Alright, important homework: if you haven't already seen Alan Partridge's Scissored Isle, watch this short clip of Norwich's favourite son having his first taste of a pill. The basic context is this: Partridge finds himself shrouded in controversy after calling a teenager a "chav" live on North Norfolk Digital. Following this, he goes on a soul-searching mission across the UK in order to better understand the plight of the working class. In this section, he has been spending time with a group of teenagers who, in order to understand better, he has accompanied to a "gangland party"—which is little more than a post-Sixth Form gathering.
"And whilst this did give me a mild high, during which I did get a bit hot and couldn't stop talking about Lewis Hamilton, it was nothing I couldn't handle and I've no regrets about nibbling it at all."
So goes Alan Partridge's experiences dropping a pill. An experience that pretty much exactly mirrors what you'd imagine Alan Partridge, or at least the infinite middle-aged, middle-England blokes he embodies, to be like on their first pill. A little frantic, a little fearful, and a lot Formula 1. I sometimes imagine what would happen if my dad—a man unlike Partridge in social inequity, but just as removed from club culture—accidentally swallowed the corner of pinger. I'm pretty sure he'd take it similarly to Partridge: some tumbling beads of sweat, a confused hum of excitement, and a long chat about Andrew Marr's History of Modern Britain.
My dad aside, there's an obvious pleasure in watching Partridge spin out on a gary—and even more pleasure to be taken in watching him, two hours after leaving the dancefloor, trying to interview the "lady Mayor" of Manchester. The immediate joy, comes from seeing a man as obsessed with structure and civility as AP, engaging in something as transgressive as taking ecstasy. Yet more than that, the real joy comes from noticing, in a couple of gestures and exchanges, a shred of reality. There's a bit of Partridge inside all of us.
Coogan's obviously got previous with pills, having played Tony Wilson in 24 Hour Party People and even narrating a documentary about ecstasy in 1992. That experience probably goes some way to explaining how effectively he pulls Partridge into that sort of weird, wide-eyed grey-area between pleasure and panic that can only come with rushing off your tits for the first time. He does spangled well.
The reason this is worth noting is because British television—in a purely fictional sense—has a brief, but chequered history with portraying pills. It's something we've written about time and time again on THUMP, whenever we remember a particularly funny example, but with the clip of Partridge doing the rounds as it currently is, we thought it was time to do a bit of a reflecting on when it does, and doesn't work, particularly in the context of British comedies.
Before we go focus completely on sitcoms and sketches, it's important to look at where drama has so often fallen down. For every Partridge getting it right, there is a Martin Fowler taking E on Eastenders. In Dot Cotton's launderette. If you haven't seen it before, feast your eyes on this:
It's got all the classic trademarks of a badly written ecstasy scene. Clunky, dialogue that sounds like a parish councillor on a skateboard— "this tune is so fresh!" and "you need to have a pill and chill out man!" stand out. Then there's the music, and the arms flailing wildly, tossing laundry detergent around like snowflakes. It's still funny, but this time it's not supposed to be. Instead we're laughing at what is clearly a version of taking ecstasy straight from the imagined world of educational school assemblies. It's the world of drug-taking as a threatening Neverland, where kids lose their minds to loud beats. These beans sow the roots of rebellion, addiction and death. Now, of course, anyone who has actually taken a pill knows that—while it is an overwhelming sensory experience at the time—if taken responsibly, it certainly doesn't ruin your life. Which is sort of what makes scenes like Martin Fowler's pinger so funny. They take an experience that feels so fluid and freeing, and make it appear wooden and awkward.
Alan Partridge is by no means the first sitcom character to try a pill. In fact, comedies have been characteristically more brave than dramas in UK. The Spaced episode "Epiphanies" sees the central characters taken to a rave by a beats-mad bike-courier. The scenes explicitly involve ecstasy, and actually do a pretty good of capturing the PLURness of the late 1990s, early 2000s UK rave scene. Camisra's "Let Me Show You" churns in the background, while Tim and Daisy fall down the inevitable rabbit-hole of self-congratulation, telling each-other how talented they are, how much they are going to achieve, how much they love living with each-other. The behaviour is absolutely spot on, however, the actual performances—the atmosphere—isn't quite right. It's all too clear, too in control.
We've written before about Peep Show's attempt before, but actually if we're talking about how well the show pulls of the pill-taking experience, it's not all that. What Mark's experiences on Peep Show do very well, is align with the one member of the group left not taking the pill—how isolated they can feel, and how ridiculous the rest of the group can look in comparison. However, Jez, Sophie and the rest of their entourage don't look at all like they're on pills. In fact, falling into the same trap that so many pilled-up performances do, they just look a bit drunk. Sure they seem "spaced-out", but there's none of the alien-alertness that comes with taking a pill. Everyone is talking too slowly, appearing more stoned than wired.
Now it's not the purpose of this exercise to simply rate and review how accurately different actors have pretended to be on drugs, yet there is more to glean from how progressively more accurate portrayals have gotten. Alan Partridge's Scissored Isle isn't the only television show released in the last couple of years to include an on-the-nose pinger portrayal. Limmy's Party Chat—a continuation of sketches from Limmy's Show—and People Just Do Nothing both from 2015 and 2016 respectively, featured portraits of ecstasy consumption so painfully accurate the realism nearly seemed full non-fiction. Crucially, in both cases, the characters who were on pills really looked like they were. Limmy's wild-eyes roaming around the room, and Beats and Grindah's glazed expressions and declarations of love in the final episode of series 2, were nuanced. They weren't ham-fisted scenes of maniacs fist-pumping, shouting "I love you maaaaaaaan" at each-other, wielding glow-sticks and throwing peace fingers. Instead the characters feel bewildered, a little lost, and very real.
So why have pinger-portrayals suddenly improved? Perhaps the reason for all of this is simply to do with time. Obviously the accuracy of these representations has nothing to do with developments in technology—a good performance comes across whether it's filmed in HD or not. Yet it's important to remember that the acid house generation are now in their 40s and 50s. Therefore, for the first time, we are entering a time when the middle-aged of the nation have 'been there and done that' when it comes to pills. Ecstasy is now couched in popular memory. It's an artefact of nostalgia as much as it is a lived experience. In that climate, the taboo is removed and writers are free to be as vivid and realistic as they want.
Far from Martin Fowler boshing a pill in front of a mainstream audience who probably thought you could die just from smelling one, everyone is now relaxed enough to become a part of the conversation. Just as long as the conversation is about Lewis Hamilton.