Broadcasting legend and comedy creation Alan Partridge briefly returned to the BBC in 2019, parachuted in as an emergency co-host of a faux daily magazine show. Audiences at home first learned the inept host was filling in for “clogged arteries” John Baskell following the leak of an “air-clearing” email Partridge sent to 20,000+ legit BBC email addresses, hoping to ease his re-entry into the Beeb.
‘Alan’s Letter’ lit up the media and public as a foul teaser of his coming antics in the series This Time with Alan Partridge. The zero-budget stunt from the BBC Creative team just won Grand Prix, as well as awards for Copywriting, Low Budget and Most Creative Use of Media at The Drum Roses Awards. To celebrate, we spoke with BBC Creative creative director James Cross, who developed it with long-time partner Tim Jones.
Partridge’s ill-fated return to the BBC came 24 years after accidentally shooting a man dead ‘live’ during the broadcast of Abba-slanted talkshow Knowing Me, Knowing You. “Anything can happen on live TV… get the bagpipers back on,” declared the soon-to-be-jobless parody presenter. With the bumbling broadcaster's return to the BBC a major comedy event, Cross and Hones jumped upon the project as soon as it was announced.
The long and meandering email read: “Yes, some 24 years after my last presenting gig, the BBC have sidled up to me with a short-term offer to co-present your much-loved magazine show This Time… Well, although my diary is as clogged as John’s arteries (get well, John!) I have agreed to drop everything and step up.
“I reach out to you, my colleagues - not to gloat, or settle old scores, or say, ‘Hey, Karen/Kate/Kath, why don’t you kiss my arse’ - but to be the bigger man and clear the air of any residual stench.”
Everyone at the BBC just got this email from Alan Partridge.
“I ask every one of this email’s 20,000+ recipients to tune in tonight at 9.30pm on BBC One. Even if nobody else in the country does, we’re already hitting the kind of numbers my shows were getting on Sky Atlantic.” pic.twitter.com/bDMdbujBzA
— Scott Bryan (@scottygb) 25 February 2019
A call to action to watch the show “tonight at 9.30pm on BBC One” was tucked away within the email as a pathetic plea to BBC colleagues to inflate viewing figures.
Once the BBC team cut a trailer, showing Partridge panicking with a dry throat moments before going on air, they were free – with zero budget – to get the word out through other means.
Cross says: “We thought about how we’ve got this huge, free BBC database. And we knew that if we sent directly from Alan, it would take just a few shares to trend on Twitter and get on the front page of Reddit, and then in the media. Email just seemed very Partridge. An all-staff email is the most awkward of mediums, especially when you work in a big organisation like the BBC.”
Of course, they had to write the letter first – which required extensive knowledge of the Partridgeverse, hours of rewrites and more than a few hoops to hop through. The concept itself was almost as silly as Partridge’s TV pitches – but to be authentic, it had to be. “That’s part of the character, isn’t it? Partridge always finds just the limit of what he can say.”
The copy needed the seal of approval from Partridge writers (or “voice”), the Gibbons brothers. “It was kind of in the balance, really, because we didn't really know they were ever going to reply to our email.” Cross says: “Neil Gibbons is Alan’s voice, he writes everything that comes out of his mouth. He wanted an hour to rewrite it.” Gibbons largely kept the flow of the narrative but updated it to Partridge’s current mindset, while the BBC pair had leaned heavier on references and Easter eggs. As a result, it evokes the foot-in-mouth cringe that fans of Partridge have come to expect.
Now packing a comedic punch, Cross and co now had to present the idea to Tony Hall, director general of the BBC. There are more than a few risqué lines poking fun at BBC governance, much in line with the show.
The letter read: “It’s time for a clean slate and no hard feelings. Because I love the BBC and I always have. While others might say it’s a smug anachronism full of braying, know-nothing chancers doling out fat commissions to their braying, know-nothing Oxbridge mates, I don’t. I think the BBC is great, and watch the programmes avidly, regardless of their quality.”
Cross reveals: “We had to go to the director general’s office and get a special key for staff email,“ adding that “at the BBC, setting up an email for a fictitious character is difficult.” No copy or ideas were cut – which was lucky, since the Gibbons would permit no further edits to their inspired prose.
“The director general said he was happy that we were taking the piss out of the BBC a little bit,“ says Cross.
Adding an extra dimension to the stunt, anyone who replied to the email got hit with an out-of-office message. “If your email is urgent, perhaps you should have tried calling instead.
“The very fact you were content to type out your query in longhand and settle back to wait for a reply suggests it can wait, even if you have put a red exclamation mark next to your email to make it stand out in my inbox. Won’t wash with me, that.”
There’s an additional factor that contributed to the stunt’s success – the choice of a common or garden work email to speak to audiences. “It is a pretty dead medium – no one no creative ever suggests email as the route to market. Let’s face it, you can't do a lot with it. But it was very Partridge and easily our biggest success.”
In the year since, BBC Creative has been using the campaign as a proof of concept for further projects. “BBC Creative is three years old now. We’ve not done too much humour, except for Comic Relief. I’ve suggested to our director that our missing thing was humour.”
Cross concludes: “We have the mandate to appeal to under-35s, humour is a good way to do that. Few people under 35 had heard of Partridge so it was equally important to use humour to reach them.”
The show’s made quite the resurgence in the times of pandemic too. Partridge was hygiene-alert even a year ago, illustrating how to enter a train carriage toilet without using his hands during the show in a sequence that has been resurfaced alongside other BBC comedy clips finding renewed relevance amid coronavirus. It’s possible that, with high-spending production methods currently off the table, BBC Creative’s email masterstroke will enjoy a similar long life as a prize piece of marketing.