Steve Coogan: interview

As he embarks on a major tour with his brilliant cast of reprobate characters, comic genius Steve Coogan tells Time Out why he’s gone back to stand-up and how Paul Calf once inspired David Beckham’s barnet

  • Alan Partridge on London | Tommy Saxondale's magic musical memories

    Dressed as drunken layabout Paul Calf in a lime-green suit, Steve Coogan is asked to assume an enigmatic pose. ‘You mean completely in silhouette?’ replies Coogan. ‘That’s the only way Paul Calf can do enigmatic.’

    This is the photoshoot for Coogan’s first stand-up tour in ten years. The air crackles with anticipation as Coogan, 42, emerges as Alan Partridge, in Asda brushed denims and nasty box-fresh white trainers. The comedian effortlessly extracts maximum cheese from every Partridge pose, to the extent that my buttocks clench at the full glorious horror of what I’m witnessing. ‘That’s a good sign,’ Coogan laughs.

    ‘One of my writing partners, Neil McLennan, always says that if his buttocks start clenching when we’re writing Partridge, he knows it’s good.’ Between costume changes, Coogan holds court, peppering anecdotes with various brilliant impressions. Although there’s something mildly disconcerting about the sight of a wardrobe lady on her knees pulling down Steve Coogan’s trousers while Ross Kemp’s voice comes out of Alan Partridge’s face.

    Still, the man has a reputation for being prickly in interviews, so before everything goes Partridge-shaped, let’s begin…

    Why are you embarking on this tour? Isn’t it a risk you don’t need to take?

    ‘I want to. When you tour you become more intimate with your audience. It’s like I need reassurance that they like me or at least find me relevant. And that I can still do it. Also it’s scary and I need that adrenalin rush of being out of my comfort zone.’

    Do you feel you have something to prove?

    ‘Part of it is demonstrating that I can still make 2,000 people laugh pretty much consistently for two hours. The best feeling in the world is performing in front of a live audience who like what you’re doing. I can understand why people become dictators just because of the thrill they get making the speeches.’

    The tour title is nicely self-deprecating, but does it irk you that your other characters never took off like Partridge?

    ‘Partridge is my hit single and that’s fine. It’s like a musician doing a concert and performing interesting album tracks as well as the hits. Despite his success, I still like Alan. He’s hugely iconic so I can’t neglect him. I’m forever thinking of ideas for him – why kill the golden goose?’

    Saxondale had as many layers as Partridge did. Why do you think he never became as big?

    ‘I think Saxondale demanded more from the viewer because he was both a fool and occasionally witty himself. He’d say something that would paint him as an idiot then he’d say something that was very much on the money, so you’d laugh with him then moments later laugh at him. So in that way, he’s not as accessible, but people who apply themselves ultimately get more back.’

    When you’re writing, do you instinctively know what will resonate with the audience?

    ‘The trick is always to write in pairs because if at least two people find it funny, you’ve immediately halved the odds of it not being funny. There are things I write that I know only a few will get but they’ll love that joke so much, it’s worth doing. It’s for me and my elitist fans – the people who live on the net and love “The Day Today”.’

    What can we expect from Partridge on this tour?

    ‘He’ll be doing a low-rent version of a lifestyle-guru lecture that he’s seen in America, trying to impart some wisdom that’s changed his life. And I can exclusively tell Time Out readers that he’s going to be singing the praises of David Cameron. I just think the best way to attack Cameron is to get Alan Partridge to go on about how great he is. The man makes my buttocks clench, so mark my words: he’s going to get it.’

    Do you think character comedy on telly is dead?

    ‘No, it goes in waves: whatever’s not fashionable will probably be the next big thing. There hasn’t been a really good sitcom filmed in front of a live audience. That’ll be next, but it’ll be a tough one.’

    You recently said that you feel part of the furniture of this country now. Are you feeling middle-aged?

    ‘I am, actually. I just found myself arguing with my gardener about having foliage not roundabout flowers in my garden. I really, really don’t want pansies. The great thing is that the funny side of getting old is fuel for my comedy. I don’t keep my characters the same age so I can use all those observations.’

    So what annoys you about modern life? Go on, let it out…

    ‘Right. I think postmodernism in general is shit. I want to kill people who make rubbish programmes and try to pass it off as irony. But what I really hate is the comedy of laughing at people who are shit at what they do. It’s so fucking easy it’s like shooting fish in a barrel. It’s that whole “X Factor” thing. The comedy of humiliation I find really dehumanising and deeply unfunny, like laughing at people with learning difficulties. 'People walking slowly in front of me annoy me. Mad bureaucracy. Like, exit signs. You don’t see “exit” written on them any more, it’s just a symbol, in case people can’t read it and burn to death. For fuck’s sake, learn to read the word “exit”! Oh, and nasty middle-aged female columnists in tabloid newspapers who take all their issues about themselves out on some poor unfortunate soul.’

    To be fair, your escapades were very tabloid-friendly…

    ‘The stuff that was reported was 80 per cent inaccurate, but I purposely never engaged in a dialogue with the papers. I carried on writing and trying to do decent comedy and making films because the worst thing would have been to get involved, take my eye off the ball and start doing crap work. So I’m really happy that I never allowed myself to get distracted by it.’

    Are you saving it all for your memoirs? It’d be a sensational read.

    ‘When all the people who might be upset by it are dead, I will. Seriously, if I thought I could do it in a funny and interesting way, I would. But if it was just “blah blah, he thought he was right but I was right all along”, it’s just boring old shite. I don’t know. I might do it when I lose the use of my legs.’

    You must have some great rock ’n’ roll stories. What’s been your best lost night out in London?

    ‘I’ve had some great ones, but I honestly don’t remember them. I’ve never been thrown out of any London clubs, though. I did come out of Wembley after an England-Germany game, take the wrong turn and end up walking along the North Circular for about four fucking hours. That’s not the sort of lost night you mean, though, is it?’

    Not exactly. I never had you down as a football fan.

    ‘My four brothers play every week. I was the slightly poofy brother who doesn’t play because he’s scared of hurting himself. So I admit I’m a weekend Manchester United fan. I went once and was very chuffed when Beckham appeared with another new haircut and the away fans started chanting “Are you Paul Calf in disguise?” What pleased me most was that character had been off screen for about three years.’

    What’s your relationship with London like these days?

    ‘When I first came down from drama school I did feel like a northern reject, but I realised that was actually my strength: having a different perspective on everything. These days I enjoy being slightly distanced from that Soho media circuit. Being based in Brighton means I can keep it at arm’s length. Creatively, there’s something very healthy about that. I guess I’ve always liked being on the outside.’
    'Steve Coogan as Alan Partridge and Other Less Successful Characters', Hammersmith Apollo, November 10-15. Coogan also stars in ‘Hamlet 2’, due to be released in early 2009.

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Alan Partridge on London | Tommy Saxondale's magic musical memories