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What's Winding Steve Coogan Up Now?

Steve Coogan is about to have the biggest critical smash of his career. So why isn't he happier? Talking to Sam Parker, the actor lets off steam about getting the wrong roles, Paul Dacre and 'tedious' modern comedians

What's Winding Steve Coogan Up Now?

Steve Coogan is bored of comedy.

"Most acts I see on television, their sole objective is to have a career. They’re very professional, very slick, but they look like they’ve read a manual on how to do stand up."

Without naming names, he’s talking about the panel show set, that notorious, almost exclusively male gang that populate, seemingly, every TV show broadcast post 10pm.

"They bore the pants off me. What do they believe in? What’s their opinion? Even if it were an opinion I didn’t like, that would be fine. What I can’t stand is this benign, nebulous, nothingness that I see in a lot of people who are too scared to upset any part of their fan base in case they don’t buy a ticket to their show."

‘Bored’ is his word for it. To me, ‘disgusted’ seems more accurate.

Disgusted is an emotion we’ve become quite accustomed to seeing from Coogan in the past year. Like all great comedians, he’s always been an enigma. Just as it is hard to tell if Louis C K is really that misanthropic in real life, or if Ricky Gervais is really that arrogant, for years, it was hard to tell if Steve Coogan really took himself (and his work) so painfully seriously – a perception he’s played with all his career, from The Man Who Thinks He Is It to more recently, The Trip alongside Rob Brydon.

And then Leveson happened, and we were left in no doubt.

In order to rally against the press in the wake of the hacking scandal, Coogan – who has been embroiled in his fair share of tabloid scandals over the years – joined the anti-Daily Mail pressure group Hacked Off, shed his comic mask and gave us a full throttle blast of the real man – both at the Inquiry itself and during heated exchanges on BBC Newsnight.

It’s been an experience he has relished.

“If I can in any way contribute to [Daily Mail editor] Paul Dacre having a bad day, that makes me happy,” he says, before reciting the now-familiar Hacked Off party line.

“It [campaigning for press regulation] is challenging the arrogance of people who have too much power. It’s helping to empower people who were abused by journalists with no moral scruples, whose only interest is in selling more newspapers to satisfy shareholders who wouldn’t know a moral compass if it was shoved up their arse.

“So yes, I’ve enjoyed it. Because it’s something I believe in. It all goes back to not just being preoccupied with that Dave mentality of ‘let’s just have a laugh’. I am too old for that now. I like things of substance."


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The first time I met Coogan face to face was earlier this year, when he was promoting the Alan Partridge film Alpha Papa.

It was one of those awkward interviews, sat in a make shift studio with promotional material everywhere, 5 minutes with cameras pointed at both of us. He was as you expect comedians to be: slightly uncomfortable, keen to crack jokes.

The second time, to promote his new film Philomena, we’re sat alone together in a central London hotel room. My expectation was that a lack of cameras – a lowered pressure to ‘perform’ – would make for a more relaxed chat.

I was wrong. Although faultlessly polite ("thanks love", he tells the assistant who brings his tea) and articulate, Coogan away from the cameras is also fidgety, distracted, and prone to exasperation. Above all, he is serious.

"Part of the reason I did Philomena is that I’m fed up of post-modernism and irony. People who think they’re smart because they’re ironic all the time, or cool and hip. I find it tedious.

"What takes real guts is saying something sincere, something you believe in. That’s the most avant-garde thing you can do these days. And that’s why I did this film, I wanted to say something sincere. I wanted it to mean something."

Philomena, which Coogan co-wrote and stars in alongside Judi Dench, tells the true story of an Irish Catholic women’s search for her son, who was taken from her when she was a teenager forced to live a convent. Coogan plays Martin, the cynical atheist and journalist who decides to help her for the purposes of a human-interest story.

Already being cited as an Oscar contender, it’s a beautifully played out drama and a watershed moment in Coogan’s career, an almost entirely non-comic role that he admits "would never have been offered to me if I wasn’t producing the film."

A new direction then, surely, for the man who a few months earlier was falling out of a window with his pants around his ankles as everyone’s favourite Norwich DJ?

"I don’t think it is that much of a new direction," he says a little unconvincingly, cutting me off. "I’ve done five films with Michael Winterbottom. And all those roles were serious. I mean they had comedy in them, but they weren’t comedies per say."

He lists them – Tristram Shandy, The Look Of Love, 24 Hour Party People, The Trip 1, The Trip 2 – goes silent for a moment, then adds: "This is just the one that has the most heat.”

It’s also the only one with such a serious subject at its heart: the loss of a child, a covered up act of corruption on behalf of the church. Coogan decided to try and make the film after reading the true story of Philomena in a newspaper. Was being outraged – ‘believing in something’ – what inspired him, like it did at Leveson?

"Not really. Doing a polemic about how bad the church is is frankly rather boring. It’s been done before. The Magdalene Sisters did it. And lots of liberal, enlightened people saying ‘aren’t the church bad because they all believe in a load of rubbish’ is ultimately a bit dull.

"What was more interesting to me was the notion of a relationship between someone who is secular in their beliefs, an intellectual and a cynic, versus a working class, non-intellectual, faithful person, who is religious and an optimist.

"It was a way of looking at faith. It’s not me going: ‘isn’t it awful what happened to her’ – although it is – it’s actually about how you deal with bad things that happen to you. You think he’s saving her but she’s saving him."


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As his disdain for most other comedians suggests, Coogan approaches comedy as a solemn art form. Each reinvention of Alan Partridge is crafted with meticulous care, exhaustively drafted and redrafted. Declan Lowney, the director of Alpha Papa, has spoken of his frustration with Coogan, who'd stop mid-shoot to labour over single lines, or rewrite entire scenes between takes.

The result has been that rarest of comedy achievements: a character who has remained popular with critics and found new generations of fans, surviving changing times, new writers and, most remarkably, a feature film, traditionally the death knell for TV sitcoms.  

And yet, for all Partridge is Coogan’s greatest invention, the source of all his fame and fortune, he has also been an albatross around his neck. In that earlier interview to promote Alpha Papa, Coogan talked about Alan like one might a difficult older relative, with a mixture of affection and strained patience. "I feel like ignoring him now," he said, echoing the sentiments of his semi-fictional conversations with Rob Brydon in The Trip.

After giving the public one giant blast of Alan this summer, it is tempting to interpret Coogan’s recent activity – writing a serious drama and giving himself a part in it, embracing the role of a political activist – as being at least in part an effort to distance himself from the character, to move on and find the ‘things of substance’ he craves.

To wind down our chat, I ask him about some of things he enjoys. It’s not a topic that seems to interest him, or at least not when talking to a journalist. The answers take a while to summon, and when they do they’re brief, whether it is other comics (“Stewart Lee. At least he has a moral backbone”), actors (“Jack Lemmon… Jimmy Stewart… I like those old guys”) or books (“I’ve just started Jeanette Winterson's Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal”).

Finally, I return to the one thing apart from Partridge Coogan is probably now most associated with. Does he still read newspapers?

"I do. Online. I keep abreast of what’s going on in the world."

And then he’s off again, on a rant.

"One thing that irritates me is when you see an actor tell the press: ‘I’m not really interested in politics’.

"So many people these days are interested in style over substance. If you ask what they think about something, they say: ‘I don’t have an opinion, because it doesn’t affect me.’ Or they think it doesn’t.

"It’s so narcissistic. When I see people say something like that I want to strangle them."

And with that, I bid farewell to Britain’s greatest – and most serious – living comic.


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SEE ALSO:

We Need To Get Rid Of Alan: How Coogan Shook Off Partridge For Philomena 
5 Brilliant Ways Alpha Papa Was Sold To Us 
The Alan Partridge Style Guide 
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