“I have the very first sweater I bought for Alan from Lillywhites in 1991,” says Steve Coogan when I ask him about the birth of Alan Partridge.
“It’s a Lyle & Scott V-neck golfing sweater [pictured] and I keep it in a Ziploc bag in my house. It cost £50 and I paid for that out of my own pocket – I never claimed back the tax on it. I get it out sometimes and stare at, and think about how that investment worked.”
Few sweaters can have had such a profound cultural impact. The ghastly and inept sports reporter who wore it, invariably coupled with slacks, first appeared on Radio 4’s On the Hour in 1991 and made his BBC television debut in The Day Today in 1994. Many broadcast hours of agonising non-sequiturs and idiotic self-regard later, the Norwichbased presenter has never been more popular. As well as a Christmas special celebrating his first quarter of a century, Partridge has a new series on the BBC starting in the new year.
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Coogan, now 52, has been playing Partridge for nearly half of his life. Has he become Partridge-like? “Alan is part of my DNA,” he says. “But I edit my DNA and take out all the bits that are rational and are diplomatic. So, there’s a side of him in me. In fact, sometimes in the past, people have tried to use it as a stick to hit me with and said, ‘Ha, ha, look at Steve Coogan, he’s really like Alan Partridge.’ To which my response is always, ‘Yes, I know.’ Why is that terrible? Of course I am!”
Partridge “allows me to say things that, were I to say them as myself, would probably be career-ending”, says Coogan, but he hasn’t always been happy to be so closely associated with one character. “Alan was an albatross around my neck until about eight years ago, when I started doing stuff like The Trip and Philomena. When I got an Oscar nomination for Philomena, I thought, ‘Well, I’ve definitely drawn a line under something.’ So, counterintuitively, I didn’t want to do Alan because I had to do Alan; I wanted to do Alan because I wanted to do Alan.”
Some things, like Partridge’s archaic social views and persistent advocacy of the petrol engine, have remained constant. “He’s definitely a bit of a dinosaur,” says Coogan. “Unbelievably, you look around at the world now and see that there are still broadcasters with full-on red-blooded Alan-like attitudes. We thought we had thoroughly debunked that. It just shows how little influence you actually have on the national culture.”
The new BBC series will offer Partridge’s position on Brexit, a political phenomenon that, Coogan admits, is the triumph of Partridge’s Little England outlook. “The world has coalesced into a situation that is sympathetic to Alan, which for me is quite depressing,” says Coogan. “Sometimes I agree with Alan but on Brexit I’m a Remainer, and I feel quite conflicted about it. But the fact is, having a fool praise something is a far more powerful indictment than just criticising it. Also, Alan can be like the boy who says the emperor’s wearing no clothes.”
Partridge can be awful, but is he essentially decent? He has never, for instance, been implicated in the type of sex scandal that has haunted light entertainment in recent years. “He is haplessly sexist, rather than Machiavellian or malicious,” says Coogan. “But he was never predatory. All the recent scandals involving sexual politics and people being abusive, I don’t think he would do that. He’s more benign. Alan’s not evil; he’s just a perennial British fool.”
Does Coogan think that Partridge would approve of the things his creator does outside television and film, like the Hacked Off campaign to hold the popular press to account? “No, he probably wouldn’t understand it,” Coogan says. “Actually, I don’t think Alan would like me. If we met, Alan would say to me, ‘Oh, stop being provocative. Please say funny things and just leave it at that.’”
The right-wing Partridge must have made the leftwing Coogan wealthy? “I suppose so, but only when I went on tour, really, not doing television. I’ve made more money doing the voices for Despicable Me than I have for Alan Partridge. But what he has done is open doors for me and let me do other things. I’m very grateful to Alan.”
Alan Partridge: Why, When, Where, How and Whom? is on Wednesday 27 Dec 9.00pm BBC2