Share this page:
Follow Choice on Social Media:
Get the most out of life
All of your favourite features including profiles, Nostalgia,
places to go and lots more.
12 issues
for only 33.95
£
+ FREE 24 Hour Legal Helpline
Find out more

Features

Steve Coogan"The most radical thing I can do is talk about love"

He is not the first clown desperate to be taken seriously, but with his latest film about to be released Alan Partridge’s creator may see his wish come true. By Simon Evans

It is a perennial curse of comedians that making people laugh is somehow not enough for them; that they need to be ‘taken seriously’ as actors or directors. Woody Allen is an obvious case in point.

Which is a shame, because the ability to make people laugh is surely one of the greatest, and rarest, gifts you can have. And despite having created at least one iconic comic character, Steve Coogan does not seem to be immune from this syndrome. It is his work on the film Philomena, which Coogan co-wrote, co-produced and starred in, opposite Dame Judi Dench, that he appears to revere above all else.

On reflection he perhaps has a point; this affecting story of an elderly Irish Catholic woman who goes in search of her long-lost daughter won widespread praise and was nominated for several awards, including an Oscar.

It also made a refreshing change from the cynicism abroad at the time, especially in the comedy world, something Coogan acknowledged in interviews promoting the film.

“I’ve got this real anger against people who think the best way of dealing with the world is through sardonic eyes,” Coogan told the Guardianwhen the film was released in 2013.

“It’s a depressing, defeatist view of humanity. And I wanted to do something that was sincere, that was not smart and clever for its own sake. I had this notion that the most radical, avant-garde thing I could do was to talk about love.”

The film demonstrated that Coogan’s range as an actor stretched far beyond such memorable comic creations as Alan Partridge, Paul Calf and Tommy Saxondale, and his role as Stan Laurel in the much praised forthcoming film Stan and Ollie will surely only enhance his reputation. It is set in the early Fifties and follows Laurel and Hardy, in the twilight of their career, embarking on a tour of British variety theatres.

On the evidence of the trailer alone, Coogan is uncanny as Stan, perfectly replicating his comic hero’s every twitch and gesture. Coogan will also be seen in the next few weeks in This Time with Alan Partridge, which finds his most celebrated comic character returning to the BBC as stand-in on an early evening weekday magazine show.

With its “heady mix of consumer affairs, current affairs, viewer interaction, highbrow interview and lightweight froth” the show, which bears more than a passing resemblance to The One Show, is regarded as “the perfect shop window for a man of Alan’s gravitas and it will, or should, see him finally recognised as one of the heavyweight broadcasters of his era”.

The new comedy is penned by Coogan and his recent collaborators of choice Neil Gibbons and Rob Gibbons, who also co-wrote the Partridge TV show Mid Morning Matters, the film Alpha Papa and the brilliant Alan Partridge ‘autobiographies’.

Coogan is back as Partridge of course, Tim Key reprises the role of Alan’s sidekick and Felicity Montagu returns as Partridge’s eternally loyal, long-suffering assistant, Lynn.

Partridge is still Coogan’s most enduring creation, and he was dreamed up, in collaboration with Armando Iannucci and writer Patrick Marber, in 1991 for the radio current affairs comedy show On The Hour, which later transferred to television as The Day Today.

Such was the genius of The Day Today that it became impossible, in its wake, to take seriously any current affairs show with a title sequence that went on just that little bit too long, that used loads of pointless ‘infographics’ and was fronted by ridiculous, self-aggrandasing middleaged men –in other words most of them.

The same goes for Partridge; it is now difficult to listen to any self-regarding, self-important sports anchor or football commentator without thinking of the sage of Norwich.

Coogan is slight of stature, which is perhaps ironic given that one of the funniest Partridge-related sketches from The Day Today involved him interviewing diminutive jockeys at a race meeting and enquiring if they shouldn’t be getting home for their tea. But more recently Coogan has revealed that he wasn’t always comfortable with this strain of, often unwitting, cruelty in the character.

“I always feel like Armando and Patrick, when they were writing it, felt a bit like pulling wings off an insect,” Coogan said at the Edinburgh Television Festival last t Profile chance to poke fun at a certain middleaged, self-assured journalist turned TV car show presenter. “You only make fun of the things you love”, Coogan said later, and although Coogan and Jeremy Clarkson (for it was he) could not have been further apart politically (Coogan is a lifelong Labour Party supporter, Clarkson isn’t) both have shared a litigious willingness to hide their peccadiloes, Clarkson through a wildly expensive, and failed, super-injunction, Coogan through his support for the Hacked Off pro-censorship group, and the Leveson Inquiry, which recommended severe curbs on press freedom. In fairness, for a while Coogan seemed to be rarely out of the redtops, an unwilling pawn caught in the middle of an ultimately ruinous tabloid circulation war that culminated in the phone-hacking scandal and the closure of the News of the World. It has always been a tricky issue; shouldn’t celebrities expect a certain amount of scrutiny of their private lives in return for the exposure they court for their latest film or show? Conversely, isn’t hacking people’s phones to discover their deepest secrets a step too far? Coogan would certainly argue so, especially since he has never been one to court celebrity for celebrity’s sake. Someone who has worked closely with him says Coogan bears no resemblance to the character he portrays on The Trip, in which he plays a so-called ‘version’ of himself, dining in expensive restaurants and swapping gags and impressions with his buddy Rob Brydon. Self-effacing, serious and personable, if a touch detached, the real Coogan is very different to this made-for-TV construct. “If you didn’t know who he was, in company Steve comes over as a moderately amusing guy. He’s very serious, and has strong opinions, but there’s no quick-fire gags or impressions.” It was, however, his facility for mimicky that gave Coogan his first breakthrough. summer. “It was fun but quite cruel.” He says the Gibbons brothers have brought greater empathy to the character.

“Alan was essentially a fool but with Rob and Neil people have a bit more compassion for him. And although he’s a fool, they don’t want him to be destroyed, they don’t want him to fail completely. He’s well intentioned even if he’s wrong.

“Rob and Neil have come up with stuff that was so strong and when I first read it I went down on my knees and shouted ‘alleluia’. I was laughing like a drain and said ‘oh my god they totally understood the voice’. And not only that, they managed to build the character and make him slightly more complex.”

Coogan is clearly someone who takes his craft very seriously, and those who have worked with him can also testify to his utter professionalism, not just on set but also in his dealings with writers and directors. In an ego-driven business it is rare to find someone like Coogan, who always makes sure anyone contributing to a particular project is paid their due, and properly credited for it as well.

His main collaborator over the years has been the director Michael Winterbottom, and together they have worked on the films 24 Hour Party People, A Cock And Bull Story, The Look of Love and, most recently, the TV series The Trip. It appears to be a union of opposites, Coogan serious, solicitous, utterly professional, Winterbottom volatile, distant and often difficult. On some points Winterbottom appears to hold sway, however; during the making of The Look of Lovefor instance, a biopic of ‘King of Soho’ sex entrepreneur Paul Raymond, Coogan began by giving a subtle, nuanced portrayal of Raymond before, reputedly under Winterbottom’s direction, giving the role the ‘full Partridge’ – which made it tricky when it came to editing together what was in effect two different performances.

One of Coogan’s more recent creations was Tommy Saxondale, a middle-aged, self-assured roadie turned pest controller, and something of a departure from Partridge. In one of the shows it gave Coogan – a self-avowed ‘petrolhead’ – a chance to poke fun at a certain middleaged, self-assured journalist turned TV car show presenter. “You only make fun of the things you love”, Coogan said later, and although Coogan and Jeremy Clarkson (for it was he) could not have been further apart politically (Coogan is a lifelong Labour Party supporter, Clarkson isn’t) both have shared a litigious willingness to hide their peccadiloes, Clarkson through a wildly expensive, and failed, super-injunction, Coogan through his support for the Hacked Off pro-censorship group, and the Leveson Inquiry, which recommended severe curbs on press freedom.

In fairness, for a while Coogan seemed to be rarely out of the redtops, an unwilling pawn caught in the middle of an ultimately ruinous tabloid circulation war that culminated in the phone-hacking scandal and the closure of the News of the World.

It has always been a tricky issue; shouldn’t celebrities expect a certain amount of scrutiny of their private lives in return for the exposure they court for their latest film or show? Conversely, isn’t hacking people’s phones to discover their deepest secrets a step too far? Coogan would certainly argue so, especially since he has never been one to court celebrity for celebrity’s sake.

Someone who has worked closely with him says Coogan bears no resemblance to the character he portrays on The Trip, in which he plays a so-called ‘version’ of himself, dining in expensive restaurants and swapping gags and impressions with his buddy Rob Brydon. Self-effacing, serious and personable, if a touch detached, the real Coogan is very different to this made-for-TV construct.

“If you didn’t know who he was, in company Steve comes over as a moderately amusing guy. He’s very serious, and has strong opinions, but there’s no quick-fire gags or impressions.”

It was, however, his facility for mimicky that gave Coogan his first breakthrough.

Current Issue

May 2019

Profile: Claire Foy

Special: Sicily

Your Money and Your Rights

Avoid hidden holiday costs

When Mrs Thatcher made history

Finding a later life mortgage

Are you over 65 and malnourished?

Surprising things GPs can prescribe

Indian veggie recipes

Scottish Highlands drive