Sunday, 1 December 2019

Parkinson, Aspel, Frost, Wogan, Hunniford, Ross, Dimbleby, Lawley, Bragg, Titchmarch, Diamond... Partridge..? Find out, tonight.

Greetings, Ghostwatchers!

Or, should I say, "Aha!"; short of it becoming a bit of an albatross?

Recently, I was asked if anything like Ghostwatch had aired prior to its transmission, and I couldn't really remember much more than just three examples. In an attempt to again answer this age-old question in further detail, it wasn't long before I got slightly bored, and gave up; instead briefly looking forward, post-Ghostwatch, by accident.

Now, quite rightly, many who find themselves helplessly immersed in the Cinéma Vérité milieu are often keen to discuss at length, the cutting, 1994 & 1997 News & Current Affairs parodies, The Day Today, and Brass Eye, as being among those nearest to reach the peak of comedic, de-constructive, anti-TV satire. Arguably, despite being consistently-humourous, trailblazing, and largely worthwhile endeavours, both series' weekly chosen topics of debate had the occasional habit of being so divisive, and knowingly-dismissive of viewers' comfort zones, that back in the day, gags often failed to bubble up through the smog of uncertainty.

Not one to damn those fine works with faint praise, but BBC2's, Knowing Me Knowing You With Alan Partridge, to me, still marks the perfect middle ground in fusing together mass-media criticism, veiled political debate, and poignant characterisation; in a warming stew-pot of beef-casserole-like parody. And I say that, not only chatagorically, but also as an equally-devoted fan of unrivalled sidesquel, I'm Alan Partridge, to boot.

The main reason for this, of course, is dedicated presenter and one-man British institution, Alan Gordon Partridge, himself; an impossibly well-conceived destiny-wrangler, whose obstinate refusal to accept his own glaring limitations has seen him fall at the last hurdle in almost all of his creative endeavours, to date. So lacking in base imagination is Partridge, that even his sharply benumbed, mental coping strategies are rarely able to effectively disguise the fact that he is sadly, far from the best choice in hosting any live event, from local Harvest Festival, to live BBC chat show.

I fondly remember watching KMKYWAP when it first aired in 1994. Prior to this, I was already a fan of Paul and Pauline Calf's masterful Video Diary, as released in January of the very same year; with at least one member of that production's creative team revealing to me that they remain a "huge fan" of Ghostwatch, to this day. I can also just about recall, the characters' slightly earlier debuts on Channel 4's, Saturday Zoo, in which the perpetually-inebriated Baby Cow failed to express even the tiniest morsel of regret for violently confronting a student who once held up a queue in a local fish bar, by writing a cheque for their cone of chips. And before even that, Coogan's earliest appearances on, The Krypton Factor.

According to legend/Wikipedia, the genius of Partridge's conception was care of successful-types, Armando Iannucci, Patrick Marber, Steve Coogan, Richard Herring, and Stewart Lee, who collectively imagined a prospective Sports Reporter for BBC Radio's, On The Hour. As a strangely-familiar composite of a number of largely-irritating television personalities, a strikingly-condensed iteration of the character can be found in aforementioned, frothing fact-bath, The Day Today, in which a clip-reel of Alan commentating on sporting events, and demonstrating about as much knowledge of the rules of football as myself, never fails to raise a smile. "And, another!!" he sparks, watching a player 'score' a second victory goal, just moments after his team-mate successfully rocketed the last, right into the back of the net.

Knowingly or more likely otherwise, Alan's subsequent, bigger break of hosting his very own chat show, shares more than a few aspects with our favourite Hallowe'en Hoax [note: remember to include this excuse to talk about Partridge, in the finished piece].

For starters, the show came to audiences 'live' via Television Centre, with certain episodes including a peculiar 'feature' on set; the first episode's being, a garden fountain. This is somewhat reminiscent of Parky & Smithy's inexplicably, roaring fireplace; though that set-piece had a specific, albeit figurative function later on in the story. In Knowing Me..., the lavish expense barely lasts Partridge's first interview, before he requests it be permanently shut off, for being too distracting; subconsciously and effectively expanding on the series' implied lack of planning, ahead of broadcast.

At the start of each episode, ABA fan, Alan arrives from backstage, shouting, "Aha!", before personally attacking his audience, perhaps into submission. Not literally, that would be hideous. Instead, he mimes either lobbing a grenade, Judo chopping some nearby assailants, or ratta-tat-tatting a Tommy gun towards camera; all tempered with the wry smile of a [technically-speaking] professional broadcaster.

As soon as the show's second episode, seeds are planted for Alan's repressed centre of autonomous creativity, in which he describes an inexplicable and recurrent, 'owl' dream to David Schneider's impossibly-straight-faced, stage hypnotist, Tony Le Mesmer. This insight develops alongside a desire to understand his own sexuality; initially directed at Minnie Driver's delectable, transsexual author & love guru, Daniella Forest. These idiosyncratic notions are both later explored in far more meaning and depth, in follow-up series, I'm Alan Partridge, by way of Alan's unforgettably-bizarre, striptease-oriented daydreams, and disconcertingly-vague, in-hotel, Pay Per View, film selections.

A recurrent motif throughout, Alan frequently struggles to maintain order, either on air, or on set, even when faced with the most initially-docile of guests. His often dismissive and rude manner evokes Parky's clear lack of interest in the Foxhill Case, which usually leads to those who join Alan for a chat either showing their true colours [perhaps, behind the scenes, why Partridge was truly handed the gig], or conversely becoming so enraged when continually faced with his steel-capped prejudices that they visibly begin to question whether all this fame and glory is actually worth it, if it means having to go through him, in their endless quest to reach the top of wherever.

In the series' fifth episode, Alan 'meets' another Alan Partridge [an intermittently-regular section of the show], albeit deceased; and wheeled onto set in his pine box, as per his last wishes, to collect his very own, Alan Partridge Tie & Blazer Badge Combination Pack, and complimentary, DuboSealed, granite-marble mix headstone, in Normandy Grey. You might notice, that late Alan's widow, Mary Partridge is played by Linda Broughton, also known around these here parts as Yvonne Etherley. I wonder if Mary has an equally-unlucky twin sister, based in Northolt..?

Later still during that episode, Alan hosts the disgustingly-sexist as I understand, Miss Norwich finals, featuring willing contestant #2/5 Donna Cookson. I remember, even all those years ago, noticing this guest actress' veiled confusion at the audience's conspicuously raucous applause and bawdy wolf-whistles whenever she is featured. It's a testament to the considerable planning that went into Ghostwatch, that the rail-roading of such impromptu reactions, by way of leaving actors out of the loop was otherwise carefully avoided. Even so, it is interesting to see potentially different methods utilised to achieve Realism, in much the same format.

By the time, this episode shifts into heated round-table, political discourse, courtesy of ever-so-slightly tilted segment, Partridge Over Britain [which happens to feature its very own matte-duotone graphic of Great Britain], our hapless host even takes a familiar, live phone-in call from admittedly-silk-less viewer, David Silk, who briefly posits a question to the knowingly diverse panel of speakers.

In narrative terms, where Ghostwatch could be forgiven for any inevitable shakedown fixes, having obviously not had the luxury of a pilot, the realistic lack of any visible producer or production crew on-screen here helps focus the blame for any mishaps, episode-to-episode, squarely on the shoulders of old Muggins Partridge [somewhat amended in his most recent return for the character in BBC1's slightly underwhelming, This Time, where impossibly-loyal P.A. Lynn Benfield can be seen milling about, between live packages]. That is, until the penultimate [pre-Christmas Special] instalment of Knowing Me..., where the proverbial... shit, well-and-truly hits the fan.

I personally don't believe in the myth of 'Spoilers', but that said, the following probably goes into some added detail regarding the main series' final moments, so if you haven't seen it yet, it might be an idea to pop down to your local Woolworths, pick up a VHS from the shelf, pay for it [assuming that your Access wipes], then head back, ideally to wherever it was that you began reading this article, in order to pick it up, again.

... Back yet? Sitting comfortably? Lovely stuff.

So, Episode Six. Thus far, Partridge has mended/un-mended his fractious relationship with House Band Leader, Glenn [Porn Legend] Ponder, been beaten-up by two young/too-young Hollywood siblings/stars who clearly don't need either edge of the inevitable publicity, had little choice but to ensure an altogether unearned round of applause for unhopeful stand-up act Joe Beasley & Cheeky Monkey, been ridiculed by up-and-coming replacement presenters/Quick-fit fitters, Wanda Harvey & Bridie McMahon, and is now in the process of interviewing the unremittingly-hateful raconteur, Forbes McAllister, regarding his recent acquisition of many of Lord Byron's personal effects; purchased at great cost, and mostly in the hopes of spiting arch-rival, Michael Winner.

When Patrick Marber's truly toxic-tongued Forbes presents Alan with a case containing Byron's duelling pistols, one promptly discharges in Alan's hands, blasting his unsuspecting guest, right through the heart. The pandemonium that follows in the studio is palpable. There's a very quick cut to a standby graphic, suggesting a kind of panic amongst the transmission engineers that producer Ruth Baumgarten did her best to prevent, on the night of transmission for Ghostwatch, itself.


As a subtly blood-spattered Partridge stares aghast at his unintended[?] victim, a BBC Floor Manager races out to ask if there's a doctor in the house, assuring, "There's no need to panic". With the slew of appropriate Health & Safety measures in place these days, thankfully, I can't imagine this sort of thing happening as of late 2019, though a hard and permanent break in transmission would unmistakeably be expected. This doesn't occur during the dénouement of Ghostwatch, of course; as Pipes was by then, already long in the machine, quite literally calling the shots.

In a callous effort to un-sour the atmosphere, there's even a brief mention by Alan of yet another, genuine, pre-record-as-live, BBC foul-up, when Lulu the elephant ran amok "in this very studio" during a 1969 edition of [don't be] Blue Peter. Needless to say, here, Partridge has the last laugh.

Also featuring Alan clueless with a corpse, as in the final episode of the first series of, I'm Alan Partridge, which climaxes with the abrupt, professional tether-ending of Hilton Travel Tavern Manager, Susan, an as-yet unseen producer launches onto the set, and similarly, irrevocably loses his rag with Partridge, live on air. The implicit premise in both instances, suggesting that merely having worked in the same building as Alan, these past six weeks or so, has resulted in nothing but resentment and loathing slowly building, akin to an unattended, rumbling pressure cooker, ready to pop.

His back to camera, Partridge fires again, not using Byron's other pistol, but rather quietly revealing himself as Executive Producer, and terminating the furious member of staff's contract, on the spot, presumably for gross misconduct. In a vain attempt to ensure his first series goes out on as close to a high, as possible, he re-buttons his blazer, all the while, increasingly aware of the Police Officers now waiting in the wings, for a chat themselves [though crucially, this time, the PC wearing a hat, is able to keep his on, and not have it briefly blown off, in a roaring wind]. During a later interview with Clive Anderson, Alan would reveal that he was later cleared of murder and/or manslaughter at a subsequent enquiry, but found guilty of the "Petty" minor offence of, 'Unlicensed use of a firearm'.

It seems, Alan had a particularly good agent at the time, or better yet solicitor, as before the following year was out, he would helm yet another TV special, also broadcast live from Television Centre. For the longest time, the most unyielding nail in AGP's professional coffin, Knowing Me Knowing Yule with Alan Partridge concludes not just with a poultry-fisted punch-up, but moments later, the start of Alan's quarter-century BBC banishment by much-missed Chief Commissioning Editor, Tony Hayers.

A particularly-nuanced moment of Live Light Entertainment verisimilitude can be found in this shot of Alan attempting to play a VHS cassette, only for its magnetically-preserved image to somehow materialise on the waiting television set above, before he can even get the tape properly seated into the tray of the waiting VCR. Again, not quite a sixteen-screen video wall, but the behind-the-scenes technical requirements for the gag are virtually identical.

Notably, there's a tiny mention of the BBC's remit to produce, "Provocative, innovative, experimental drama" as being best exemplified by, Crimewatch UK. Yes, not quite Ghostwatch, but you're in the right ballpark. Also, clutching at straws again, but this line is of course, spoken beside Alan's latest, lavish set piece; a cosily-crackling fireplace.

The show's still going well, and Alan believes that, even after a thrifty, festive rendition of A[lan] Partridge in a Pear Tree has to be cut short, owing to the routine's third wave of dancers coming dangerously close to colliding with a precious kidney dialysis machine that Alan will have to pay for, if not returned in pristine condition. Another real long shot here, but there are just one or two very quick cuts reaching over the fourth wall, into the studio's lighting gantry, as in the climax of you-know-what.

A scene just a tad more reminiscent to us Ghostwatchers, centres on Alan's psychological breakdown, following the unthinking wallop delivered to his former boss's jaw. Like Parky, he then wanders aimlessly about the set, uncertain as what to do when confronted by his patent loss of control, and delicately shuffles off into nothingness... You might say, as if possessed. Or, at the very least, in a visibly trance-like state.

What continues to strike me as being most fascinating in revisiting Knowing Me Knowing You, is just how willing the BBC was at the time to functionally re-badge the premise of "Wouldn't it be interesting to see what might happen if a live show went a bit wrong?"; even down to the advance trailers, which on occasion presented the upcoming programme as being an actual, new chat show. Granted, Coogan's too-sincere delivery as Partridge is evidently funny, but it is remarkable how one genre can seemingly escape criticism in blurring the lines between fact & fiction, and another cannot.

Lest we forget, as a matter of record, post-transmission, the Broadcasting Standards Commission ruled, the BBC had a duty to more-obviously signpost that Ghostwatch was in fact not, a live show. Bearing in mind, that any evaluation as to the function and effectiveness of Art is an entirely subjective notion, it is difficult to foresee any reasonable circumstance in which Drama should be interrupted in order to remind an audience that what they are experiencing is fiction. I can't imagine a sign being planted next to the Mona Lisa, for instance, reading "REMINDER: Just a painting."

However, I wonder if Knowing Me... does in fact, feature such a warning, albeit coded, in its live audience reaction. Perhaps an example of The Mandela Effect, but I personally know somebody who still swears to this day, that they remember watching the premiere of, I'm Alan Partridge, which didn't feature a laugh track; even though the interior shots at Linton were all shot on stage, before a live audience. Perhaps, the proceedings were just too funny for them to have cared, or noticed.

The admittedly-hypothetical similarities as listed above are almost certainly coincidental between productions, but crucially of note, must thereby have been individually derived from a shared, perceived opinion of both the BBC and how the corporation produces live events; extrapolating the most likely interpersonal and technical aspects to fail, during such a high-stakes broadcast. If anything, it is precisely, precision-minded parodies such as these, that most-effectively demonstrate just how much hard work and planning is required, in order for live shows to air without too many noticeable hitches, from start to finish.

Given that the Beeb evidently sees fit to commission these orchestrated, genre-fluid horror-shows from time to time, I wonder if their willingness to do so, in any way mirrors Alan's own inner conflicts concerning the corps' oft-complained, compartmentalised creative process; or in his own words, "BBC Gravy Train". It is, after all, far easier to critique, than to create; but even so, equally refreshing to sense such a well-developed, and self-deprecating sense of humour being encouragingly nurtured behind the scenes.

Just briefly, I know for a fact that the DVD releases of this series are quite different to what initially went out. There's an entire running gag concerning Alan's unethical product placement of German tropical juice drink Sprünt, that was almost entirely missing, on broadcast. As is, the last-millisecond dub of "Angela Lansbury" to Marber's impotent, bad-boy character's original sparring partner, "Jessica Tandy", as I recall, owing to the latter's then-recent passing. I hope the original broadcast versions of these episodes shall also be made available, at some point; including those for The Young Ones and Bottom, particularly.

It's worth mentioning just how special, BBC set design of this era, truly was, too. Perhaps, the closest that Knowing Me... comes to Pipes Sightings; be sure to keep an eye on the ever-evolving series logo mounted on the arch beneath Ponder's band stand; which as the weeks go by, focuses increasingly so, on Partridge's ever-ostentatious, and boundlessly-looping autograph.

Incidentally, also to be found during the wonderful Comic Relief skit, Alan Aid, there's an entirely-coincidental, 'as-live' parallel to be found in this fleeting technical error that appears to be cable-connection-related; so, more historically relevant, than anything. Not counting Pipes' electronic machinations, I can only recall this type of video glitch appearing once during Ghostwatch itself, at around the four-minute, seven-second mark.

See? I don't just write about, Red Dwarf. What else..? Oh, I saw Coogan in an airport once, but was just too jaw-jacked to stop him and say, 'Hi'. As I've currently no reason to doubt that he is an avid reader of my work, I'll do it now. "Hi, Steve Coogan."

But of course, all of this wild speculation is rendered... well, moribund, in light of the true matter at hand here, and that concerns the likelihood of...

... THE BALD OLYMPICS COMING TO BIRMINGHAM!! BALD BRUMMIES!! BALD BRUMMIES!!

And on that bomb-shell, until next time, Ghostwatchers... wishing you all a Happy Christmas, here's Mick Hucknall to sing, Ding Dong Merrily on High, and try not to have sleepless nights.

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