When it comes down to it, Alan Partridge is a movie that practices what it preaches. Espousing the idea that personal expression is more important than corporate greed, it is a film that seems genuine to its creators’ intentions rather than pandering or broadening itself to the widest audience possible.
The movie is highly skeptical of the notion of profit as a primary motivator. Alan Partridge (Steve Coogan) is a local radio DJ for a station called North Norfolk Digital. When the station is acquired by media conglomerate Gordale Media, Partridge initially reacts with indifference. He assumes that this will be an easy transition, with a few changes to better align with their brand but essentially just repackaging the same product. He doesn’t involve himself in the takeover until a paranoid co-worker, Pat (Colm Meaney), begs him to speak to the executives on behalf of the rest of the staff. It’s not until Alan arrives in a board room filled with people in suits that he realizes that, in pursuit of profits, ratings are the be-all and end-all and that unpopular programming must be replaced with anything that will get ears tuned in. The meeting hits a crisis point when Alan realizes that his own head may be on the chopping block and that’s when the real harm of corporate greed comes to light.
North Norfolk is a district of Norfolk, UK with a population of just over 100,000 people. The audience of North Norfolk Digital, it can be assumed, would be people from within the district. The content is produced by people in North Norfolk for people from North Norfolk. When Gordale Media, which, I think is safe to assume, is not based out of North Norfolk, starts making changes in order to maximize its audience, it looks to create a new media that is no longer for North Norfolk but rather for everybody, with the idea of capitalizing on any possible advertising revenue. Instead of a closed, insular system of exchanging content for advertising, Gordale opens up the top end of the system, turning listeners into consumers and turning the producers of content into amoral, bloodthirsty sharks.
When Alan realizes that Gordale is going to either fire him or Pat, he immediately launches into a presentation about how ineffective and unprofessional Pat is. It’s not as though Alan has any particular spite for Pat – he treats him with the same familiar indifference he does everybody else – but when it becomes a contest for resources, Alan is absolutely willing to destroy his colleague in the name of self-preservation. Once this concession is made and producers of content start sacrificing each other on the altar of ratings, the profitability of the message of their media supersedes the quality or integrity of its content.
Alan Partridge never does pretend to champion its radio content – in fact, quite a bit of humour comes from observing the banality of chat radio – but it does champion the idea that it should be creatives and not executives who determine the content of media. It takes nearly a whole movie, including a gun siege, to teach Alan any kind of lesson but he does come to the realization that his loyalties are better associated with his own work and with his peers rather than to ambiguous corporate masters.
Alan gets his comeuppance for betraying Pat late in the movie. There’s a particularly poetic moment where Alan is trying to escape a gun-toting Pat, who just found out what happened in the board room. Alan tries to escape through the toilet of a moving vehicle, leaving him in the van’s septic tank. Pat had lost his job because Alan figuratively threw him under the bus and now Alan is literally under a bus, surrounded by human waste, with a gun to his head.
More important than poetic justice is the lesson that Alan learns. His assistant, Lynn, introduces him to a verse from the bible: “For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul?” (Matthew 16:26, no idea what version) – a phrase that becomes the thesis statement for the movie. Whether looked at on a personal or cultural level, the pursuit of success and glory should not forgive betrayal and mistreatment of others. If we are focused entirely on the bottom line, no one is looking at the disenfranchised individuals who are left behind because they could not find their own profitability.