege, telling the fast-assembling cops that Alan is the only acceptable hostage negotiator. Meaney is superb as Farrell, the angry Dad rocker who, in his combat jacket, Dublin accent and tufty hair, gets it bang on as a sad sack nice bloke, only a hair trigger away from going postal with his shooter.
Zippily directed by Moone Boy and Fr Ted director Declan Lowney, there is really no let up as the hostage situation develops and Partridge turns the whole drama into a career opportunity. Like a pre-1997 episode of The Simpsons, there’s a gag every 30 seconds and Coogan hits a real groove as he constantly mouths off an endless run of weird, surreal and idiotic observations totally at odds with the deadly serious situation developing around him.
Partridge is on-screen for nearly every moment (including a tortuous full-frontal nude scene which is most disturbing for his taste in socks) and that’s how it should be. Coogan and his regular cast (including the ever-brilliant Felicity Montagu as Alan’s martyr of a PA, Lynn) make it all look so easy, but Alpha Papa was made in the full knowledge that Alan is more than a mere sitcom creation.
Coogan and his exacting writing team of Peter Baynham, Armando Iannucci and Neil and Rob Gibbons know full well that the character has, to coin another Partridgism, ascended to comedy Valhalla and that turning him into a cinematic presence may have been the modern day equivalent of making Fawlty Towers into a film back in 1976. There was far too much at stake to get it wrong.
Coogan himself has said that Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa is like Dog Day Afternoon meets Network and like those movies it is indeed full of oddballs and rampant media egos, but it also tells us a lot more about Partridge himself and the strange little world he inhabits. Now where are those China Crisis CDs?