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7 Questions with… This Time host Alan Partridge: ‘It’s as sassy as Bunty!’
As Steve Coogan’s comic creation finally gets a second series, we chat to the man himself about Covid, doughnut etiquette and whether he and co-host Jennie are the new Ant and Dec.
When Alan Partridge finally got the call to come back to the BBC in 2019, he was facing a whole new TV landscape 25 years on from the abrupt end of his one-season chat show Knowing Me, Knowing You.
After a turbulent first series that saw him go from stand-in to permanent host, Alan has settled into his seat on the This Time sofa alongside Jennie Gresham, and - at last! - has got his long-awaited second series.
As Steve Coogan’s hapless alter ego prepares to take over the TV studio once more, we settle down to ask him seven burning questions.
1. Alan, welcome back! For the uninitiated, what can you tell us about This Time?
It’s what’s known as a magazine show, bottling all of the magic of magazine reading and translating that into 30 minutes of TV. Some people sneer at magazines, but imagine a world without magazines, with readers having to make do with books, newspapers and letters. A chilling prospect.
This Time manages to be all your favourite magazines rolled into one. As informative as the Reader’s Digest, as sassy as Bunty, as entertaining as Private Eye pre-Hislop, as debonaire as Conde Nast Traveler, as fair-minded as The Spectator.
Our goal? To deliver telly people talk about – what BBC execs still refer to as water cooler TV, even when you point out everyone works from home these days so office water coolers are just stagnant receptacles going mouldy round the nozzle.
2. Describe a typical day on the show
I like to arrive at the BBC early.
I often bring in a box of doughnuts for the team and say ‘dig in’ while I stand beside the box to ensure no one takes more than their allocated one. It’s a shame I need to police it but this is the modern BBC for you.
The editorial meeting will discuss items we can cover in future episodes. It’s all fairly workaday so I like to hurl in more daring ideas – often just semi-thoughts like ‘zerogravity?’ or ‘livefromBroadmoor?’ – and yes, 99.9% of them will be quite rightly discarded. But it’s that 0.1% that could one day scoop us a nomination for a National Television Award.
At lunch, I’ll grab a sandwich and go and look down into the atrium occupied by BBC News to see if I can see them ready the One O’Clock News, while my co-presenter Jennie Gresham spends time with her phone.
After lunch, another meeting, this one running through that evening’s show. I tend to tune out of this one. It is possible to over-prepare for a show, and render it stale. Instead I prefer to experience parts of the show as a viewer would – which means sometimes I won’t really know who a guest is until they come on, or what Jennie’s report is about or why the man in my earpiece is saying I have to walk to the other side of the studio.
And then it’s all about getting ready for the show. I’ll sit in hair and makeup for half an hour and then retire to my dressing room to instantly redo my hair, unmaking all the mistakes the hairstylist wouldn’t have made if she’d been listening.
Then I dress, do 10 pushups, finish the doughnuts if there are any left, and wait for the show to start.
3. What’s it like presenting alongside such a popular presenter as Jennie Gresham?
A keen tennis player and childless, Jennie likes nothing more than catching up on the soaps, reading the Guardian newspaper or shopping for the latest iPads. She’s modern, sassy and wants it all!
It’s fair to say we approach our roles as co-anchors slightly differently. One of us can be seen presenting umpteen other BBC shows from Walking the Lakes with Jennie Gresham to The Unexplored Brontes with Jennie Gresham to Inside John Lewis with Jennie Gresham to Jennie Gresham’s NHS Heroes. The other one prefers to dedicate him or herself exclusively to This Time because he/she happens to think the show and our viewers deserve that, but each to their own.
4. How would you describe your working relationship?
We’ve had our ups and downs - it’s like a marriage. Very like a marriage in that we sit next to each other on a sofa, we don’t face each other when we talk and there’s no sex or suggestion of sex.
Are we friends? Well, are Ant and Dec friends? Are Holly and Phil? Are Richard and Judy? No, of course not. But we dovetail, at least I do.
5. And the rest of the team?
Roving reporter Ruth Duggan is a hugely popular member of the team, her charismatic smile redolent of public figures such as Priti Patel.
Off-air she has a tendency to mutter but on-air she’s clear and informative. Yes, I like Ruth very much. Are we bosom buddies? No. She’d probably mutter that ‘bosom buddies’ is sexist and no better than saying ‘mammary mates’ or ‘chest chums’. But that’s part of her wonderfully dry sense of humour. Yes, I like Ruth very much.
Simon Denton is our social media man. His role has slightly expanded, as has he due to inactivity during lockdown. He’s keen to take on more of a presenting brief, but that’s something we can revisit at the back end of next year or the first half of 2023.
And talk about funny! From puns to quips to voices (he now has 10 voices!) to wry sideways looks at things, this guy comedically has it all and provides some welcome light relief, particularly after Ruth’s been on.
And then there’s crew who I won’t name. They’re broadly fine.
As for me, I’m just an old codger who potters in his garden and happens to be good at advanced driving.
6. How has the show continued amid the Covid pandemic?
We’ve coped manfully and womanfully. We even have a studio audience for every show. They have to socially distance when the camera is on them but out of shot they can do what they like.
For the crew though, it’s a different story. Temperature tests on entry, no sharing water bottles, compulsory masks and of course regular testing which I’ve not enjoyed.
I’ve had an overactive gag reflex ever since a drinking game I was made to play on a stag do. This makes Covid testing an ordeal. I’ve had to develop a routine to stave off panic. I numb the throat with an anaesthetic spray, eliminating as much sensation as possible. With my tonsils deadened, I blindfold myself, put on a loud piece of music, open my mouth and count to 500.
The Covid tester has until then to sneak in, swab, and leave. If they’re not heavily odoured, I can get to 500 without even knowing I’d been tested. It’s a rigmarole, but it works.
7. This Time saw you return to presenting on the BBC after 25 years. How did it feel to be back on BBC One after such a long time?
It’s like stumbling across a long-discarded pair of trousers in the back of your wardrobe. You’d grown out of them decades earlier but now due to a new fitness regime and gastric flu that means you can’t keep food down, they fit again.
You put them on, savouring the snug grip of waistband on midriff, perhaps parading up and down the landing like it’s a catwalk.
Obviously, chances are you’ll regain that weight and outgrow the slacks again, but right now? It feels intensely satisfying. That is what it feels like to be back on the BBC. I can’t put it any clearer than that.
I’ve now had the pleasure of presenting the show since 2019 and for billions of households up and down the country, I’m now part of the furniture – one of the good ones such as an elegant sideboard or a sleek TV/stereo unit.
This Time with Alan Partridge returns to BBC One on Friday, April 30 at 9.30pm