Steve Coogan interview

We catch up with Steve Coogan for a look back at his mighty career...

Steve Coogan

Is it a strange experience for you to see this big body of work played out over one weekend?
Well I won’t be watching my body of work over that weekend so it won’t be very strange for me. But it is a bit odd. I first came down to London 25 years ago and it was the first time I’d done anything on television. It was a long time ago. I suppose you accumulate this work and you get on with stuff day-to-day and you don’t dwell on what you’ve done. I don’t really do retrospective analysis of my work. I think it’s good to keep looking forward. I know I’ve done some good stuff and I’m very proud of what I’ve done, but I never thought I’d be one of those people who is the subject of one of those things where you look back at someone’s work. It’s peculiar. But it’s mostly good and I’m proud of what I’ve done.

It must be a good feeling to know that a lot of people still want to see your work?
Yes, I suppose it’s a testament to the fact that the work is still of a sufficient quality. Even when things haven’t quite worked I’ve always done them with earnestness and pushed myself to make it of a certain quality. I’ve never been a ‘that’ll do’ kind of person. I’ve always wanted to make things that are different, I suppose, and I’m quite purist in that respect. When we were writing the early Paul and Pauline Calf stuff, there was a freshness and a certain energy because you’re doing something that’s different and therefore you do have that surge of energy that comes with doing something that’s new. That’s how things felt when I did Paul and Pauline Calf. I remember feeling [when working on Alan Partridge] that we were doing good work. We didn’t put any contemporary reference in the shows because I remember that we wanted it to be watched in 10 and 15 years. We wanted these shows to be like Fawlty Towers.

So you really set yourself these goals when you started Partridge?
If you look at the early programmes, there are no references to politicians or sports people because they date. And we did want the show to have a long shelf life. We wanted it to be good enough and the sort of thing that would last. So it’s gratifying to know that we’ve sort of achieved that goal.

Throughout the years you’ve always collaborated with interesting people – from Armando Iannucci and Chris Morris, to Henry Normal, Larry David and now to Michael Winterbottom. What it is about collaboration that you enjoy?
I like producing and being creative; I’ve worked with a lot of people over the years very closely. Henry Normal – who now runs Baby Cow with me – I started off the Paul Calf thing with him as well as Ernest Moss and other characters who had brief lives on television. The Partridge stuff with Armanda and Patrick, and then Peter Baynham, and now I write Partridge with Rob and Neil Gibbons. It’s just me and them now. The writers have come and gone. I never thought I’d be able to do it with different writers, but new writers come along and give it a different spin and keep it from being the same. If you look at Partridge over the years he’s become more rounded. If you go back to Knowing Me Knowing You and the radio and compare him to the Alan Partridge of Alpha Papa, it’s a very different character. Obviously it’s the same DNA, but now it’s much more subtle and refined. It’s still funny early on but it’s very much a caricature. I collaborated on Saxondale with Neil MacLennan.

Saxondale seems to be one of those forgotten series...
Yeah, I agree. In America it’s got a real cult following. When I was on The Howard Stern Show and they all told me they watch it and love it. It seems it’s got more traction in America than Partridge, because he’s like that perennial rebel hero and they identify with that more over there than we do. They weren’t saddled with any preconception there because I wasn’t known as Alan Partridge there. They just judge the character by its merits. Here people know me as Alan Partridge and when you get successful people want you to do something over and over again. I did this character that was dynamically different. Partridge is the butt of the joke, the fool. But Saxondale is consciously funny. Alan Partridge doesn’t know he’s funny. That’s the crucial difference between the two. Saxondale is consciously funny and subconsciously funny. Sometimes Saxondale will say something that he knows is funny and is funny. Alan doesn’t do that. Saxondale is more of a human. But going back to your original question about collaboration, one of the smartest things I ever did was surround myself with talented people and latch onto them. And I’ve done that all throughout my career. Now I look forward to and enjoy working with new people. It’s very exciting.

And Michael Winterbottom...
Oh yes, I forgot Michael Winterbottom and all that stuff! And Rob!

Those projects with Michael play around with people’s perception of you and the concept of identity. Would you agree with that?
It is fun to do that and it’s fun to play around with that, but it’s not enough on its own. The film of The Trip was very successful in America as an art house film. Lots of people were talking about it. The Trip was successful in spite of the fact no one knew who Rob or I was. I couldn’t be just like ‘Steve Coogan Laughing At Himself’ because they would ask who the f*** is Steve Coogan? It had to work beyond that and it did. As far as they were concerned it was a film about two middle-aged performers who are slightly past their best and a bit directionless in their lives. In Britain we did play around with how people perceive us more, but it had to be funny in and of itself. That’s why we did the voices and we tease each other. Even if you don’t know who we are you can kind of get it within a few minutes – it’s an Odd Couple type of thing. It’s sort of a double act. Like Laurel and Hardy or Walter Matthau and Jack Lemon. I play the slightly precious one who’s spiky and prickly, where as Rob plays someone who’s much more easy-going and at ease with himself.

It looked like just about the best job in the world...
At first I was anxious about it, because both of us actually didn’t know whether it was going to be self-indulgent. Michael had to twist Rob and I’s arms to do it. We just thought it could have been too self-indulgent – two blokes improvising, without a script... we thought it’d be waffle, and unfunny, dull, un-dynamic waffle, too. But Michael promised us it wouldn’t be. I’d worked with him before so I trusted him. So I was happy to take a leap of faith. About a week into shooting I remember thinking that this is going to actually be good and different. And being different is half the battle. It’s not another series about that or this, another sitcom about this or another crime drama. It’s its own original idea and it was liberating.

What is next for you? You seem to be in a very good place creatively at the moment?
Yes, I am. I’m very happy in my life, and I’m very lucky to be in the position of doing the kind of work that I want to do and I believe in. Not everyone has that luxury, so I think I have a responsibility. If you have the luxury to earn a living and do things you believe in, not to do that is wrong. For anyone. If you’ve got money and you’re well of enough to make decisions made on art and principal you should do it. I love writing and I always write with someone else, so it’s not a lonely thing. I also like to talk!