Steve Coogan’s steps are constantly dogged by damaging headlines and avenging ex-lovers. Now that he is on the brink of a Hollywood breakthrough, can the comedian turn excess into success? Robert Sandall reports.
At first, it looked like an idyllic working holiday for Steve Coogan. A month’s filming in Hawaii in August, with his 11-year-old daughter and new girlfriend in tow, with tiptop accommodation in a luxury beach house in Maui. All this for Coogan’s most prestigious film role since he set up a part-time base in LA in 2001. In Tropic Thunder, a comedy directed by his buddy Ben Stiller, concerning a hapless attempt to make a movie about the Vietnam war, Coogan was starring alongside Nick Nolte and Robert Downey Jr. His ambition to move on from his defining comic persona here – the spoof provincial chat-show host Alan Partridge – and build a reputation as a more versatile thesp in Hollywood, seemed now to be within reach.
In the event, the Hawaii trip turned into a PR calamity with an unfortunate whiff of nemesis for a man seemingly unable to shake off the rowdy ghosts of his past. Three weeks into filming, a failed suicide bid by Coogan’s friend and co-star Owen Wilson back in LA put Wilson out of Tropic Thunder and into hospital with a drugs overdose. Worse, a welter of brutal tabloid allegations appeared in which Coogan was named by Courtney Love as the malign agent of Wilson’s breakdown. Subsequent revelations that Wilson had in fact gone off the rails after splitting up with his girlfriend, the actress Kate Hudson, came too late to stop some of Love’s mud from sticking.
Coogan is no stranger to embarrassing personal publicity. Ever since he was reported to the tabloids in 1994 for showering a topless model with £10 notes on a bed – a lark he later explained as “me being crassly ironic about what you do when you’re famous” – he has had to endure several uncomfortable red-top exposés. Like the one in April 2004 when he was shamed into admitting that he had taken cocaine in a hotel room with two women he met after a charity performance at the Albert Hall.
None of these past indiscretions had been life-threatening, nor had Coogan disputed them. The lurid headlines that splashed across British newspapers on August 29 last year, however, prompted him, for the first time in his career, to threaten immediate libel action against anybody reprinting them. “Owen and I have a completely apple-pie friendship,” Coogan tells me later. “We run together on Venice Beach. I have never had a drink or taken drugs with him.” But even as he publicly criticised Love’s charges as “unfounded, unhelpful and hurtful to all concerned”, Coogan must have been aware that he had helped to bring this misfortune upon himself.
Anybody who embarks on a relationship, however brief, with a loud-mouthed loose cannon like Courtney Love is asking for trouble, as Coogan had already discovered. Following their two-week liaison in LA in 2005, the vengeful Love let rip. The highly volatile rock star, actress and widow of Kurt Cobain stormed that Coogan was an inveterate substance-abuser and “a f***ing sex addict” with a thing for orgies. It was his womanising ways, Love said, that had inveigled her into dating a loser she identified with his famously inept comic character. “Given the A-list stars I’ve dated, it’s embarrassing. I mean, Alan Partridge!” An unfounded rumour circulated that Love was carrying Coogan’s love child.
At the time, Coogan was supposedly trying to get his life back on track. He had just come through a turbulent year that had seen the break-up of his 18-month marriage to Caroline Hickman after the Albert Hall caper – she cited his “unreasonable behaviour” in the divorce proceedings – and a spell in a rehab centre in Arizona. “I’ve taken a lot of drugs but I’m clean now,” he told an interviewer. His main priorities, he said, were advancing his career, particularly in America, and stemming the flow of Coogan-the-party-animal stories for the sake of his daughter, Clare. “I have a wonderful relationship with her and I want to protect that.”
The brouhaha surrounding the filming of Tropic Thunder last August was doubly unhelpful. Along with Clare, Coogan was in Hawaii with his first serious girlfriend since his wife walked out in 2004. China Chow, the 34-year-old British-born daughter of the famous Beverly Hills restaurateur Michael Chow, founder of the Mr Chow chain, is an actress and model who has been written up recently as the woman who might, finally, ease 42-year-old Coogan out of a bachelor lifestyle that has survived the birth of his only child and one marriage. When the couple attended the Sundance film festival together in Utah in March, the gossip columnists gushed they were “inseparable”, and speculated that marriage was imminent; which it isn’t.
Though Coogan now stays with Chow in her Hollywood apartment whenever he is in LA, they see much less of each other when he is living in his house in Brighton and working in Britain, as he will be for most of 2008. Chow has her own acting career back in LA: the week’s driving holiday in the Lake District that Coogan took her on in February required some diary-juggling from each of them.
Coogan’s upcoming schedule is beyond hectic; “completely mad”, he calls it. Two months in Manchester filming Sunshine, a new comedy series for the BBC written by his friend Craig Cash, one of the creators of The Royle Family. Then a month back in Brighton working on the script for his first stand-up tour of the UK since 1998, which takes up most of the autumn, and which Coogan intends to film for a separate project. In the middle of all that, he has to fit in a US promotional tour to publicise another movie, Hamlet 2. When he says “I really would like to settle down, but circumstances don’t allow that at the moment,” you can see his point. You can also see why his girlfriend may wonder what sort of a life beckons for her as Mrs C.
After the Wilson incident, Coogan went to ground for six months before finally agreeing to meet. In the interim I heard from various people who have worked with him, who were unanimous on what a live wire he is: “A brain full of ideas that carry on developing even when he’s on camera,” said an actress who was in his most recent comedy series, Saxondale. “Steve has the observational skills of the best stand-up comedians and the acting skills to assume a character,” said a fellow comic who compared him to the late Peter Sellers.
Insights into the man behind the talent were harder to come by. He doesn’t seem to do close friendships. He tends to hang out with long-term business colleagues, like Henry Normal, a former insurance executive with whom he writes scripts and runs the Baby Cow production company. “You can be talking to him and he’ll be off somewhere, inventing worlds in his brain,” Normal said. Michael Winterbottom, who has directed Coogan in several films, said he thought Alan Partridge “was an aspect of who he really is, which he exaggerates”. A woman who went out with him for a while called him “commitment-phobic and impulsive”, recounting how, at short notice, he would ring up and send a car to her London flat to drive her down to his Brighton house for the night.
That amorous roustabout is not the Steve Coogan I meet at his Soho club in February for an exploratory chat – no recorder, no notes. He arrives late, flustered and profusely apologetic, and orders a glass of white wine. Though he looks recognisable enough – if more sensibly dressed than his comic creations tend to be, in a blue windcheater and cream chinos – Coogan passes largely unnoticed in this well-populated media lair, despite being by some distance the most famous person in the place. He says he hardly ever gets stopped on the street. Perhaps that’s because he is naturally diffident and has no aura. The earnest stare, which draws laughs when he deploys it in character on stage or screen, is the default expression of a guy who seems more nervous than most, and slightly uncomfortable in his own skin. As Winterbottom says, there is a hint of Partridge-like gaucheness about him.
Like many professional funnymen – John Cleese and Woody Allen spring to mind – Coogan is almost studiously unfunny in person. Rather than tell amusing stories, or put on the funny voices that are his forte, he prefers to ponder the nature of his craft. He quotes a remark by Henry Normal that comedy is “a mixture of music and mathematics”. He says he likes the “deep pathos” that humour can sometimes tap, but he also likes the broad knockabout stuff. “When I’m in front of 2,000 people making them all laugh at the same thing, I’m in a Zen state, the most comfortable place I know.” He is proud of the fact that his audience is made up of regular blokes – he calls them “the lager crowd” – and more serious-minded, chin-stroking types.
But he’s certainly not vain; rather, he’s scrupulously modest. He attributes his success to his ability “to hitch my bandwagon to other people’s talents”, pointing out that his Alan Partridge character was a team effort. Partridge was originally devised in collaboration with the radio comedian Armando Iannucci and the playwright Patrick Marber, and later developed with the writer Peter Baynham, who went on to work with Sacha Baron Cohen on Borat. Coogan’s most recent creation, the roadie turned rat-catcher Tommy Saxondale, was made up with a previously unknown Scottish writer, Neil Maclennan, who sent him an unsolicited script he liked. He needs to write with other people, he says, “because I have to have a dialogue. I need somebody to listen to me, basically. Without that, I can’t tell what’s really funny”.
So when he says he “can’t stand having smoke blown up my arse” and doesn’t want this article to be “a whitewash”, you want to believe him – even though he’s noticeably guarded about what he talks about outside his work. For a lot of our hour-long conversation, he discusses Brighton and its posher sister town, Hove, to which he relocated from London in 1998 and where he still lives in a six-bedroom Victorian house with a swimming pool in the garden. On his own. He says the house “is too big for me” and that he bought it in the hope that “things would pan out differently. I thought it would become a family home, and that hasn’t happened”.
He is most talkative about his daughter Clare’s schooling. She attends a comprehensive in Brighton near where she lives, most of the time, with her mother, Anna Cole, a solicitor. Coogan is at pains to stress how well he gets on now with his ex-girlfriend – with whom he split up around the time Clare was born – and is equally keen not to reveal anything about her. His ex-wife, Caroline, is another no-go area: “I don’t want to talk about my relationships. It’s my choice to have a public profile, but other people haven’t made that choice. I have to respect that.”
Six weeks later, at a vegetarian restaurant in Brighton, he is in a more buoyant and expansive mood for the interview proper. He has recently returned from Utah, where Hamlet 2 – a low-budget independent production starring Coogan as an American high-school drama teacher staging a bonkers sequel to the Shakespearian classic – was the big hit of the Sundance film festival. It was bought for $10m by Focus Features, making it the second biggest deal in Sundance’s history, and will be heavily promoted ahead of its cinema release in August. Coogan thinks it’s his best shot yet at making a breakthrough in America, which he describes, in his self-effacing way, as “an experiment. There’s a question mark over whether I can forge a meaningful career there. I’m still unknown. For somebody to pay that much means they’re investing in my potential”.
The first people to recognise Steve Coogan’s potential were his brothers and sisters. He grew up in north Manchester, the fifth of seven children – five boys, two girls – in a devoutly Catholic household. His socialist parents also engaged in short-term fostering, which swelled the numbers in the Coogan nest to the point where a visiting policeman once mistook the house for a community centre. “It was a very stable, solid background,” Coogan says. “And it was character-forming. I had to vie for attention.”
His main ploy was to mimic the voices of characters in the TV shows that the family would watch together every night. In the days before video, nine-year-old Steven found he could hold the attention of the entire household by replaying, with precocious accuracy, key scenes from favourite BBC comedies such as Fawlty Towers and Dad’s Army. “Get Steve to do it” became a regular family refrain.
It was a rare talent, but it didn’t get Coogan into any of the London drama colleges he applied to after secondary school, a memory that still rankles. “I used to dream about this other cosmopolitan world in London, where sophisticated jet-set people would drink cocktails and drive Aston Martins. I felt like a northern reject.” That feeling was amplified by the people he met at his Rada interview. “They all had names like Sebastian and Julian, and wore long scarves and Byronic hairstyles. They seemed to have a built-in confidence, and I didn’t have that.” Coogan’s perception of himself as an outsider – borderline chippy – stayed with him as his career took off. While still a drama student at Manchester Poly, he landed a plum job doing voiceovers for Spitting Image, the TV puppet show on which he impersonated John Major and Neil Kinnock. It gave him his first break on the stand-up circuit, but didn’t gain him any cred on the metropolitan comedy scene. “They thought I was just a mimic, for God’s sake, not a proper comedian.”
Audiences disagreed. Coogan won a Perrier comedy award at Edinburgh in 1992 for a one-man show in which he appeared as a lager-swilling yob, Paul Calf, a yuppie called Gavin Gannet and other buffoons. Soon afterwards he was hired by the BBC for a new radio comedy series, On the Hour, a spoof current-affairs programme fronted by Chris Morris. Coogan played a haplessly ignorant sports reporter with a hilarious obsession about injuries “in the groinal area”. Alan Partridge went on to appear in On the Hour’s television sequel, The Day Today, before leaving the commentary box and taking flight as a naff chat-show host from Norwich, the star of Knowing Me, Knowing You. At this point, Coogan knew that he was “cutting edge. I wouldn’t have swapped places with anyone”.
By the mid-1990s he was living the dream he had had as a Mancunian teenager: resident in London, driving expensive sports cars, consuming cocktails, you name it. Which the tabloids often did. A neighbour of Coogan’s at the time remembers a steady throughput of lady visitors to his house off the Holloway Road. He admits that the dream went sour eventually, that he was “living in a sea of madness. I was like a kid in a candy shop, but at the end of the day, you have to wake up with yourself”. His wake-up call came after his girlfriend Anna Cole upped sticks to Brighton in 1996, taking their daughter with her. A year or so later – as a shower of Bafta awards in 1998 enshrined Partridge as one of Britain’s all-time comedic favourites – Coogan followed, and has never regretted it. He says he loves the “relaxed, post-hippie attitude of the people here” and enjoys the healthier lifestyle. He now runs along the seafront every morning, jogging down to the house where his friends Zoe Ball and Norman “Fatboy Slim” Cook live.
Though he still retains a flat in Notting Hill, he never stays there, preferring to do a day’s commute by train whenever he needs to visit the Baby Cow office. London is now back to where it was in Coogan’s world: an alien place that he doesn’t quite fit into.
To judge from the work he has done these past 10 years, you might conclude that he has put his rambunctious past behind him. He has become less of a gag man and more of a character actor – playing the 18th-century eccentric Tristram Shandy in A Cock and Bull Story, and the eponymous diarist in The Private Life of Samuel Pepys. It was his fine portrayal of the late Tony Wilson in 24 Hour Party People that opened the door for him in America.
The return of Alan Partridge in 2003, and the introduction of Tommy Saxondale in 2006, both suggested he was less interested in belly laughs than knowing smiles. He agrees, saying he’s trying to capture “universal truths that make people laugh in a different way, by shining a little light on what it means to be human”.
Unfortunately, this hankering after wisdom hasn’t always extended into his personal life, as witness the circumstances of his failed marriage and spell in rehab in 2004. The presumption at the time was that he had a serious drug problem and an uncontrollable libido. “Let’s say I had certain issues that needed to be addressed,” he says, adding after a long pause: “And I… er… dealt with them.” Does he still take drugs? “No, I don’t. Clarity of mind is a very precious thing to me. If you have an addictive personality, which I think I probably do, you have to channel it in a positive and productive way.” Which is why he has recently created such a heavy work schedule, to keep himself out of trouble? Long pause. “I am a workaholic. And that is another ‘holic’, a form of addiction. And I do have to be careful about that.”
Before I leave him, Coogan takes me back to his house in Hove, where some photographs for this article are being taken in the garden, which backs onto the cricket ground where the Sussex county side plays. You can see what he means by his earlier remark that he “rather rattles around” in here. Spread over five floors, with the office where he writes at the top and a large basement that he might turn into a home cinema, it has the size and slightly anonymous feel of a smart guesthouse. Signs of occupancy are scarce: a pile of magazines in the range kitchen, a packet of fags on the dining table, a grey Porsche 911 in the garage. There’s one photograph of Clare on the kitchen mantelpiece. Nothing denoting the new girlfriend. As he points out the 17th-century map of Asia on the wall in the hallway, and sits down at the piano, unprompted, to play Bach’s Air on the G String, you get the sense that he would like to be seen as cultivated, and settled. You also get the sense that gestures in that direction are possibly all he has time for.
Steve Coogan is a work-in-progress, and he knows it. He says he can’t decide whether to keep this house or move to the country, maybe even to rural Ireland, where his grandparents came from and where he loves to go walking with his brothers. He also says that he can’t wait to get back on the road this autumn with his stand-up show, Steve Coogan Is Alan Partridge and Other Less Successful Characters.
There’s something touchingly naive in his wavering, as there is in his diffidence, not to mention that earnest stare, which deepens considerably when I ask him if he thinks he might have grown up too fast. The longest pause of the afternoon ensues. “I didn’t really have an adolescence: I sort of put that off till later,” he says. “And I sort of wish now I hadn’t.”
Quite a read there - I think I'll put some Saxondale on instead!
Steve Coogan: The Jerry Seinfeld of England The British comedian stars in 'Hamlet 2,' directed by former O.C. resident Andrew Fleming. By BARRY KOLTNOW
The Orange County Register
When Steve Coogan's agent called about a job offer for a movie called "Hamlet 2," the British actor said he hated the title, and refused to star in the movie.
"I eventually agreed to read the script because I liked the work of the director (former Orange County resident Andrew Fleming), but I still didn't like the title. I thought it was an awful title because it misrepresented the film. I begged them to change it, but they insisted that it was funny. And I had to trust them," he added with a shrug. "Andy and Pam (Brady of "South Park" fame) are not idiots when it comes to deciding what's funny."
Fleming and Brady, who co-wrote the script and produced the film, staunchly defended the title, and said it made them laugh. "I thought someone at the studio would say that it sounded too artsy," said Fleming, who earlier wrote and directed the political spoof "Dick." "But more people got the joke than I expected." Brady, who also co-wrote the animated film "South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut," joked that she thought the title was appropriate because "this has been a summer of sequels so why not one more?"
The comedy, which began generating buzz after it received an enthusiastic response at this year's Sundance Film Festival, is not a sequel to Shakespeare's masterpiece, but the title is not as deceptive as Coogan originally thought.
Coogan, who already is in theaters playing the hilarious but ill-fated movie director in Ben Stiller's big-budget hit "Tropic Thunder," portrays a hapless, good-hearted and talent-challenged actor who fails miserably at his chosen profession and ends up teaching a high school drama class in Tucson.
In this twisted and wickedly offbeat nod to inspirational teacher movies such as "Dead Poets Society" and "Mr. Holland's Opus," Coogan's character writes, directs and stars in an outrageous and politically incorrect musical-theater sequel to "Hamlet" that sparks intense local protests that expand into a national outcry.
Although Coogan enjoys a modest following in the United States (from his films "24 Hour Party People," "Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story" and "Night at the Museum," in which he played the miniature Roman soldier Octavius), the 42-year-old Brit is a comedy legend in his native country. He is best-known for his TV work, particularly as the character Alan Partridge.
"This guy can't walk down the street in England without people running up to him and repeating lines from his shows," Fleming said. "He's like Jerry Seinfeld in England." Fleming and Brady said they were big fans of Coogan's before they cast the film (Fleming for "24 Hour Party People" and Brady for the Alan Partridge character), but never thought he would agree to do the role.
"Frankly, we made the offer just to meet him," Brady said. "We never thought in a million years we could get him." Coogan said he agreed to meet with the writers, even though he thought the title of their script was a mistake. "From the moment I read the script, I completely understood this character," the actor said. "He has the same DNA as many of the characters I've played in England."
What really sold Coogan on the script, he said, was an early scene in the movie when the misguided drama teacher Dana Marschz (don't feel bad; nobody knows how to pronounce it) directs his high school class in a musical based on the film "Erin Brockovich,"
"That choice was totally faithful to a certain kind of character," Coogan explained during a chat in his Beverly Hills hotel suite. "At that moment, I knew it was going to be funny, and I knew the audience would feel compassion for this fellow. There's an earnestness in a decision to put on a musical production of 'Erin Brockovich,' and yet it is a terrible lack of judgment."
Brady described the character she and Fleming created as "delusional, but he never gives up." Coogan, 42, said the character is different than most movie comedy characters in that he is so emotionally open and vulnerable. "Most comedy comes from a place of duplicity and concealment. It comes from trying to present yourself in a certain way that is a lie. The comedy tension comes out of that. I usually play darker characters that are kind of twisted, and it was fun to play someone who is not cynical, who is so open and says what he feels.
"Normally, I play characters who you have to get the audience to like, but this character is so well-intentioned and always trying to do the right thing that the audience has to be on his side. The film seems to mock him at first, but the audience sticks by him."
Coogan admits that it can get a little uncomfortable to watch this pathetic guy stumble through his life, but the actor said he is accustomed to playing these types of characters. "I can't tell you how many times in England that women come up to me and say: 'My husband loves your comedy but I can't watch it.' That's not an attempt at a left-handed compliment. They really mean it, and I understand what they're saying. When I was a kid, the whole family used to sit around the television set and watch 'Fawty Towers' (a BBC sitcom in the 1970s), and my mother would cover her eyes. She thought it was unbearable to watch, but the rest of us thought it was hysterical. I think uncomfortable comedy like that verges on being pleasurable if you are of a certain disposition."
Coogan will next be seen in this country in Ben Stiller's sequel "Night at the Museum 2," but English fans will see him sooner in a long-awaited comedy tour. The three-month tour, complete with dancers and live music, marks a return to his stand-up roots. But he said he expects to come back to the States to continue his film career.
If there is a dark lining to Coogan's silver cloud, it is that his first starring role in an American movie ("Hamlet 2") might get crushed at the box office by his smaller role in his other American movie ("Tropic Thunder").
"I do have mixed feelings about one movie possibly squashing my other movie," he said with a laugh, "but I'm proud to be in both films. Seriously, when I saw 'Tropic Thunder,' I had the thought: "Hey, this is a great movie, and I'm in it.' "But I'm just enjoying this time," he added. "People are saying that I'm having a moment, and if that's the case, I'm just going to sit back and enjoy the moment. I've been the flavor-of-the-month before, and I've not been the flavor-of-the-month before, and I know that neither is the root of happiness."
Fleming, who attended middle school in Dana Point and San Juan Capistrano, said he has no doubts that Coogan will continue to enjoy moments like this. "There is no way that American audiences are not going to connect with him. Every comic in America is a fan of his, and pretty soon the rest of America will catch up."
The English Jerry Seinfeld? When has Seinfeld ever played anyone but himself? pah!
Steve Coogan's leaping across the pond Already a British favorite, comedian takes a stab at fame in America By RUTHE STEIN
San Francisco Chronicle
Aug. 24, 2008
• Born: Oct. 14, 1965, Middleton, Manchester, England
• Personal: Divorced from Caroline Hickman since 2005. Has a daughter, Clare, from a previous relationship.
• Why we care: A gifted impressionist, Coogan is famous in England for creating the character Alan Partridge, a sports reporter and talk-show host who also appears in several TV series of Coogan's creation.
• Résumé builders: Best known in the United States for movie roles in 24 Hour Party People , A Cock and Bull Story and Night at the Museum .
• Outside the biz: Claims to be a socialist who revels in paying taxes.
• Quotable: "Actors say they do their own stunts for the integrity of the film, but I do them because they look like a lot of fun"
Steve Martin and Robin Williams did it — parlayed their comic talents into a big Hollywood career. Steve Coogan is attempting to follow the same trajectory with one difference: He's British, and most Americans don't know him as a funny man. Audiences at Night at the Museum caught a glimpse of him as Octavius, a miniature Roman warrior in a helmet and red robes, hanging out with the equally tiny cowboy Jedediah, played by pal Owen Wilson. Now, they're putting on their costumes again to reprise their roles in Night at the Museum 2: Battle of the Smithsonian.
But small stuff like this isn't likely to get Coogan flagged down on the red carpet. So the 42-year-old entertainer has taken a big risk by changing his accent to play a hapless American high school drama coach in Hamlet 2. The comedy created a stir at the Sundance Film Festival when it was bought for $10 million by Focus Features, distributors of Brokeback Mountain.
This film's central figure is would-be thespian Dana Marschz, who acts in commercials for genital herpes relief and Jack LaLanne's Power Juicer. Coogan won critical accolades for his portrayal of Marschz, who expresses enthusiasm for putting on a staged version of Erin Brockovich and a musical sequel to Hamlet.
"I don't believe the hype," he said in San Francisco, where he had come to, well, hype his movie. "I take the good stuff with a pinch of salt and the bad stuff with a pinch of salt." Fighting off a cold, Coogan recalled it was "kind of liberating to act the part of someone who has no acting talent."
His character bounces from being angry and passionate and strong and focused one moment to weeping openly the next. Once Coogan understood this about Dana, he knew he had to play him as an American. "Someone who could be so emotionally effusive and open is not something you would find in a lot of British people," he said. "In California, being emotionally open is the state sport."
Coogan's main home is in London, but he spends a few months each year in Los Angeles making friends and meeting important people. That's how the script for Hamlet 2 came to him. As soon as he read it, Coogan told screenwriters Pam Brady and Andrew Fleming that he wanted to do it and would wait until they had financing.
He found the main character "really flawed and vulgar and stupid and all kinds of things at once. I saw it as an opportunity to do something big." Waiting for the film to come out made Coogan anxious. "In some ways, there is a lot riding on the film's success," he said. "It could open up new opportunities for me. All that kind of variety is what keeps you feeling vital. But I am fortunate to have a career that is healthy enough in England that anything that happens here is a bonus," he said. "My life won't fall apart if it doesn't change. I am already working with people I like, so it is all upside for me."
Coogan starred in the British hit 24 Hour Party People and will be touring England in an extravaganza featuring the characters for which he's become famous, including the invented Alan Partridge, an insufferable TV talk-show host who appears in several series.
Just as Coogan was making plans to invade America, he was faced with a serious downside. It still upsets him because it is all over the Internet and is far from the way he wants potential fans to know him. Last summer, after Wilson's suicide attempt, Courtney Love was quoted blaming Coogan for allegedly supplying Wilson with hard drugs. Love, who claimed to be Coogan's former lover, said that when she was out of rehab, "he was right there with the drugs. I tried to warn Owen. I hope from the bottom of my heart that Owen stays the hell away from that guy."
Without mentioning Love's name, Coogan, who is divorced and has a daughter from a previous relationship, said her story was "totally malicious and utterly without any foundation whatsoever. It was totally invented. It annoyed me because it was very difficult for me to defend myself because, of course, my concern was with Owen. It wasn't with being preoccupied with something that was slanderous. I didn't want to inflame the situation by getting into a tit for tat." Coogan said he and Wilson are "very good friends" who are talking about doing another project together after the Night at the Museum sequel. "He was as appalled as I was when he read that," he said of the Love accusations.
This is a side of the entertainment world that Coogan couldn't have imagined while growing up in a bustling Irish Catholic household in Middleton in Greater Manchester, England. Besides Coogan and his six brothers and sisters, his mother also took in foster children. "There was a lot of noise in the house, a lot of hustle and bustle," he said. "To get any kind of attention, you really had to do something."
Coogan quickly discovered a talent for mimicking voices. He would be paraded in front of the family and told to imitate "some very verbose relative or someone maybe the rest of the family wasn't too keen on. In school, my teacher would have me stand in front of class and mimic other teachers for his own amusement. When I was reluctant, he would say, 'Well, then we can open the books and do some work.' Then the rest of the students wanted me to do it because they didn't want to work."
He would later move on to doing impressions of Prince Charles for a record label. At age 10, he starred in a school production of Aladdin. "Then we did 'Hamlet 1,' as I like to refer to it now," he said. For his higher education, Coogan was accepted into a prestigious drama school. Some teachers he worked with were not unlike the one he plays in Hamlet 2.
"It was a major disappointment for them that they wound up teaching," he said. "The frustration was that the talented people perhaps aren't as passionate about theater as the less talented. It is the lack of justice in the creative world because talent is something you can perfect, you can make better, but you can't just bestow it on someone. It is sort of a God-given thing, and he is pretty unjust about who he hands it out to."
Steve Coogan Rocks Sexy Jesus Character in ‘Hamlet 2’ HollywoodChicago.com
August 27, 2008
CHICAGO – Steve Coogan is a British comedy icon. Forging a career from creating an array of characters, though, he’s not as well known in America (except to BBC cultists). He brings this talent for characterization to the lead role of an American high school drama teacher in the new film “Hamlet 2”. Coogan adds some peculiar quirks to the depiction of the clueless soul who seemingly will do anything to project his dramatic “vision”.
In a recent HollywoodChicago.com interview with Coogan, he philosophized about the nature of his comedy and how he hopes it can translate both in “Hamlet 2” and within the larger entertainment scope as his career progresses. Describing the roots of his basis in developing characters, Coogan went back to his childhood in Manchester, England.
“As a kid before cable or VCRs, I used to use an audio cassette recorder to tape TV shows,” Coogan recalled. He added: “[I did it] just to get the audio tracks. Also there was a lot of comedy on records. I would listen to Monty Python and older British comedy like Tony Hancock and The Goon Show.”
“Often people would describe their favorite moments on the TV shows or records,” he continued. “I would say: ‘No. You’ve got it wrong.’ I would start to mimic what was accurate on those shows. I would enjoy the retelling of the stuff. I would enjoy people’s reaction to it once I did it.”
“Hamlet 2” is a bit of a departure from the British scene. It depicts Coogan as Dana Marschz: a down and out American actor forced to teach bad drama in a high school in Tucson, Ariz. His student body consists of two worshipful pupils who do stage recreations of movies like “Erin Brockovich”.
When Dana is forced to take some rougher students into his classes, it’s within the context that the school system is about to cut the drama department entirely. What is necessary is a big production. It must be something the bureaucracy can’t ignore.
Dana Marschz will come up with the sequel to one of Shakespeare’s best. He’ll call it “Hamlet 2”. Coogan added: “What attracted me to the character of Dana was that it’s a funny part.” He continued: “He is vulnerable, which was a departure from characters I’ve played who are unlikable. I am attracted toward dysfunctional people because I find them more interesting. It’s a challenge to play someone odd or dysfunctional and still make the audience care about them.”
While Dana plots his masterpiece, his marriage dissolves around him. Still, the plucky and gullible dramatist forges on. His play will revolve around a time machine (so the dead characters in the first “Hamlet” can be revived), musical numbers and the character of “Sexy Jesus” for the big finish.
“We talked about how to make Jesus sexy,” Coogan explained. “That’s why we settled on the jeans and T-shirt. The hair was always kind of cool. It did make me a little nervous to play Jesus,” he admitted. “I did wonder whether (writer/director) Andy (Fleming) was just trying to be provocative to annoy Christians in a certain way or if it was just funny. I wasn’t quite sure, but in the end, I just did it.”
“As a generalization, I think Americans are less repressed than British people,” he said. “Culturally, people from America come from somewhere else, so there’s the risk factor within the personality that makes them more free. There is no subtext with Dana,” Coogan added. “The challenge was how to make it interesting when he’s so big and demonstrative – without making it over the top – especially in contrast with the other characters in the film who are more grounded.”
In his final thoughts, Coogan mentioned why he sometimes has trouble being pigeonholed in the way he’s cast in movies. “I like variety. I don’t like to repeat myself,” he said. “In this marketplace, that is difficult because representatives sometimes don’t know how to sell me. I do so many different things. But it satisfies me creatively.”
“Hamlet 2,” which is written and directed by Andrew Fleming, features Steve Coogan, Catherine Keener, David Arquette, Elisabeth Shue, Amy Poehler, Melonie Diaz, Phoebe Strole and Skylar Astin. The film opened on Aug. 22, 2008.
HollywoodChicago.com staff writer Patrick McDonald
'If you think my comedy stinks, give me both barrels. Otherwise, my private life is no one's business' On the eve of his first tour for a decade, Steve Coogan talks to Amy Raphael about scandal, swear words and the trouble with success The Observer,
August 31 2008
Photograph: John Reardon
Let's start a couple of years back, in May 2006, a bright morning on a central London rooftop. Here's Steve Coogan, recently turned 40, smoking in short, urgent puffs and asking his assistant for more coffee. He is affable but distracted. He doesn't check his watch but I get the sense he'd like to. He's just finished filming the first series of Saxondale, the gentle sitcom about former roadie Tommy Saxondale, and is anxious to get back to the edit. He acknowledges that the remarkable success of Alan Partridge means he is, effectively, competing against himself. 'People want to see you doing the same thing again and again, so they have to adjust to something new.'
While working on Saxondale, Coogan had squeezed in a short trip to Canada, where he took a cameo in a Ben Stiller film, Night at the Museum. He compares Stiller to a 'very, very nice machine', adding, 'He's about the work.' This was certainly not a criticism. Coogan is very keen on work, too. Yet he insists that while it's important, it doesn't define him; it's not all he has. He talks about the little cottage he visits in Ireland, alone. He runs, reads, writes, gets sucked into Irish politics. An aunt lives nearby but he rarely sees her. He says, very seriously, that the spiritual connection he has with the country allows him the kind of peace he seldom experiences while working.
Despite this hideaway, the reality is that most of Coogan's time, at this point, has been spent not in a field but reading scripts sent over from the States. Or having endless meetings in LA. For the previous five years, he's had an eye on breaking America. He says he's willing to take risks; he feels he's been around long enough to absorb the impact of the odd bad decision. Then, for a moment, he sounds a little sad. 'But I might just have to accept that my peculiarly British comedy doesn't work over there.'
It turns out that he had no need to worry. The next time we meet, in May 2008, everything has changed. Coogan is about to become a huge star in America. Hamlet 2, a comedy in which Coogan plays a misguided teacher, sold for a record $10m at Sundance in January. Tropic Thunder, a spoof war movie in which Coogan plays a pompous English film director, is poised to be as successful for Ben Stiller as Zoolander. There's part two of Night at the Museum in pre-production, not to mention the cameo he played in Curb Your Enthusiasm last year. Yet for now Steve Coogan, international film star, is in a brown-and-beige Winnebago in a car park in Stockport.
He is waiting to be called to the set of Sunshine, the upcoming BBC sitcom co-written and directed by Craig Cash. Again he is distracted. I have interviewed Coogan several times and it's not that his head has been turned by America or that he's being in any way rude; he just seems to always be thinking of several things at once. He has a restless mind but he's also forgetful. Mid-conversation, he excuses himself, phones his assistant and asks her to send a present over to Rob Brydon to celebrate the arrival of his new baby boy. He then plugs the kettle in but doesn't turn it on. He tells a random anecdote about going to his local supermarket in Hove with Brydon and David Walliams like 'three poofs on a day out'. He finds a cafetiere, fills it with cold water from the kettle, swears to himself and starts again.
It's not turning out to be a good day. Coogan is unhappy with the use of photos of his 11-year-old daughter in a recent article printed in a broadsheet and is talking to his lawyer. Like his hero Peter Sellers, Coogan has had a colourful private life that sometimes overshadows his work, and he gets annoyed when journalists bring up past follies. He thinks his work is good enough to distract from the fact that he separated from the mother of his child in 1996. Or that, around the same time, he had sex with a dancer on a bed littered with some 500 £10 notes. Or that his brief marriage to Caroline Hickman finally ended in 2005 after two lap dancers kissed and told about an alleged cocaine-fuelled night in Coogan's hotel room.
'I'm a marked man,' he says, throwing himself on the narrow beige sofa. 'I can't undo what I've done. If you think my comedy stinks, give me both barrels. Otherwise I'm not going to qualify anything. It's none of anyone's fucking business.' And, in a way, he's right: Partridge is as strong a comedy creation as Basil Fawlty and Coogan's private life should be irrelevant. Yet he is being a little naive. He may argue that he's not a politician espousing family values and therefore no one has a right to judge him. He may point out that he's never had a free kitchen from Hello! But he lives in an era where the majority read papers to be entertained rather than informed. That said, he has, at times, certainly had to learn the hard way. In 2005, he had a relationship of sorts with Courtney Love; she later gave a critical account of some aspects of his character. For the first time, Coogan felt the need to threaten libel action against anyone who reprinted her accusations.
Today, in the Stockport car park, Coogan's tabloid adventures seem remote, improbable even. He is called to set and changes swiftly into a Seventies outfit including a pink-and-white shirt that he worries makes him look like Peter Andre. Coogan has known Craig Cash for years but they have never properly worked together, despite both hailing from Greater Manchester and having numerous friends in common (Coogan used to do stand-up at a theatre in Manchester alongside Caroline Aherne, co-creator with Cash of The Royle Family, while Henry Normal wrote on The Royle Family before setting up a production company, Baby Cow, with Coogan).
Sunshine is a comedy drama in which Coogan's character, Bing, has to learn to control his gambling or lose his childhood sweetheart. In one of the final scenes of the three-parter, Coogan waits in the hallway of a terraced house which has been dressed up in Seventies decor. Cash is in one of the bedrooms, lying stretched out on a nylon football duvet. He gently directs the child actor who plays Bing's young son, Joe, as he opens his curtains to find a surprise on the lawn. The scene is replayed over and over before it's time for a break. While the next scene is being set up, Coogan stands around on the deserted road, drinking strong tea in a polystyrene cup. Now that he's on set, working, he's more relaxed than in the Winnebago. He actually manages to chat - about racist taxi drivers and dodgy builders - without appearing to have his mind on other things.
Although Coogan is busy establishing himself in America, he's got no intention of leaving Britain behind just yet. This autumn he will spend almost three months on the road with his first live tour in a decade, Alan Partridge and Other Less Successful Characters. When I arrive at the Brighton office in which Coogan and Henry Normal are writing material (they both live locally), I find a bland room in a tower block with views out across the South Downs and seagulls shrieking overhead. Huge white Post-it notes cling to a wall: Pauline Calf, Tommy Saxondale, Duncan Thickett, Paul Calf, Intermission, Keanu Reeves, Alan Partridge, 'Steve' + song.
Two tables are shoved together and piled high with scripts. Coogan is nowhere to be seen but Normal is on the phone talking to someone about Gavin & Stacey, the phenomenally successful sitcom backed by Baby Cow. Normal deals with the day-to-day running of the production company. He finishes his phone call, sits down and starts to explain the format of the new show. Duncan Thickett, a failing stand-up, is one of Coogan's oldest characters, while Keanu Reeves is one of his most recent. A gay Mancunian emo drug dealer who has changed his name by deed poll and who Coogan plays in series two of Saxondale, Keanu is making his live debut. As is Tommy Saxondale. There are also old favourites Paul Calf, the beer-swilling student hater, and his blonde bouffant-haired sister, Pauline.
Normal and I are trying to work out which characters Coogan performed at his first Edinburgh show in 1990. I was there to interview Frank Skinner, who was supporting, but barely noticed Coogan; I saw him again two years later when he put on an amazing show in a packed, sweaty room with John Thomson and won the Perrier Award. As we are talking, Coogan appears at the door, flings a golf jumper over his shoulder and on to the floor. He puts a coffee and a chocolate brownie on the table, apologises for being late and blows his nose. A pair of black, modern Ray-Bans sit on top of his head, his crumpled T-shirt is white, his ribbed trousers brown and his running shoes blue. He is full of cold.
'I mostly did impressions at Edinburgh in 1990,' says Coogan, sitting down opposite Normal. 'I skipped the next year because I wanted to get the show dead right. So in 1991 I went to Rhodes with my act. It was a holiday job. I was by the pool doing my job in front of a load of families. This man came up and said, "Can you stop swearing please, there are kids around." I'd already done Spitting Image by then, I'd appeared at the London Palladium with Jimmy Tarbuck. And there I was staying in a box room with no windows. It was a real cheapo, nasty set-up. I bought a Guardian International one day and saw the headline, "Frank Skinner wins Perrier Award in Edinburgh". The year before he'd been supporting me in Edinburgh.'
Coogan sighs. 'I asked my agent at the time what I could do. She told me to pull a rabbit out of a hat. I was slightly neurotic, feeling that the grown-up comics on the circuit saw me as a low-rent, low-brow funny voice man. So I took the new show to regional arts centres, avoiding London completely. By the time I got to Edinburgh, John Thomson was supporting me and Patrick Marber was directing. He got the show down to about an hour. I did Paul Calf and Duncan Thickett. Nobody was doing stand-up characters at the time and the element of surprise is very important.' His laugh is high-pitched, slightly self-conscious. 'Both in military and comic situations.'
Henry Normal is keen to get on with planning the impending live show. 'So Paul Calf comes on stage in an electric wheelchair and we think he's got a broken leg, but it's a ruse.' I ask if all these characters age, which of course they do, but not in real terms. Normal explains that it's more a case of creating a modern context, so that Pauline Calf can, for example, send flirtatious text messages. I see Amy Winehouse's name on one of the many lists littering the tables. 'Yes, but it's a shit joke so we won't be using it,' says Coogan, sliding the paper away. He smiles. 'The overall problem of the show is how to make it accessible to a large group of people but to also imbue it with an edge and tension. To make it risqué but also digestible.'
Is there an assumption that most of the audience will be familiar only with Alan Partridge? 'I'd say it's the case with around 50 per cent. There's no point pretending. Hence the name of the show.' Partridge gets 29 minutes, as opposed to 12 minutes for each of the others. His segment will include a look at his new job as a lifestyle guru, following years in the wilderness after his TV chat-show was axed. 'He's going around doing a cheap, low-rent version of a lifestyle guru lecture that people do in America but that doesn't really float in this country,' says Coogan. 'He's been to America, seen these guys and thinks it may be his way back. He thinks he's had some Damascene conversion and he'll be able to impart this wisdom that's changed his life.'
The final nine minutes of the show involve Coogan coming on as a version of himself (not unlike the conceit of Michael Winterbottom's excellent adaptation of A Cock and Bull Story in which Coogan co-starred with Rob Brydon). 'I want to get postmodern and self-indulgent, and see if it works.'
Back in Stockport, Coogan had mentioned that he was contemplating a number for the tour called 'The Cunt Song'. He's still worried about it. Normal isn't. He thinks it's a great way of listing all the unpleasant people of the modern world. He says it's just an updated version of Paul Calf's 'Bag O' Shite' song. But Coogan, who likes his comedy clever as well as funny, and who is very careful about what he presents to an audience, is concerned. A long discussion ensues. Coogan: 'The word "cunt" is deeply offensive to a lot of people, especially women. There are political connotations. You can't say it in America. Period. Full stop. Which is why I'm interested in it.' Normal: 'I think we're desensitised to it.' Coogan: 'I don't. My show has a broad appeal. There are 12-year-old fans of Alan Partridge.' Normal: 'I'm a firm believer in the Lenny Bruce school of thought: if you clamp down on a word, you give it power.' Coogan puts his head in his hands. His cold has given him a thick head. 'OK, I want to use it because it's taboo. And sometimes people laugh at things despite themselves. You can defeat their moral and ethical objections with laughter.'
Later we drive to Coogan's house in his old Porsche. He's lived in Hove for 10 years, although he spends almost half the year in America these days. If it wasn't for his daughter, he would consider moving there. His large, spacious house is overflowing with his brother, his brother's family and his own daughter. His girlfriend China Chow, daughter of restaurateur Michael Chow and the late model Tina Chow, is sitting on a sofa eating a plate of sliced fennel dressed with oil and lemon. She, too, is full of cold but jumps up to introduce herself, make tea and find remedies for Coogan. She is full of tenderness but he just wants to get on with the interview.
In the study, Coogan sits in a leather Robin Day armchair. He sips herbal tea. There are old movie posters of Thunderball and Alfie, random Post-it notes (one says 'ass man' - Chow saw an assistant manager in a shop with his abbreviated title on his badge) and copies of Hello! and OK! - 'because I didn't know who anyone was when I got back from America,' explains Coogan, moving them out of sight. He likes America. 'It's a change of landscape. I work with other people who are very talented. It energises me, excites me. But you have to be tenacious. The Dorothy Parker quote that you can be killed by encouragement in Hollywood is very true. Everyone tells you how great you are in case you turn out to be.'
American critics have been writing about Coogan's greatness since they saw his portrayal of the late Tony Wilson in Michael Winterbottom's 24 Hour Party People in 2002. Then, after his perfectly judged performance as a big-headed British actor in Jim Jarmusch's Coffee and Cigarettes in 2003, he became not only a cult figure, but also cool. And despite - or perhaps because of - Alan Partridge's idiosyncratic Little Englander behaviour, they fell in love with him, too. Coogan's cult status is now in question: he may have cemented it with last year's appearance on Curb Your Enthusiasm ('I had to make sure I wasn't intimidated') but with Hamlet 2's record sale at Sundance and the inevitable success of Tropic Thunder, he will soon be a household name in America.
Still, modestly, he describes going to Hollywood as 'an experiment'; it will be a 'bonus' if he finds real success there. Yet he says Hamlet 2 is 'smart', a good, broad comedy. 'I love all inclusive comedy. I like watching The Two Ronnies with my parents.' However, it's clearly Tropic Thunder that excites him. In a private screening a few days earlier, he laughed the whole way through. Then, at the end, he said with the genuine enthusiasm of a fan that it was one of the funniest films he'd ever seen. Especially after the first 20 minutes, when he's no longer in it. He is still animated now. 'Tropic Thunder is superb. It's Ben Stiller's shining moment as a director. It's game changing for comedy.'
Although Hollywood clearly pays better than the BBC, Coogan insists that he didn't go to the States because he was greedy for more. What he says next comes as something of a surprise, given his widely acknowledged status as a comedy genius over here. 'I don't actually get offered that much work in Britain. People fear working with me because they see me as an auteur and I might cramp their style. I even had to convince Craig [Cash] that if he let me do Sunshine, I'd be there to do a job as an actor.' He sighs; he often feels misunderstood. Perhaps this is due in part to the fact that he's simply a hard person to get to know, especially when distracted.
Even his lower middle-class, Catholic, socialist family (Steve was the fourth of six and his parents took in various foster children) remember him as a brilliant impressionist who lived in a world of his own as a child. Henry Normal says his Baby Cow partner 'feels disconnected from the world. Comedy is one way he makes that connection'. And it is, of course, a very particular type of comedy. He likes gauche characters with visible imperfections. 'Creating such characters was never conscious,' Coogan insists. 'There's just something funny about people being delusional and self-deprecating. I like the catharsis of trying to make comedy out of failure.'
He is frustrated when fans ask him if he makes up material as he goes along. 'The discipline of structured writing with a team isn't self-evident. But the cruel trick of comedy is that the easier it looks, the harder it's been to create.' For a while, around the turn of the century, Coogan lost his way; making people laugh became too much like hard work. He'd won lots of awards, made lots of money, enjoyed phenomenal success with Alan Partridge. Professional lethargy set in. 'Then I realised there was no magic answer to anything. Just get on with the work.' He repeats this mantra several times to himself, as though alone in the room. 'That's where I find peace. It's as simple as: this is what I do, do you like it?' He pauses. 'When Baby Cow was set up in 1999 it really did give me some much-needed structure.'
I wonder if, despite his own ascendancy in America, Coogan is envious of Gavin & Stacey's success in this country. 'A tiny bit of me is, yes. But it's a part I recognise exists. I'm able to stand back and see that it's absolutely ridiculous. I also know that the company Henry and I run enabled them to have that success. I'm 42 now, I'm part of the furniture in this country.' His daughter knocks on the door and asks where to find some playing cards. He pulls himself up. 'The simple answer to Gavin & Stacey's success is that I'm mostly pleased but a tiny bit envious. Then I remember that I have to get on with it. To find a calmness in just moving forwards.' And, having made a statement worthy of self-help guru Alan Partridge, he follows his daughter down the stairs, the interview already forgotten.
· Sunshine is on BBC1 in early October; Tropic Thunder is out on 19 September
Coogan's miles ahead of any other comedian in terms of column inches... another big read there...
Steve Coogan: He's back and funnier than ever He is taking a break from Hollywood to star in Sunshine, the latest slice of life from the writers of The Royle Family. And Coogan's rather good, finds Gerard Gilbert 30 September 2008
In the end it probably comes down to what you think of Steve Coogan as an actor. How much comic light and warmth emanates from his new BBC series Sunshine will most likely depend on how Coogan manages to tone down the extreme character traits of, say, Alan Partridge and sublimate himself to the requirements of an ensemble piece. Forget Hollywood, this is Stockport, and perhaps Coogan's greatest challenge to date.
Sunshine comes courtesy of Royle Family and Early Doors co-writers Craig Cash and Phil Mealey, and Coogan plays a "lovable" but dim chip shop worker with a gambling problem. "Bing" is an average guy with a weakness for a flutter. There are no exaggerated tropes to play with, no prop blazers or wigs – just Coogan on his own, his thespian nakedness accentuated by the fact that he is surrounded by the typically low-key naturalistic writing and ensemble performing associated with Cash and Mealey.
Before talking to the stars, I raised my concerns over a pint (what else, with the creator of Early Doors?) in Manchester. Mealey was taking time out from the editing suite. While agreeing that Coogan's previous comedy incarnations have all been "heightened" and "a bit of a caricature", he also points to the comedian's recent work in America as evidence of a fast developing acting ability. "He's one of the best things about Tropic Thunder [Ben Stiller's recent satire on movie-making] and great in Hamlet 2 [in which Coogan plays a failed actor-cum-drama teacher staging a sequel to Shakespeare's Danish tragedy; it opens here in November]. And in Sunshine, I think Steve will be a revelation to people. He takes risks in this – you'll see more of a person."
Yes, you do – eventually, although the opening episode is like watching someone groping their way out of the urge to caricature, made all the more obvious by the unobtrusively excellent playing all around him. There's some terrible business with his teeth – Coogan protruding them like Ken Dodd at a gurning contest – before he breaks through to something more touching and human: Bing, having spent his family's holiday money on a disastrous chance-of-a-lifetime bet, alone and in close-up. You almost feel like cheering for the actor.
"Bing is like a lot of working class men in the 21st century," reckons Coogan of his character. "He's struggling to be the kind of person he wants to be but is being pulled by an addiction. Bing's addiction is gambling, and he becomes a sort of Jekyll and Hyde character. He is a good person who ends up being a not particularly good father."
The challenge is to be likeable as well as a bit of prat, while Coogan's cringeworthy gallery of characters – from Partridge to Saxondale – have usually got by with just the latter. But hold on, you might ask, what is Coogan, with at least four major movies either in pre- or post-production, doing slumming it in a BBC comedy drama? Was it just a matter of helping out his old friends in the North? Nothing of the sort, says Mealey.
"Steve knew the script was knocking around and asked to see it. He rang the night after he read it and agreed straight away. He told Craig 'This is where I come from' and 'Some of the lines I can hear me own brother speaking'."
This is the first time that Coogan has been directed by Cash but the pair go back a long way. "I met Craig probably about 20 years ago," says Coogan. "He was friends with Caroline [Aherne]. I was at college with John Thomson and there was myself and Caroline, and Craig was around. He was a DJ on radio in Stockport radio and I used to go on his show. Craig would ring me up and ask whether I'd come on for free and just say funny things, late at night, which I did a few times."
Comedian Henry Normal – Coogan's partner in Baby Cow Productions – was also part of the scene, "a little kind of Manchester thing going on," as Coogan puts it. "Dave Gorman was on the fringes of it as well, and we'd all do gigs at the Green Room and the Streets. Henry worked with Craig on the first series of The Royle Family, so we're all kind of interconnected as a Northern scene."
Cash and Mealey go even further back. "We used to stack shelves together at Tesco's in Stockport," says Mealey. "I've known Craig for 30 years and Caroline for 20." And he's keen to scotch the accepted legend – repeated in his Wikipedia entry – that Mealey was only drafted in to co-write Early Doors after Aherne disappeared to Australia following alleged script differences with Cash.
"Early Doors was never a Craig and Caroline project," he says. "Craig and I had always had this idea that wouldn't it be great to write a working-class Cheers. After Caroline went to Australia Craig suggested we finally write it. I had quite a decent job at the time – as an engineer – and my wife had just had our second child. So I hesitated, but my wife said, 'come on; you've got to do it. I don't want to be sat with a 60-year-old man who's regretting never giving it a go.'"
After Early Doors, Cash and Mealey wrote The Royle Family: the Queen of Sheba, the 2006 swansong of Liz Smith's Nana and one of the most poignant and realistic depictions of death seen in TV drama – let alone in a sitcom.
"All the great sitcoms, Only Fools and Horses, Cheers and old things like Dad's Army, they always mixed the funny with the poignant," says Mealey, who has now formed his own production company with Cash. "It's called Jellylegs," he says. "It's an old Stockport expression for being nervous. You'd go bowling and say 'don't go jellylegs'."
If Cash and Mealey are feeling "jellylegs" about Sunshine, it may be because it's debuting on prime-time BBC1 – fine for an established work of genius like The Royle Family, but rather more nerve-wracking with a new show. On the subject of the Royles, as soon as editing on Sunshine is complete, Jellylegs will be sitting down with Aherne to produce a Christmas special for Britain's most sedentary family. "It'll be pure laughs this time," says Mealey. "No more deaths; we don't want to be the Dr Shipman of comedy."
Sunshine is a different beast from either The Royle Family or Early Doors. Each episode is twice the length and it's more comedy drama than sitcom. There are plenty of very funny lines, and a running joke about Piccalilli that will have manufacturers of the yellow chutney telephoning their PR departments. And it's not all about Coogan's character Bing. In fact, it's an inter-generational saga involving Bernard Hill as Bing's father George – a doting granddad to Bob's son Joe but, it is slowly revealed, a man with his own demons.
"We always thought we didn't want a Werther's Original type of granddad," says Mealey. "We wanted people to think that he had an edge in his younger days and you wouldn't want to cross him."
Says Hill himself: "When you see him younger, in the 1970s he's got lots of rings on his fingers, and he's a pretty different sort of personality. He's got sideboards and all that and you see him shuffling cards really well. What I've tried to do is make him responsible to some extent for Bing's personality problems – he was an absent father more at home in the pub. So he's skipped a generation and he's gone for the grandson to redeem himself. I think that's quite common."
Hill... Yosser Hughes from Boys from the Blackstuff. "Ah, another Scouse icon," I blurt out, thinking of Ricky Tomlinson in The Royle Family. "Bernard's actually from Manchester," corrects Mealey. "Everyone thinks he's from Liverpool."
Other cast members include the excellent Lisa Millett as Bing's long-suffering wife Bernadette, while Cash and Mealey play Bing's drinking mates. "All in all, there's nine of us from Early Doors in Sunshine," says Mealey. "Well, if it works for Woody Allen..."
'Sunshine' starts on BBC1 next Tuesday at 9pm
I'm looking forward to seeing this - though it's always taken me a while to like any of the stuff that he's done. They tend to grow on me after a while, which is no bad thing.
Steve Coogan As Alan Partridge And Other Less Successful Characters Steve Bennett
He doesn’t have to do this, of course, but Steve Coogan’s decision to go on the road after ten years proves that the thrill of live performance is irresistible, no matter how famous you are.
The title says it all. In the first half of the show Coogan reprises several favourites from his past, while part two is dedicated to the superlative Partridge. It’s a show of two halves in other respects, too. Before the interval, Coogan seems hesitant, phoning in a performance that lacks flair and electricity despite some nice lines in the script. But when Norfolk’s finest takes to the stage, the magic returns, as he builds to an audacious and spectacular song-and-dance finale that only serves to highlight the spark that was missing from much that preceded it.
He started strongly, with Pauline Calf – more relevant than ever in this age of low-rent, high-maintenance WAGs. She opened with a wonderfully bold Bond-style production number, literally singing the praises of Marriot hotels and the D-list celebs she claims to have encountered there – the first of many digs at low-level fame in this show.
Anything best-selling author Jordan can do, Pauline can do just as tackily, which is why she treated us to an extract from her delightfully clunky novel, unsubtly drawn from her own life. It was a solidly funny routine, if unadventurous: Coogan used exactly the same set-up for his delightfully promiscuous creation in that last tour.
Next up was Tommy Saxondale, lecturing us, half-heartedly, on the perils of drugs, which initially comprised little more than a series of pseudo-sardonic comments on strange pictures, claiming to be ‘before and after’ shots of drug use. It’s rather easy stuff, the sort of captions you might see on half-funny greetings cards. However, the second part of his set, about the sweet granny who was actually a powerful drug godfather, fleshed out the initial idea nicely, wringing out plenty of chuckles from the unlikely scenario.
Duncan Thickett is one of Coogan’s oldest characters, but still seemed new to most of the audience, who appeared baffled by this bad Eighties stand-up, complete with zany sound effects and novelty suit. Using irony to make good comedy out of bad is a tricky path, and while Coogan had a few knowing takes on the failings of easy observational and nostalgic stand-up, this never really hit the spot. The fact that, with a couple of notable exceptions, characters like the one he’s trying to parody aren’t generally successful any more can’t have helped.
Heavy-drinking Northern layabout Paul Calf came on in a wheelchair – as with his fictional sister Pauline, reprising a gag from an earlier show. For half this set, Coogan seemed again to be simply going through the motions, even doing a ‘prick with a needle…’ double entendre that would have shamed the music halls, even if he did have the sense to feign embarrassment about it. However when Calf’s flamboyant, if dodgy, gipsy lover takes to the stage, the script finds a much richer vein of one-liners to explore.
Throughout the show the writing is strong, or at least solid, but Coogan doesn’t seem to have the command of the material that would allow him to wring the most out of. He stumbles over his words several times, and keeps glancing at clipboards. This might still be early in the tour, but when you’ve 1,800 people paying just shy of £40, you shouldn’t still be practising. Coogan’s concentration seems to be devoted to simply remembering his lines, rather than on delivering them with oomph.
Betwixt Coogan’s characters, a small ensemble, including Edinburgh regular Steve Oram and Garth Marenghi star Alice Lowe, perform filler sketches that, like the main scenes, are good but not quite great; although the idea of God and Devil dating – and quarrelling – is especially strong.
Partridge is who almost everyone has come to see, of course, and when he gets a rapturous reception at the start of part two, Coogan raises his game to match. Desperately trying to exploit the last shreds of his celebrity, Partridge now runs a personal development programme – Alan’s Forward Solutions – which he relentlessly sells with all the unconvincing zeal of a mid-level sales conference for surgical supports in the East Midlands region.
He’s also written, produced, directed and stars in his own one-man version of the story of Sir Thomas More, which is as ill-researched, anachronistic and dreadfully performed as you would predict. In fact, it makes Acorn Antiques look like Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet… but there’s plenty of fun in the inevitable way Alan’s precious ego-vehicle falls apart at the seams.
There’s a reason Partridge is Coogan’s most popular creation. His naïve absence of self-awareness and myriad vulnerabilities have such appeal that his petty grudges, monstrous insensitivity and desperate quest for even modest showbiz success seem almost endearing. But he also seems to get the best lines, as Coogan and his collaborators have a more instinctive feel for the character. The gags are packed in, and the talk-show element, especially, zings along.
All the stops come out at the end, when Coogan has his tongue-in-cheek ‘…and this is me’ moment, breaking into an impressively choreographed West End song and dance number about his hookers-and-cocaine tabloid reputation. But don’t expect the catchy number to be getting much Radio 2 airplay… it is deliciously, extravagantly offensive.
Shame the hesitant first half didn’t live up to the brilliant second. Despite some sparkling moments, and plenty of mid-level chuckles, the scenes without Partridge didn’t have the sense of occasion you’d expect of one of Britain’s biggest and best comedy stars making a comeback after a decade away. Best think of these of an extended warm-up act you don’t care less about before the star of the show blows the place apart.
It sounds great even if this review isn't exactly sparkling...
Steve Coogan: Partridge in flight Steve Coogan is back on the stand-up stage after a 10-year absence. Despite some negative reviews, the comedian tells GAVIN ALLEN things couldn’t be better... Oct 31 2008
South Wales Echo
STEVE Coogan is on the other end of the phone and I’m very surprised about it to be honest. And that’s because I had eagerly chased an interview with Coogan as soon as he included Cardiff on his tour, only to be refused.
When shows sell well they don’t need promoting, especially not from someone of Coogan’s stature. But then earlier this week I was contacted by his office and offered an interview slot with the man behind Alan Partridge. I wondered why, of course, and doubted the interview would actually happen. But thankfully it did – and there’s a reason for that.
There has understandably been huge media interest in Coogan’s return to stand-up and some of the reviews have been very negative, accusing him of being under-rehearsed. Particularly his performances in Liverpool where there were reports of walk-outs and general moans from fans about its alleged shoddiness.
“It’s been fantastic, apart from one night in Liverpool,” says Coogan, aiming to set the record straight. The reality is that it has gone very well and I’m having a ball. And that’s why I’m doing this (interview); I just wanted to let people know that the shows are actually going very well. The opening night in Stoke was also a bit rocky but that’s because it was the first performance, and in their wisdom The Telegraph chose to send a reviewer to it. But we got fantastic reviews from The Times and The Guardian and they are online for anyone to see.”
To call and offer an interview might seem desperate from another comedian, one who made their career from touring, but Coogan really doesn’t need this headache. Aside from Saxondale, his sitcom about a rock roadie turned pest controller, Coogan hasn’t concentrated on character comedy since 2002’s second series of I’m Alan Partridge. Since then he has largely focussed on his acting and film career which has yielded varying results but included 24 Hour Party People, Around The World In 80 Days, A Cock And Bull Story and Night At The Museum.
The Manchester-born comedian, 43, says he has enjoyed getting back to his characters and Partridge in particular: “He’s not been part of my life for the last seven or eight years and it’s been great to get the clothes out of the back of the wardrobe,” he said. On the subject of another series for the failed chat show cringer he offers hope to millions of fans. “I have an idea for a series, I also have an idea for a film, but I have to want to do it,” he tantalises. “You can’t do something because people want you to do it, you have to do it because you want to. But the more different things I do and feel satisfied with, the more likely it is that I will go back to Partridge.”
That makes another flight of the Partridge entirely probable because Coogan’s career is bulging at all the right angles. His film career is growing carefully and contains a crowded slate of films for next year. His profile in America will rise further through an as-yet-untitled series for the TV channel HBO that he is working on with Justin Theroux, the director of Ben Stiller’s film Tropic Thunder. “It will be a comedy but quite oblique,” he says. “I don’t like to stand still. If you are comfortable it’s not good for you creatively so you have to keep shaking things up. Scare yourself. If you aren’t scared then you aren’t challenging yourself.”
Earlier this month he enjoyed his first major dramatic role in Sunshine, a three-part BBC series in which he played a gambling addict, while he continues to co-run Baby Cow Productions which has delivered The Mighty Boosh, Ideal and Nighty Night, among others. Baby Cow has also significantly advanced the careers of some major Welsh talent, giving Rob Brydon a platform with Marion And Geoff and backing his friend Ruth Jones for a sitcom she had been working on with James Cordon – Gavin And Stacey.
“My involvement has been minimal,” he says, keen not to bask in reflected glory. “My partner Henry Normal commissioned it and his involvement is total. Mine is limited to my endorsement of their talent in the first place. But I’m very proud to be associated with something that is so well liked and I went down to Barry to visit them on set. We went to a pub – myself, James, Ruth and Alison (Steadman) – and did karaoke.”
Coogan returns to South Wales tonight and promises there will be a little local content. “There are a couple of Welsh jokes in there but people have to understand that they are Alan Partridge’s prejudices not mine,” he deadpans. “Plus Rob Brydon contributes a voiceover to the show, so I have given work to a Welsh person and that must count for something.”
The prospect of a new Partridge series is brilliant...
Steve Coogan blasts nastiness of new comedy generation Rick Fulton
Nov 28 2008
COMEDY legend Steve Coogan has lashed out at the new breed of Brit funnymen such as Russell Brand who, he says, disguise nastiness as edginess.
Steve admits he insults people as his comedy character Alan Partridge. But he reckons the joke is always on Partridge for his bigotry, not other people. At the forefront of British comedy for more than 20 years, Steve reckons Russell and Jonathan's radio madness was part of the cynical, mean-spirited humour that is cursing comedy.
Steve, 43, said: "I like comedy that's anticynical. There are too many glib 40-year-olds on panel shows being sarcastic. Russell and Jonathan were symptomatic of cynical comedy. I want people to move on from the idea that to be edgy is to be nasty. People disguise nastiness as edginess and it's not. It's a cheap shortcut. Some stupid people think that if you say something which is nasty, it makes you edgy, and that bugs me more than anything."
Perhaps it's odd that Steve, who is in Scotland next week for three stand-up dates, should pass judgment on other comedians, but he has little to prove. After starting on Spitting Image in the Eighties, he became a telly star with Alan Patridge on The Day Today and Knowing Me, Knowing You . . . With Alan Partridge. He has also broken into Hollywood with films such as Tropic Thunder, Around the World In 80 Days with Jackie Chan and Night At The Museum.
HE'S also been dogged by allegations of drugs and prostitutes, and two years ago was rocked by claims that Courtney Love was pregnant with his baby. Worse was to follow last year when Love, the widow of Kurt Cobain, seemed to suggest Steve had something to do with Owen Wilson's alleged suicide bid. The comedian, who has a reputation for being difficult to interview but is charming throughout our chat, didn't blow up when I mentioned it, but gritted his teeth and said: "The story was total fiction. I took legal action and it went away."
Steve is actually more chipper about life than I'd expected. His show, Steve Coogan As Alan Partridge And Other Less Successful Characters, was panned by critics and audiences at the beginning of the run. Last month, the Manchester-born star was booed by fans in Liverpool. Steve shrugged: "It was a bumpy ride initially. There were some teething troubles. That's natural with any show, but I didn't have time to get rid of the niggles before it started. But now the show is tip-top. Not meddled with it for six weeks because we are very happy with it."
The proof is that tonight he'll be shooting a DVD of the show. And sitting in his dressingroom, he admits he felt, after 10 years of success, he needed to reconnect with his audience on stage. "It's where comedy and performance have been done for hundreds, no, thousands of years," he added in Alan Partridge fashion, although he didn't add "A-ha". The show consists of a first half of characters such as Paul and Pauline Calf, Duncan Thickett and Tommy Saxondale, while Alan Patridge, who is now a motivational speaker, gets the second half.
Our chat soon leads to Edinburgh. It was there Steve won the Perrier Award 16 years ago. While he feels there needs to be a new wave of comedy, he also thinks he needs to do something in which he could fail. And Edinburgh would be the place. But the current show is too big to bring to the Fringe.
He said: "Maybe I could sing an autobiography of my life for an hour. Edinburgh is the place for that. It's not a place where they'll be going, 'Where's Alan?' "I feel quite nostalgic about Edinburgh. You get up late, have a late lunch, do your show and go out. Of course, you end up not knowing where you wake up sometimes."
Now living in Brighton to be near his 11-year-old daughter, Steve has never been busier. He's finished Night At The Museum 2 and Hamlet 2. He has a few American films in the pipeline and something for the BBC. Rumours of an Eddie The Eagle film aren't true and an Alan Partridge film isn't going to happen. He said: "I'm not sure about bringing Alan back. It would be too easy to do that. I don't want to stand still. I keep moving around. It gets me out of bed in the morning."
A-ha to that.
Too easy to bring back Partridge? He IS partridge!
You cannot post new topics in this forum You cannot reply to topics in this forum You cannot edit your posts in this forum You cannot delete your posts in this forum You cannot vote in polls in this forum You can attach files in this forum You can download files in this forum