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Alpha Papa: Norwich sticks it in the back of the net

August 16, 2013
Cromer pier and town, viewed from the east.

Cromer pier, long overdue a supporting role in a major motion picture. (picture: Gerry Balding)

For a native of Norwich, one of the secret joys of watching Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa was seeing how my home city looked on the big screen. More specifically, I grew up in the North Norfolk hinterland which Alan has called home ever since his primetime career exploded in the moment it took to punch a television executive in the face with a semi-stuffed turkey. Norwich and Partridge have become inseparable in the public mind over the last couple decades, but it wasn’t always thus. During the chat-show years the city was little more than a totem for Alan’s little-Englander provincialism: a modestly appointed town of no great resonance which he absurdly promotes as the centre of the universe (summed up in the pithy assertion: “Norwich is an attitude”). The city had to wait until the Christmas special for its first cameo role, a whistle-stop tour of landmarks including the cathedral cloisters (Alan’s favourite jogging-cum-negotiating spot), the famously pedestrianised city centre (scene of a “bloody big fight”) and my birthplace, the venerable Norfolk and Norwich Hospital (since demolished).

The early episodes of I’m Alan Partridge was largely filmed in Hertfordshire: I felt slightly cheated when I found out, having spent hours trying to identify the stretch of the A11 that Alan strides along while singing the theme tune from Goldfinger, or the bit of ringroad where he makes his fateful decision to invest in tungsten tip screws. But as the series have gone by, Norfolk’s landscape has become part of the Partridge furniture. One of the treats of Mid Morning Matters is the way East Anglia’s ungainly yet evocative placenames (Hickling, Terrington St Clement, Spixworth) are woven into Partridge’s rambling monologues. (Impressively, Coogan has managed to dodge the many pronunciation pitfalls lurking on the map such as Happisburgh, Costessey and Great Hautbois*). Yet the exact location of North Norfolk Digital has always been disconcertingly vague: Wroxham? North Walsham? Cromer? Surely not Fakenham?

I’m always amused to hear Norwich’s civic leaders asked if their city feels slighted by the existence of Partridge. The jokes are clearly at the expense of the character, not the city, though that hasn’t stopped a few humourless local councillors taking umbrage. It’s more as if there’s an extra gag written into the backstory specially for Norvicensians. It goes like this: Partridge is a universal misfit, and that extends to his home town. His constant absurd efforts to big up Norwich founder on the city’s indifference to self-aggrandisement. When he stands in Norwich Station listing the stops on the way to London (Rejection, Disappointment, Backstabbing Central, Shattered Dreams Parkway) he’s rewarded with not so much as a sideways glance. The signs at the boundary (as featured in Alpha Papa) proclaim: ‘Welcome to Norwich, a Fine City’. To me that’s always summed up the city’s sense of itself: it doesn’t go in for puffed-up chest-beating or in-your-face marketing. A fine city, self-confident but unpretentious. If you think you’ve got better places to be, get yourself off there.

In Alpha Papa, Norfolk at last claims a proper supporting role. The film-makers deserve much credit for making the most of the location’s dramatic potential. Cromer Pier, with its old-style rotunda theatre and ornate Victoriana stacked up on tall, jutting cliffs (Noel Coward take note), is a natural movie star that’s waited too long to be discovered. The equivalent, perhaps, of a once-promising Hollywood starlet who went on a downward spiral of drink and drugs but can still do a convincing turn as a dottily  appealing mother-in-law. It stages the opening shots, featuring waves crashing into weathered breakwaters, and the tragicomic denouement. Similarly the coastal towns, with their fading Victorian seaside splendour, meandering clifftop roads and caravan parks, perfectly fit the downbeat-thriller tone. Even the mismatched architecture of the city centre, where the 1930s City Hall scraps for attention with the medieval flint-fronted Guildhall and the clutter of the market stalls, suits the crazy-paving plot. Alpha Papa is characterised by a kind of kitsch nostalgia: for old-school hostage movies, radio roadshows and leather jackets. It’s a yearning for an England we didn’t think we’d miss and wouldn’t really want to return to, but acquires, in retrospect, an appealing simplicity. And Norfolk’s gentle, unassuming landscape, with its flashes of savagery round the edges, is the ideal setting for such a journey. Partridge has truly made Norwich his permanent nest. May he never migrate.

* Pronounced respectively ‘Haysburgh’ [silent ‘p’s], ‘Cossie’ and ‘Great Hobbis’.

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