Two years ago Steve Coogan was sitting in a movie pitch meeting in Hollywood when the director turned to him and said: ‘So, Steve, Alan Partridge. Who is this guy, what’s he like?’ ‘Ah, he’s a failed broadcaster who’s not very good,’ Coogan remembers saying. ‘He’s been kicked off the television and he’s really annoyed about it. And he says inappropriate things.’ ‘Ah,’ said the American director. ‘Right. That’s… funny.’
‘It was,’ Coogan tells me over the phone, ‘one of the worst moments of my recent life.’ It may explain why Coogan’s new Partridge film, ‘Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa’, had its premiere in Norwich last week rather than New York. But it still offers a near-perfect description of a part that Coogan has been playing for two decades and which, the 47-year-old actor, writer and campaigner admits, still makes him laugh. ‘I watch me do something as Alan and it’s like I’ve been possessed by Alan. There’s a bit in the film where I just say the word “cool”, as if I’m trying to be cool. It makes me laugh because it’s really embarrassing. Like watching someone take a shit.’
‘Alpha Papa’ casts Partridge in the unlikely role of hero in a hostage situation. But the character first appeared as a hapless sports reporter on BBC Radio 4 news satire ‘On the Hour’ in 1991, later reprising the role on TV’s ‘The Day Today’. Partridge proved hugely popular and his career continued through being the chatshow host on ‘Knowing Me, Knowing You’, Radio Norwich DJ on ‘I’m Alan Partridge’, and DJ again on the ongoing online show based at North Norfolk Digital, ‘Mid-Morning Matters’. His longevity is rarely commented on, but for much of the last two decades he has been one of the funniest things on our screens.
‘Alan 20 years ago,’ Coogan reflects, ‘seems very crude and a little dated now. When I started writing it with Patrick Marber and Armando Iannucci (interviewed here), I would get angry. I felt they were being too cruel and mocking – like pulling the legs off an insect. I feel an affinity with Alan because there is quite a lot of me in him and I use him as a bin for anything that is bothering me. So I’m not satisfied with just curling your lip and sneering.’
Partridge, like the country, has changed over the last 20 years. ‘He has to reflect the zeitgeist,’ Coogan says. ‘He was a rather intolerant Daily Mail-reading Little Englander and he has to fit in with the new liberal consensus. David Cameron now at least pretends to like gays. You have to reflect that.’
Partridge has had his own struggle with sexuality. In his first big-screen appearance, he has what is, compared to past form, a straightforward heterosexual encounter, free of the leather posing-pouch dreams that previously troubled him. ‘I don’t think that he was gay,’ Coogan reflects, ‘but he was worried that he might be. He doesn’t quite know what he is. He thinks: If that bloke’s gay, maybe I am?’
Other elements of Partridge’s personality have remained constant over 20 years. Not least his Zen-like ability to utter sentences of brilliant mindlessness, some of which have leaked into the national consciousness. There’s even a Twitter account, @AccidentalP, which retweets celebrities’ unintentional Alan-isms, such as cricketer Andrew Strauss’s ‘I think I’m right in saying that they’re the biggest sash windows in the UK’, to more than 90,000 followers.
Coogan loves it: ‘Simon Cowell is on Accidental Partridge. God it made me laugh – ridiculous and banal. Something like, “Just flying over Arizona with a lovely cup of tea.” Bland on a profound level. It’s nice to affect perceptions of popular culture.’
Partridge’s success has, ironically, taken Coogan away from the popular culture that gave birth to it – and into film roles such as Soho sex entrepreneur Paul Raymond in Michael Winterbottom’s ‘The Look of Love’. He thinks Alan ‘wouldn’t understand what the Michael Winterbottom films are all about’.
Coogan is similarly distant from Partridge’s culture – especially since becoming an outspoken critic of the tabloid media during the Leveson Inquiry into the ethics of the press. ‘When we were originally doing Alan I would soak up pop culture,’ says Coogan. ‘Read the tabloids, watch trash TV. I don’t like doing that now because I don’t like filling my brain with shit. That’s a problem. I was trying to write some material – a terrible racist confusion between Burt Kwouk, Ken Hom and Ken Hom’s wok – and someone said, “Throw in Gok Wan, that’ll get a laugh.” And it did, but I wasn’t aware of the reference.’
Coogan seems happy to skirt racial stereotyping when satirising Partridge’s ‘unreconstructed views about things’ but, as you’d expect from a lead player in the Leveson Inquiry, he is willing to reveal his mistakes. ‘I got a letter from a young girl when Alan had described someone as a “spastic mentalist”,’ he recalls. ‘Her brother had cerebral palsy and she loved the programme and felt let down. I think I can defend everything I have done comically on an ethical level but I’m annoyed about that: slightly ashamed. You can think it’s just [Alan’s] ignorance, but you have to think why you are doing it. What does it mean, the comedy that you are doing?’
I wonder if there’s anything that Coogan wouldn’t do with Partridge. For example, is it possible for a programme about a middle-aged DJ to ignore the fact that so many middle-aged DJs seem to have been, at best, sexually incontinent? ‘I’ve been talking to the writers about that,’ says Coogan. ‘I’m attracted to doing things that have a risk factor, that if you get wrong creatively will be terrible. That’s like a red rag to a bull to me: it makes me want to walk towards the fire. So Alan might have grazed someone’s boob in 1976 and made a comment about her being “well upholstered”. We might allude to the Operation Yewtree investigators getting in touch, Alan trying to dig his way out of it and then making it worse.’
So Alan was involved in something bad? ‘Alan is probably much more [Coogan names a famous DJ at this point] than Jimmy Savile. At worst, he would be inappropriate,’ he muses. ‘Not anything criminal, but if he repeated some of the things he had done in the ’70s or early ’80s he might be the subject of a civil law suit.’
I have to stop because I am laughing and immediately I feel guilty because recent events have revealed British light entertainment to be a truly dreadful place. ‘It is dreadful,’ Coogan agrees. ‘It even shocked me. You try and think the best of people and find you were wrong. I had a conversation with Rob Brydon [Coogan’s co-star in ‘The Trip’] about that. He was very kind about Jimmy Savile in his autobiography. He said to me, “I really thought he was a nice bloke.” And I said, “Really? Because I know a lot of people who thought he was a bit odd. I mean a lot of people. Not particularly clever people.”’
Would Alan think Steve Coogan was ‘odd’? ‘He might disapprove of my involvement in Leveson,’ he says. ‘I think he’d find me a bit irritating, to be honest. A bit too mouthy with my anti-establishment views. A bit distasteful.’ Yet Partridge’s new fight to save North Norfolk Digital from a faceless media conglomerate in ‘Alpha Papa’ carries an echo of Coogan’s own campaign for press responsibility. ‘That’s where we dovetail,’ he says. ‘Someone said: “Steve Coogan is becoming more like Alan Partridge.” But it’s not true; Alan Partridge is becoming more like me. And that’s a slightly different thing.’
‘Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa’ opens in UK cinemas on Wed Aug 7.