Steve Coogan eventually arrives, with his personal assistant and a young colleague from his film and TV production company, Baby Cow, in tow. He looks faintly academic – tweedy wool jacket, and short grey hair – which is curiously apt, given the lecturing, occasionally hectoring, tone of much of our encounter.
The last time I saw him, ten years ago, he was still boyish and rather beautiful with his pale skin and raven tresses. He was eager to please, then, apologetic, suffered from a pronounced stammer on certain words, and there was something rather vulnerable and appealing about him. All of that has gone.
The Coogan of almost 50 is far more sober, possibly in every way (he’d been in the news, first time round, with lurid headlines of cocaine and lap-dancing romps), is seemingly self-confident, highly opinionated, with no desire to please at all. In fact, I might as well be a brick wall for all his effort to form any sort of rapport.
This is not a great time for any journalist to interview him. He, along with Hugh Grant, is a leading member of Hacked Off, the pressure group that’s campaigned on behalf of victims of press intrusion and now to have the recommendations of the Leveson Inquiry implemented. He’s just come from being filmed for Hacked Off – sitting down in the dining room of a popular Brighton pub, he offers a curt apology for being late (by almost an hour). Once he gets onto the subject of phone hacking, which segues into the evils of the Daily Mail and its editor Paul Dacre, then extending to encompass all journalists who don’t agree with Leveson’s remedy for correcting the ills of the newspaper industry, there is no stopping him.
He’s angry about a lot of things. It feels a bit like being trapped in the back of a black cab with a ranty driver. I ask about his dismay that so few people in his industry are as outspoken as him. “What I find intolerable among my peers is people who have no political opinions or think they’re not interested in politics – as if they think it’s like asking are they interested in horticulture? It’s myopic and self-centred to only have opinions on things that affect you directly. If you have any magnanimity towards the rest of the world, you should be interested in what is going on, even though it doesn’t directly affect you.
“I do it because I feel I have a moral responsibility to speak about things, if I am empowered in some way – especially if others won’t. I mean, I got into the whole thing about the reform of the press because no one else was.”
From here, Coogan has a few words to say about the use of the word “celebrity” by the press to describe people such as himself: “because it trivialises the people involved. If you say, I am an actor-writer-producer who has an opinion, it’s very different from saying that I am ‘a celebrity’ who has an opinion. I wouldn’t describe Ed Milliband as a celebrity or Harriet Harman – they’re well known because of what they do – and I’m well known because of what I do.”
One of the cases that galvanizes the actor-writer-producer is the way Christopher Jefferies, the Bristol landlord of the murdered landscape architect, Joanna Yeates, was monstered by certain newspapers, and falsely implicated in her murder – mainly on account of his bad hair and eccentric manner.
Coogan is delighted to be appearing as himself at the Leveson Inquiry in The Lost Honour, which promises to be a powerful drama about the Jefferies travesty. It’s written by Peter Morgan (Frost/Nixon; The Queen) and directed by Roger Michell (Notting Hill) who happened to be a pupil of Jefferies at Clifton College. Coogan is having a very good time of it, career-wise, enjoying critical and box-office success and awards for Philomena. Directed by Stephen Frears, it stars Judi Dench as Philomena Lee, an Irish-Catholic woman who sets out to find the son taken away from her as a young girl and adopted by a couple in the US. Coogan plays Martin Sixsmith, the journalist who helped her discover the truth and wrote the original book, which Coogan also adapted for the screen. He invested a lot of energy and time in the project – even meeting the Pope with the real Philomena – and worked hard to make sure the film was seen in the States. It was nominated for four Baftas (and won one), three Golden Globes and four Oscars – as he points out.
Straight after that, he produced and starred in the Alan Patridge film, Alpha Papa, and now there is a follow-up to the television series The Trip, directed by Michael Winterbottom, in which Coogan and Rob Brydon play exaggerated versions of them- selves. The pair go on long drives to expensive restaurants at which they consume many courses, and engage in multiple impersonations and jolly repartee; the first series was around the Lake District, the new one was filmed in Italy.
I read that in this Trip, Coogan and Brydon discuss the Romantics and in particular Byron and Shelley. Which of the two poets would Coogan most like to have been? He clears his throat: “I think Byron is more interesting than Shelley – although they’re both interesting… Shelley’s fascinating because he’s passionate about social justice but Byron was more a post- modernist before his time because he celebrates the imperfections of his own humanity and we exploit that in The Trip – to have me as ‘Steve Coogan’ in The Trip profess to be passionate about Byron.”
I notice that critics and writers are always using the term meta-textual in connection with The Trip – can you define what this means? “Um, it it it – er, means it’s, um, tangentially related in a–in a–what’s the word? –in, er, and outside – er er um – it’s tangentially related to something from the outside in a sort of, er, existential way… It’s conceptual, yes, conceptual.”
Would you say The Trip is meta-whatever? “I suppose in some ways, yeah, that adage – not adage – that addendum word is bandied around a lot. Is it ‘meta’?” Do you actually know what it means, Steve? “Well, I tried then… it’s when it relates to something which is, which is tangentially related to something in a sort of postmodern way.”
Phew! We both get the postmodern bit and cling to this flimsy raft of mutual understanding like drowning men in a sea of syntax as, indeed, Alan Partridge might say himself.
Coogan and Brydon weren’t keen on the idea of The Trip when Michael Winterbottom first presented it to them: “We didn’t want it to just be self-parody because that’s not enough. But we were persuaded by Michael, who said that it would transcend that limited conceit and he was right, it did. It has a sort of resonance with people of a certain age because we talk about questions that everyone asks – what is the meaning of life, and why are we here, and what’s the point, and how do we feel about growing older? Still, I was surprised by its success, to be quite honest.”
If Coogan leans to the post-modern, I am also surprised to hear that he is post-comedy – in a sense of being over it (unless it is part of something larger) – and he is definitely post-cynicism. I ask him what comedy he likes and after mentioning South Park and Family Guy, he says: “I’m not that interested in comedy – that’s the problem. It’s a busman’s holiday for me and I’d rather watch documentaries than watch comedy. I like using comedy in drama and that’s what I’m more interested in developing. I still want to do Alan Partridge but the more successful I am in doing drama, the more likely I am to carry on doing Alan – because I feel I’ve got another string to my bow and certainly with four Oscar nominations for Philomena, I think I’ve proved there’s more to me than one trick.”
Coogan has said he was attracted to the story of Philomena Lee [his interest was first piqued by the headline “The Catholic Church stole my child” in The Guardian] because he knew he could use comedy to talk about sex and politics and religion: “The audience laugh when they watch Philomena as well as it being a really moving story.”
He’s working on four or five films at the moment so I ask if they have the same emotional depth and resonance. “The most enjoyable thing about Philomena was making an emotional connection with the audience and also being sincere. My big bugbear with a lot of films is that they’re cloaked and collapsing under the weight of their own irony. I wanted to do something that was authentic, real and sincere because that seemed to be almost the avant-garde choice to say something sincere and not be cynical. Cynicism is easy and although people think it’s very clever to be cynical, it is but ultimately it’s unsatisfying. “What’s really bold and what is the toughest choice is to talk about love and hope and optimism, and those are the things that people shy away from because they find it awkward or they don’t know how to deal with them.” Part of growing older, he says, is that what interests him has changed: “I have to be excited by what I’m doing and just doing more funny things isn’t enough for me.”
He acknowledges how different he was when I met him a decade ago. “I think what happens when you’re younger – certainly what happened to me – is that you’re preoccupied with trying to please all the people all the time. Now I think that if you don’t have some people who dislike you, then you’re someone who’s playing it safe. “I was just generally insecure and I think that like most performers you want approval and then, as you get older, you get more secure and the good thing about where I am now – even though I have ups and downs in my career – generally speaking, I can’t be fired by anybody.”
In The Trip, there are wincingly close-to-the bone moments where the flaws of “Steve Coogan” seem to be very much defects of the real Coogan. Does that feel a bit self-flagellating when he is improvising those riffs? “It’s very simple – what doesn’t destroy you, makes you stronger, so you simply take the things that have happened to you and use them in a way that’s useful. It’s like if someone throws a punch at you, punching back is a little obvious. It’s better to step out of the way and let them fall over a chair – that’s a metaphor,” he explains, in case I’d missed that.
Would you say you’re a strong, happy person? “Yeah, I’m happy, yeah.” And strong? “I’ve still got my insecurities – the paradox is that if you have insecurities, vanities or narcissism, and I have all those things to some extent – I try to keep it in check and not to be an a***hole – but you acknowledge them and when you do that, you kind of exorcise them. “So you don’t go, ‘No! I’m not like that! I’m really strong. I’m not vain and I’m very well adjusted,’ because of course I’m not. But the point is that in acknowledging you’re not well adjusted, you sort of become well adjusted as part of the process.”
The Trip to Italy, tonight at 10:00pm, BBC2