Alan Partridge on teen years, getting older and why, in a way, he's always been a chat show host

Alan Partridge has been a constant on our TVs and airwaves for over 30 years. Even when there have been tricky, sometimes Toblerone-flecked, years in the wilderness he has bounced back

Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge. Portrait by Adam Lawrence

Alan Partridge was born on 2 April 1955 in King’s Lynn. After a long, unpaid stint on hospital radio station Radio Smile at St Luke’s Hospital, Norwich (1975-’83), he became a radio traffic reporter and, by the late 80s was a sports reporter on Radio Norwich, honing the enthusiastic commentary style which would later serve him so well on the BBC shows On The Hour and The Day Today.

In 1994 Partridge was given his own chat show, Knowing Me, Knowing You, at his beloved BBC. It sadly ended in tragedy when he accidentally shot and killed restaurant critic Forbes McAllister on air.

Scene from I'm Alan Partridge
With assistant Lynn, girlfriend Sonja and friend Michael in season 2. Image: BBC Pictures

The following year, he suffered a bitter personal blow as his wife Carol, mother to his two children Fernando and Denise, left him for her fitness instructor. This may have contributed to his a breakdown while filming his Xmas TV special Knowing Me, Knowing Yule, during which he punched BBC Commissioning Editor Tony Hayers with a turkey.   

Alan Patridge’s stint as a long-term guest in the Linton Travel Tavern was immortalised in 1997, when the first series of the fly-on-the-wall documentary I’m Alan Partridge was aired. The second series followed in 2002, focusing on his relationship with his Ukrainian girlfriend Sonja Puchkovskaya (right), and telling all about his harrowing Toblerone addiction.

Big Issue cover

After a wilderness period, which saw Partridge attempt to rebrand as a life coach, he returned to his roots in 2011, presenting Mid Morning Matters, a North Norfolk Digital radio show. Back on track, a number of documentaries followed – among them tributes to his home county (Welcome To The Places Of My Life) and Britain’s class divide (Alan Partridge’s Scissored Isle – as well as his autobiography I, Partridge: We Need To Talk About Alan.

Partridge appeared on the cover of Big Issue in 2017 alongside The Thick of It’s Malcolm Tucker to discuss Brexit. The pair don’t get on very well, even when Partridge recommends mindfulness to the angry spin doctor – “I know three people who’ve given it a go. One of them killed himself, but it worked wonders for the other two.”

In 2019, he made his BBC return with This Time, a current affairs programme. Highlights included him performing mouth-to-mouth resuscitation on a mannequin called Eileen (“Come on, Eileen!”) soundtracked by Queen’s Another One Bites the Dust and meeting an lookalike who sang Irish republican songs on air. Following the second series, Partridge opted to move into podcasting with The Oasthouse, now on its third series.

Speaking to The Big Issue for his Letter to My Younger Self, Alan Partridge reflects on a life which has brought him professional success, but on a personal level has been a bit of mixed bag, if we’re being honest

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Paint a picture for us – what kind of teenage boy were you?

I wasn’t your typical teenager. Whether it was because my mum cut my hair or because I wasn’t allowed to sit in the front seat of the car until I was 15, I retained a wonderfully childlike quality long into adolescence. I’d spend weekends – not sniffing glue or kissing with tongues – but collecting conkers or drawing pictures of the Red Arrows or writing letters to the Red Arrows. 

The day before my 15th birthday, I had my passing out parade at the Scout hut. I shook hands with every Scout there, saluted the Scout Leader, lowered and folded the flag and then, while the others ran off to the recreation ground to hoik up a rope swing, I walked in the other direction – needing to find myself. I walked for what seemed like miles but was probably just kilometres until, in the window of a charity shop, I saw a denim jacket and knew I had to have it. I bought it, tossed my neckerchief into a river and donned the denim. Even though it was a woman’s jacket initially made for a female darts team, wearing it transformed me. Suddenly I had swagger, attitude and beef. If clothes maketh the man, then that denim jacket sure madeketh me. 

The voice of Radio Norwich. Image: Jackie Di Stefano/Shutterstock

What were your main concerns and preoccupations?

Throughout these years, scouting always came first – had to, we’d sworn allegiance to Lord Baden Powell and Her Majesty the Queen and I’m sorry but that meant something. But after leaving the Scouts due to my age, my world opened up. Suddenly my eyes were opened to music, girls, cars and yes, the odd illicit substance! While drugs per se didn’t arrive in Norwich until the late ’70s, I’d learned that you could open the cola mixer tap in the school canteen and pour out some syrup to get a sugar rush. High on the cocktail of vegetable extracts, me and another boy would spend afternoons giggling and talking at 100mph, or 70mph certainly. 

All good fun but soon I began to fixate on these stolen gulps of sugar. I’m not saying I became dependent – that would trivialise substance issues – but I sure wanted it very much. One day it dawned on me: I barely recognised the boy I had become – one who said ‘yeah’ instead of ‘yes’ and ‘what’ instead of ‘pardon’, a boy who could barely remember how to even draw a Red Arrow. I knew I had to beat this. Fortunately, one weekend, the canteen changed the mixer to something called Trident Cola which tasted absolutely rancid.  

Season one of I’m Alan Partridge. Image: BBC Pictures

How did you get on with the opposite sex?

Was I a hit with the girls? Not really. My mother told me that holding hands with a girl could cause her to fall pregnant, but she didn’t explain it was a joke for several years and even though I knew it probably wasn’t true, the holding-hands-pregnant thing did retard my confidence around girls. 

Things changed one hot summer. I had always suffered from nosebleeds and would regularly have to sit with the school nurse until they subsided. One day, a new girl – who was also having a nosebleed – plonked herself next to me. We sat in silence that afternoon and on many other afternoons thereafter; over time, a bond began to form and soon we’d find ourselves sitting outside the nurse’s office, silently holding each other’s hand while our remaining hand clutched tissues to our respective noses. 

Everyone called her Bloody Mary, but I later found out her name was Helen. She moved away over the holidays and, though I’m sad we never spoke, I cherish those quietly companionable nosebleed afternoons.  

Did you always have an ambition to be a chat show host? 

In a way, I’ve always been a chat show host, forever peppering parents and teachers with questions and conversation-starters. From slightly annoying ones like “Are we nearly there yet?” or “Why does dad make a murmuring noise when he eats?” – to deeper, more existential queries such as “Does God see women getting undressed?” As I grew older, people began to say, “What is this, some kind of interview?” and I realised that I had matured into a very accomplished interlocutor. I’d see the likes of Johnny Carson and David Frost on the TV and realise that if they could earn fame and fortune asking questions, then so could I.  

And I did. Without being vulgar (I know this is a magazine for the homeless) I have earned more than £150,000 in 18 of the last 25 years.

Alan Partridge with three women dressed in Santa outfits
Hosting Knowing Me Knowing Yule, 1995. Image: Everett Collection Inc / Alamy Stock Photo

If you could time travel back to your younger self and use your hindsight to give him some useful advice, what would you tell him?

Believe me, if I could travel back in time, I have a list of things I’d do before I doled out advice to myself. Kill baby Hitler, shake hands with Moses, ride a dinosaur, not shoot a man on live TV. Having completed my list, sure, I’d sit down with the slightly younger me and offer some advice. Namely: do not buy crypto, no matter how many times the ad appears online. And when going through a divorce, find your own lawyer, do not use the one your ex-wife suggests. She has a vested interest in you having a bad lawyer. It’s obvious. 

Do you think the BBC has always treated you well? Have you always been shown the respect you feel you deserve?

I have no beef with the BBC. Interestingly, I’m one of the few broadcasters to have been sacked by the corporation twice. The last time? Well, you might think I’d be upset at what was a pretty clear-cut case of unfair dismissal. After all, I was grieving the death of my big dead dog Seldom. I needed and deserved sympathy. None came. And yet, I forgive them. 

But their cruel treatment of me is one thing; their decision to snub the death of Seldom is quite another. In the weeks before Seldom died, the crew of This Time had held one-minute silences for Gerry Marsden, Captain Tom, Prince Philip and Michael Apted – three of whom I have heard of. When I asked that the same honour be afforded my dead dog, I was given short shrift. Seldom’s death went unmarked by the corporation. I can forgive a lot but that? That, I will not, cannot and shall not forgive, ever. I will never, ever, ever, ever, ever forgive them.

Alan Partridge
1998: Presenting a Brit Award to “the talented and not unattractive” All Saints for best video. Image: JM Enternational/Shutterstock

What have you learned about yourself as a husband and father along the way?

It’s important to remember that being a husband or a father accounts for only a small part of who you are – something my ex-wife Carol never fully understood. At social functions, she’d sometimes embarrass me/herself by answering the question “And what do you do?” with the words: “I’m a full-time mum.” I would quickly laugh and explain to her that a mum isn’t a job, and that she was technically unemployed. Because I was employed, I was able to bring in fresh or American ideas from the world of broadcasting and business and deploy them in a domestic setting, something I was keen to impress on Carol during her annual review. 

This imposed some welcome structure on the family unit, with me re-imagining my wife and kids as members of a TV crew. Myself as presenter and executive producer; Carol, the huffy floor manager, wayward son Fernando was every inch the gobby cameraman and daughter Denise – who had a hormone defect that reduced her to tantrums most days – was the make-up lady because that’s a thing that make-up ladies do. It all worked beautifully. Yes, the marriage ended in a painful divorce and I became estranged from my kids but I don’t think anyone is suggesting that was my fault. It was Carol’s fault. Carol and the kids.

How does the pressure of your job sit with you? Do you enjoy being a celebrity?

Nightclub and tits impresario Peter Stringfellow used to have a saying, “A diamond is just a piece of coal put under pressure”. Odd from a man who buckled so cravenly under financial pressure that he declared himself bankrupt not once but twice. Still! There’s something in it. And I like to think I thrive under pressure, as long as I’ve had a nap and a snack. And make no mistake, being in the public eye –  I almost said ‘pubic’ then! Horrible! – being in the public eye, does bring a certain amount of pressure. People want to approach and chat. They take photographs. They tut if you snap at a waitress. 

Fortunately, my assistant understands the pressures of fame and creates a ring of steel around me to limit interactions with the public. She’s my first line of defence, bodychecking anyone who gets too close like a Baptist linebacker and on one occasion smashing a sightseer’s camera. I find that hugely comforting.

Alan Partridge
Alan Partridge’s Scissored Isle, 2016. Image: Sky TV/Colin Hutton

What advice would you give your younger self about getting older?

Put simply, ageing is drying. You’re drying out with every day that passes. Your hair goes wiry, your skin gets chapped, lips crack, feet itch, bum wrinkles, odour gets musty. The trick to staying young? Moisture, moisture, moisture. Eliminate dryness aggressively and often. Conditioner, skin lotion, coconut oil, lip balm, lacquers, creams, ointments and mists. Get wet and stay wet. 

If you could re-live one day of your life so far, what day would it be?

We actually had this exact conversation over Zoom, me and a few broadcasting chums. I said the happiest day of my life – the day I’d love to relive – was the day I met Princess Anne. Others had their own favourites: James May said his was the day Clarkson punched that producer; Deborah Meaden said it was the day she moved into a new house and found two grand in a child’s shoebox; Les Dennis said the first time he slept with Holden, and Jake Humphrey smiled to himself and said the best day of his life hasn’t happened yet. Well, we all wet ourselves. The guy talks bollocks. 

Big Beacon  book cover

Big Beacon by Alan Partridge, written by Steve Coogan, and Rob & Neil Gibbons, is out now ( Seven Dials, £25) 

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income. To support our work buy a copy!

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