Steve Coogan isn’t very funny. Which is to say, he’s one of the funniest people in British comedy and has been causing us to bust a national gut for well over 20 years, but in person he makes no effort to bring you sunshine in his smile.
After he’s briskly, compliantly and professionally serviced the RT photographer and his team with a succession of poses in the ersatz “library” of a Soho hotel, uttering barely a word, someone dares to comment, “You’re very serious.” The comedian, actor, writer, producer, reformed bad boy, witness for the prosecution and occasional Hollywood star smiles, knowingly, and replies with a practised insouciance, “Funny as Alan, serious as me.”
I’m here to meet Coogan, not his most enduring creation, Alan Partridge, though you sense there is some crossover. However, it’s the man himself who is a living comedy hero of mine. As a scriptwriter (on BBC1’s Not Going Out) whose stand-up show in Edinburgh he once snuck in to see, I was also fortunate enough this year to be commissioned by his production company to co-write a short comedy for Sky Atlantic. Not that the high-flyer ever had time to attend the meetings. So it’s good to see him in person.
Coogan first minted the foot-in-mouth Norwich sports reporter Alan Partridge on Radio 4’s Writers’ Guild award-winning fake news show On the Hour in 1991 and its TV incarnation The Day Today. He then chaperoned him through a stint as an out-of-his-depth chat-show host at the helm of Knowing Me Knowing You (“A-ha!”) in 1994 and, after a marital and professional tailspin and mental breakdown over two classic tragicomic series of I’m Alan Partridge in 1997 and 2002, Coogan looked to have retired his monstrous yet strangely sympathetic creation.
However, two years ago, re-energised by the knowingly titled 2008 stand-up tour “Steve Coogan as Alan Partridge and Other Less Successful Characters”, Alan returned in a series of splendid, back-to-basics, Foster’s-funded “webisodes”, Mid Morning Matters (subsequently aired on Sky Atlantic), in which Alan has settled into a functioning dotage as a local radio jock on North Norfolk Digital and ditched the trade-mark blazer in favour of Top Gear-presenter soft leather. (Interestingly, Steve’s younger brother Brendan presented Top Gear in the late 90s.) A Partridge autobiography followed, a couple of one-offs and now, finally, Alan hits the big screen in the glorious new movie Alpha Papa (the initials AP in the phonetic police alphabet).
What a long, strange trip it’s been. First, for Partridge, a man who believes that Wings are “the band that the Beatles could have been” and was once prevented from completing a promotional video for a boating holiday company when he was crushed by a dead cow tipped from a bridge by angry local farmers. And secondly, for Coogan, the former impressionist from an Irish family in Manchester, who found himself the target of the press from the mid-90s to his very naughty mid-noughties, during which time he was beleaguered by lurid stories about drug-taking, fast cars, marital infidelity and even a phantom pregnancy with rock star Courtney Love in 2005, which both parties denied.
In 2006, a men’s magazine dispatched Piers Morgan to interview a seemingly repentant Coogan after the divorce from his wife. (She left him after a “sex and drugs romp” with lap dancers was splashed across the papers, but he never directly responded to it, telling Morgan, “I don’t talk about my ex-wife.”) On the prickly issue of his lifestyle choices, he stated, “I’m not Mother Theresa, but I’m not Frank Bough either.” (For younger readers, Bough was the proto-Partridge TV presenter of the 60s, 70s and 80s who was exposed for what he described as “a brief episode” of attending cocaine and sex parties and was sacked by the BBC.)
All of which, as ugly and distracting as it may have been, led to arguably Coogan’s greatest performance, as himself – not a lampoon of himself – at the 2011 Leveson Inquiry into sharp practices in the British press, precipitated by the News of the World phone-hacking scandal. Along with actor Hugh Grant, Coogan emerged as one of the “stars” of the judicial hearings: eloquent and indignant, he won applause for breaking cover and speaking out against the tabloids. He made it clear that he’d never made “a Faustian pact with the press”, nor courted fame, but had none- theless been subjected to the fourth estate’s most “tawdry, muck-raking” techniques. (An appearance on Newsnight was stirring, where he described the closure of the News of the World as “a victory for decency and humanity”.)
Alan partridge searches for the hero inside himself in Alpha Papa, after humdrum life at North Norfolk Digital is rent asunder when the station is bought out by a soulless media group and restructuring leads to an armed siege. By accident, Alan is called upon to act as a mediator, and finds fame when an appearance before the gathered press (inspired, Coogan tells me, by the Al Pacino film Dog Day Afternoon) goes viral on YouTube. For a character who’s always chased fame, and stooped pretty low to achieve it, this is his moment in the glare of the very spotlight Coogan seeks to sidestep.
“When my life has been the subject of tabloid intrusion, what I have never done is get engaged in justifying myself,” he says, sitting forward on the sofa. “Celebrities who go round apologising are pitiful, and don’t do themselves any favours. They shouldn’t have to justify themselves on these preconceived, pious, sanctimonious projections of the slightly antiquated morality of these tabloid newspapers.
“I got involved in Leveson because I knew no one else in the public eye would. They didn’t want to take the risk. I thought the way [the press] behaved – and yes it was towards me, but also towards a lot of other people who didn’t have a voice like me – was just wrong. And what makes them feel uncomfortable is when you say something and there’s no ulterior motive; they get p****d off that you might be doing something on a point of principle. If someone’s a victim of crime and they’re a forgotten person, like thousands of people who’ve been f ****d over by the tabloids, if they got on their moral high horse, no one’s going to listen to them. The double-edged sword of being in the public eye is that you’ll be afforded some sort of platform.”
Born in 1965, one of seven brothers and sisters in an Irish family in Middleton, Greater Manchester, Coogan passed through Manchester’s School of Theatre and moved into comedy professionally via the Northern cabaret circuit, as it was quaintly called, then voiceover work, Spitting Image, a Granada sketch show with John Thomson and Caroline Aherne, and a move to London, where he fell under the aegis of the Midas of urbane satire, Armando Iannucci, who produced On the Hour.
His passion for comedy was shaped in front of classic sitcoms such as Dad’s Army, Steptoe and Son and Fawlty Towers, while his politics was forged in the red heat of the 1980s. He’s a lifelong Labour supporter, and last year The Telegraph asked “Can Steve Coogan save Ed Miliband?” when he pledged his support for the Labour leader.
“If there’s one thing that annoys me it’s people who put their career before absolutely everything,” he bristles. As co-founder and director of successful production company Baby Cow – founded with writer Henry Normal in 1999 and responsible for Gavin & Stacey, The Mighty Boosh, Hunderby and The Shadow Line – he’s too diplomatic to name names, but it’s implicit that Coogan is unimpressed by certain modern arena comics. “There are some people, especially in this industry, who don’t have an opinion on anything. Because of postmodernism, they think it’s fashionable to not give a s*** about anything.”
How old is Alan, I ask. About ten years older than you? “About that,” he replies. “I’m 47, so he’s 55. We’ve taken a couple of years off. We’re trying to reduce his age slightly, so I’m catching up with him. People have made the observation, which is entirely valid, that Steve Coogan’s becoming more like Alan Partridge. It’s not actually true. Alan Partridge is becoming more and more like me.
“Although he’s a lot younger than that generation, we wanted him to be someone who’s in the Operation Yewtree area of ex-television personalities. It’s always a good thing to skate close to something that makes people uncomfortable.”
There’s a lovely moment in the film, when Sidekick Simon (splendidly essayed by stand-up poet Tim Key) makes an on-air faux pas about Judaism and Islam, and it’s Alan who admonishes him with some guidelines about tolerance: “Never criticise Muslims. Only Christians, and Jews a little bit.” Coogan quotes this to illustrate the character’s new “liberalism”.
He explains, “I find it much more rewarding having Alan as a slightly liberalised Tory than just making him an out-and-out Daily Mail-reading Little Englander fascist, which he sort of used to be. When you write something, you should reflect the things that make you angry, as well as the things you like, and I both like Alan and hate him. If he was a real person, I’d probably just hate him, but there’s enough humanity in him for me to have empathy. You look at David Cameron and he’s a Tory but he’s canny, he tries to be hip, so he’s a Tory that used to like the Smiths. Alan has to reflect that.”
I ask him whether he resents having to hop aboard the publicity carousel to promote Alpha Papa after his bruising at the hands of the tabloids.
“The truth is, this is part of what I have to do to sell the film. I’m contractually bound to be here to talk to you. Not that I’m not having a nice time, but Baby Cow have put money into the film, and I have to support that by getting people to go and see it. I don’t talk about my personal life, I don’t go in Hello! magazine to get a free kitchen because I show them my kitchen. I like to be creative, but I’m not interested in being recognised.”
He illustrates with a story from the filming of The Trip, BBC2’s improvised comedy in which he and Rob Brydon played bickering versions of themselves. (Coogan being metatextual again.)
“I remember we were in the Lake District and Rob would walk with his head up, and people would go, ‘It’s Rob Brydon!’ and he’d be friendly and say, ‘Hello!’ And I tended to look in the opposite direction to try to avoid being recognised.”
This is the technique he employs when using the Tube in London, which he does regularly and without incident, wearing this as a badge of pride.
Before we part, and Coogan swans off, he imparts another secret for not being recognised.
“I don’t step onto the train and shout, ‘A-ha!’”
Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa hits UK cinemas on 7 August