Alan Partridge’s new show is on the telly, I mean, Steve Coogan’s new show as Alan Partridge, veteran broadcaster and king of cringe. His guest is also played by Steve Coogan, a farmer and Alan Partridge impersonator called Martin Brennan: he’s all fake teeth and bad hair and clothes, an English picture of a rural Irishman, a culchie. He closes the show with Irish rebel songs. It is awkward. Brennan’s ruddy cheeked sincerity clashes with Alan’s pressed slacks and bravado. Then the lyrics become apparent. What has he done?
England. It’s all colonies, cluelessness, and cringing. After the Brexit vote, like many in the United Kingdom, I looked to see if I could find any speck of Irish heritage, in hopes of getting another European Union passport. But my family tree is English all the way down; a great aunt and her husband moved to Australia as “Ten Pound Poms” in the 1960s, but that doesn’t count. And while I know more about Northern Ireland than the average English person, that’s a very low bar. Since June 2016, the UK has been radicalized, and splitting (even many who had not voted or not given their votes much thought) into Remainers and Leavers has meant that that everyone has opinions on the Northern Irish backstop. It doesn’t mean they actually understand anything. Everything is so polarised that the consequences for Northern Ireland have become just a factional line.
Political commentators try to make the backstop sound complicated, and they can get away with it because we’re ignorant of baseball and don’t use the word backstop. (54% of the population think “Britain needs a strong leader willing to break the rules,” so it’s not like we’ve learned anything from American politics; five people in Liverpool used a German motorhome to block off an Aldi supermarket depot to protest extending Article 50, one of them wearing a stars and stripes jumper. It’s all going very well.) But no one wants the backstop. It’s an insurance policy, that’s all; it’s so we can have what passes for a functional country, even if we don’t manage to find a permanent solution for the Irish border.
We just celebrated the 21st anniversary of the Good Friday agreement of 1998, and one of the great things about the Nineties Nostalgia—like chunky platform sneakers and the Spice Girls on tour—is Alan Partridge, who first popped up as a radio character in 1991 and on TV in 1993. So let’s talk about Alan, one of Britain’s favourite characters, who so often embodies the English psyche. When Coogan first played Partridge, he was a young man of 26; he was playing so far above his age that the make-up department had to paint crow’s feet on his eyes. Thatcherite, ambitious, and desperate to be powerful (but actually powerless), Partridge began as a naff middle-aged sports reporter from Norwich who rose up the ranks to host his own chat show, Knowing Me, Knowing You. The show got cancelled when the inept Alan shot a guest live on air and then punched his boss in the face with a turkey, which led him back to BBC local radio and then digital micro station North Norfolk Digital (captured in the BBC series I’m Alan Partridge and the web/Sky series Mid-Morning Matters).
Now that Steve Coogan is 54, minimal special effects or prosthetics are needed, and the lines between character and actor can blur. They both share “a keen interest in engineering” and motor vehicles, according to Coogan.
In the fictional world of the show, This Time has called Alan up a guest presenter when one of the much-loved co-hosts is suddenly taken ill. It’s the comeback he’s always wanted, and so we get to see behind the scenes, the full Alan experience. Alan used to have to try to be professional; he would fail, always managing to say and do the wrong thing. That was the comedy. But in 2019, real-life Partridges like Piers Morgan and Richard Madeley are regularly hired as hosts and commentators, because they’re likely to say something politically incorrect and terrible, to produce the broadcast version of clickbait. Political satire struggles to outweird the Brexit reality.
The Conservative Party, in particular, has a full set of Partridges, proto-Trumps with Downton Abbey accents. Take Mark Francois, for example: he was the Shadow Minister for Europe when David Cameron was in Opposition, a defence minister under the Coalition government and briefly a Communities minister until Theresa May took over. But he was just another forgettable portly white man in glasses on the Government side of the House of Commons, until Brexit went absolutely tonto. There he was this week, Mark Gino Francois, the Eurosceptic with the European name, standing at a podium decorated with a portrait of Margaret Thatcher and reciting Tennyson’s Ulysses with no sense of irony or even poetry, calling Britain “Perfidious Albion on speed” and looking ridiculous while getting a ton of press coverage. His father was a D-Day veteran, so he won’t be subject to the “German bullying” of the EU. Obsessed with defending the record of British soldiers in Northern Ireland—and accusing former Republican activists of still engaging in terrorist activity—he wants the backstop ditched.
The backstop itself is an agreement in principle: if no workable deal can be reached on trade and security between the UK and EU after Brexit, then Northern Ireland would stay in the customs union and most of the single market, to guarantee a frictionless border with the Republic of Ireland. That’s simple, just one long sentence. We need the backstop because the civil war on that border took place in living memory, in my living memory, when Alan Partridge was about the same age he is now. The IRA have picked up a bit again, while British politicians have made it quite clear that they have no idea what goes on at Stormont, the Northern Irish Parliament (not a lot at the moment, as power-sharing has broken down). And those of us who do know a bit are terrified, of No Deal, of any changes to the backstop, and of what these Alan Partridges might do.
Why would anyone want changes to an insurance policy that does the minimum possible, and that we hope won’t be needed? But the hardline Brexiteers in and around the European Research Group (ERG), the Trumpian lot, want the backstop removed, or with a time limit, or they won’t vote for Theresa May’s Brexit deal. (It’s meant to be temporary! How can you cut off your insurance early?) This group had given Ireland literally no thought, and they’re fine with No Deal—no deal and no backstop—because they reckon that because the UK doesn’t want a hard border, and neither does the EU, it will all be fine. The DUP also doesn’t want the backstop, the unionist Northern Irish party with terrible reactionary views keeping Theresa May in power; it would create a border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, since the rest of the UK aren’t covered by the customs union and single market bits of the backstop, and any special exceptions for Northern Ireland might fast track their greatest fear, a united Ireland. Support for that is still low, but that could change: the one thing most of Northern Ireland agrees on is staying in the EU.
And so, these ERG lads stand on stages doing the poems they know from memory, plus the odd bit of Latin from Jacob “Nanny!” Rees-Mogg; they quote the military history stuff that they’re weirdly into, in Partridge-like ways. They drive their sports cars around the countryside with the top down like they’re Daniel Cleaver taking Bridget Jones for an ill-fated minibreak, making endless politically incorrect faux-pas and complain about “the woke brigade” when they get caught being racist. Everyone invokes the spirit of Winston Churchill, the most popular politician we’ve ever had, and one of the most problematic.
This is all very entertaining, but it won’t be fine. We need the backstop until we get a proper agreement between the UK and EU, so Northern Ireland doesn’t descend into chaos.
This is why we laughed so hard when This Time with Alan Partridge went out, when Alan clapped and tapped his feet nervously along with the passionate performance of “Martin Brennan.” Alan Partridge, played by Steve Coogan, sitting opposite his impersonator, played by Steve Coogan, a Mancunian of Irish Catholic heritage. Brennan raised his fists and beat his chest, over an Argyle-patterned sweater vest, in time with the bodhran, ruddy cheeked and deadly serious. He swung his arms enthusiastically in marching style and the camera switched to Partridge, smiling with tight lips, getting more and more embarrassed as he watched “himself.” Another fine mess he’d got himself into.
Those Irish rebel songs were “Come Out, Ye Black and Tans” and “The Men Behind The Wire,” and it was an English man playing an Irish man singing songs popular with the IRA, the terrorists who took so many lives and nearly blew up Thatcher (the Black and Tans were the British soldiers sent to Ireland by Winston Churchill). People in Ireland take instinctive, not particularly well-informed positions about the rights and wrongs of a united Ireland, while people in the UK are harking back to the “sensible” days of the Blair government and the Good Friday Agreement, or rubbishing them; meanwhile, the New IRA have ramped up their activities, including a bombing in Derry in January.
Meanwhile, Alan Partridge responds to the music. “Oh my God, that was like an advert for the IRA.”
We cackle. It’s hilarious. It’s awkward. It’s inappropriate. It’s a bit scary. It’s . . . very Brexit.