Steve Coogan


Ever since he won the Perrier Award at the Edinburgh Festival back in 1992, people have been describing Steve Coogan as “the new Peter Sellers”.

They have compared his ability to disappear into the comic characters he has created on stage and on television to the greats of British comedy such as John Cleese and Tony Hancock.

Confirmation that Coogan really merited such elevated status arrived earlier this year when a panel of 17 comedy experts including Victoria Wood, Ronnie Barker, and the writers of Hancock’s Half Hour, Men Behaving Badly and Absolutely Fabulous voted for the 50 Best Sit-Com Moments of All Time.

With his classic cult series, I’m Alan Partridge, securing four places in the Top 50, Coogan’s predominance represented a major triumph, leaving the likes of Blackadder, Only Fools & Horses, Dad’s Army, Hanock’s Half Hour and Steptoe & Son trailing in his wake. Only Fawlty Towers (with five) received more.

And so it was official. Alan Partridge – the inherently inane, socially-inept, disaster-prone, Radio Norwich disco-jockey and Knowing Me Knowing You chat-show host – is the funniest and most popular British comedy character since Basil Fawlty.

With Partridge’s catch-phrases (“Aha !”, “Kiss my face !” and “And on that bombshell…”) now part of the language, Alan Partridge has become a modern icon, permeating contemporary culture to such a degree that Media Studies courses are now studying him.

The identity of the inspiration behind Partridge has, inevitably, been the source of much speculation.

Commentators like John Motson, Murray Walker, or David Coleman (whose declaration “one-nil !” mutated into Partridge’s exclamation “Eat my goal !” and “The goalie has got football pie all over his shirt”) were obvious influences, as were daytime presenters such as GMTV’s Eamon Holmes, or any number of diabolically banal Radio One DJs.

Talking over lunch on the set of his first feature film, The Parole Officer, it is something of a surprise and a pleasure though to hear Coogan reveal that we can add the name of Peter Mandelson to the list of people who have contributed to the genesis of Alan Partridge.

Before the last election, Coogan (as Alan Partridge) interviewed Tony Blair at the Labour Youth Conference in Blackpool.
“They were slightly paranoid about me doing it,” Coogan smiles. “As I was briefing him about the topics I was going cover, Alistair Campbell and Peter Mandelson came over and just stood with their arms folded about four feet from me and listened to everything I said to him. Mandelson and Campbell stood next to each other, both arms crossed, not saying anything, just standing there. Both of them just staring at me.”

Even now, Coogan looks slightly perturbed by their conduct.
“Then when it was time to go on, I remember Blair turned to Mandelson and asked him, “jacket on or off ?” And Mandelson said “Keep it on. And when you get out there, take it off and put it on the back of the sofa.”

Coogan quickly incorporated this apparently cunning (but inherently naff) strategy into Alan Partridge’s seminar, ‘Lessons In Life Management’, that he gave during Coogan’s live show, The Man Who Thinks He’s It.

Even now, Coogan can’t help laughing at the idea of Alan Partridge and Tony Blair on stage together.

“One of my favourite bits was… I remember Alan saying, ‘now, Labour say they are going to be ‘tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime.’ But I say, ‘if you are tough on crime, I don’t really CARE what the causes of crime are…’

The second Coogan goes seamlessly into Alan Partridge we both instantly start laughing.

Did Tony Blair laugh ? I wonder.
“Yes well he had to didn’t he ? What was bizarre was when Alistair Campbell told me ‘when the press ask you about this, say how pleased you were with the way it went. And when they say ‘did Tony have a sense of humour’, say ‘Oh yes, he has got a great sense of humour.’ This was before we’d done it.”

Needless to say, the sinister shadow of Alistair Campbell casts a pall across the conversation and brings the laughter swiftly to an end.

The second of Steve Coogan’s impressive collection of reputations is that – like Sellers and Hancock – he
remains something of mystery.
“I’ve read these profiles, in The Observer or whatever, and because they don’t know much about me or couldn’t suss me out personally, they just say, ‘We don’t know who Steve Coogan is, so he must be an Enigma.’ They always think that if somebody is really good at comedy, they must be dysfunctional in some way.”

Certainly most people know far more about Alan Partridge than they do about his creator. (Search for the name Steve Coogan on the Google and you will come up with far less than Alan Partridge, with a myriad of Partridge sites includes Planet Partridge, the Alan Partridge Zone, and the slightly more obscure

Coogan has removed himself from the public eye so successfully that even most of his fans probably have no idea of what he actually looks like.

Even in Coogan’s native Manchester, on the set of The Parole Officer, at least twice a day, curious fans will wonder over and ask “which one is Steve Coogan ?”
“I was in Sainsburys a few months ago,” Coogan smiles. “And the bloke who was swiping my stuff was talking to the bloke on the check-out next to him. And he was saying, “Steve Coogan’s in the store ! Yeah, he’s at the fish counter apparently. He’s only got one basket so he might come to my check-out’.”

If he does get recognised in his home town of Brighton, it is, he says, invariably highly embarrassing.
“People come up to you and go (smiling, flabbergasted) ‘What are you doing here !? In this shop ?!” And you go (not smiling, monotone) ‘Well, I’m just doing some shopping.” And because you’re a comedian they’ve seen on TV, they think this must be funny, so they roar with laughter. Then, because I know they’re suddenly going to realise how embarrassing this is, I’ll try and make them feel slightly better by saying something to justify their laughter. Something like so lame, like ‘Yeah, it’s a nice place to visit but I wouldn’t want to live here…”

Coogan’s aversion to providing any access to his private life is legendary.
“I feel sorry for people who have totally exposed themselves in the media and have nothing left for themselves. You see the tragedy of Paula Yates. You have to be very careful about ending up like that.”

Coogan, it has to be said, has gone to the other extreme.
He never appears on television as himself and in the video of his last live show, even the backstage footage of the ‘real’ Steve Coogan in his dressing-room waiting to go on and do Alan Partridge was a character.

In the past, he has insisted on only giving interviews while in character – most notably as the Portugese crooner Tony Ferrino, the critically derided project that followed the first series of Knowing Me Knowing You, and whose failure ultimately prompted him to ‘revive’ Alan Partridge.

He has perfected a way of protecting his privacy by cultivating a neutral public face and being so dull in interviews that the only pull-quote one profile could produce was the revelation, “Coogan is earnest and bespectacled with a strong Northern accent.”

News that he would dress up as Partridge even for recordings on Radio 4, and that he always remained in character between takes for his TV series prompted the theory that he was one of those comedians who only comes ‘alive’ when he is in character and cemented the image of a reclusive, obsessive oddball, a blank personality with an uncanny knack of ‘becoming’ other people. (He used to do many of the voices on Spitting Image.)

In other words, more evidence for the ‘new Peter Sellers’ theory.

Meeting him now, Steve Coogan certainly seems less tormented than the last time he appeared in the public eye.
In his last appearance on our screens (in the last episode of I’m Alan Partridge) some three years ago, he was seen attending the funeral of the Head of Commissioning at the BBC, wearing a Castrol GTX bomber jacket and telling a caller on his mobile, “I’ve got to go. I’m talking to a widow.”

In terms of his private life too, Coogan appeared to be suffering what must have been (for him) a particularly torrid time when his girlfriend at the time, solicitor Anna Cole eventually chucked him out as a result of a series of kiss and tell scandals in the press. (One of his conquests, a lap dancer at claimed he liked her to wear high heels in bed while another claimed he covered their bed with £ 5000 pounds worth of £10 notes.

He found himself splashed across the front pages, branded as “a love-rat” and a Ferrari-driving, cocaine-using “sex addict” who was consulting a priest about his inability to say No. His loss was compounded when it was then discovered that Cole was pregnant.
“There’s no excuse for what I’ve done,” he was quoted as saying. “I’ve been a complete fool.”
Ask him if he is happier nowadays, and he answers instinctively, innocuously, “In my career do you mean ?”

When pressed, he will eventually admit, “I had a lot of growing up to do, and I feel I have grown up now. I have grown up and I am a more mature person than I was five years ago.”

Looked at from outside, being deprived of the opportunity to be involved with the birth of his child (a daughter, Clare) would seem like a particularly harsh penalty for his infidelity but Coogan is adamant that he was mis-represented.

“They always say I’ve got a ‘string’ of fast cars,” he scoffs, “as if I’ve got my own show-room. I’ve got one Ferrari. It’s a grey one” – as if this is testimony to how boring he really is.

“I did go to see a priest. I didn’t see him as a priest so much as highly qualified psychotherapist. Was sex the problem ? No not really. That was just a sexy headline. The truth was far more complicated. It was to do with fame. I didn’t know how to deal with that level of success. No-one teaches you that.”

He is adamant that contrary to appearances, the episode did not ruin his life.
“It made a bit of difference but not a lot,” is his curt assessment, trying to draw a close to the subject and is bullish in his refusal to elaborate further.

“I have never defended myself. I don’t want to set the record straight. It wasn’t very pleasant. But to me, it has very little significance in the map of my life. Any changes that have occurred in my behaviour are down to me changing because I wanted to.”

He says he is less obsessed with his work these days, and is happily dull.

Rather than live the showbiz high life in London, he has moved to Brighton, to be near his daughter and her mother, with whom he has “a very amicable relationship with her. I lead a fairly uneventful life. If I have a day off, I go and read the paper in a café with a cup of tea and a fried breakfast. I like doing nothing. I potter around. Try and hang a picture on the wall in my house. Go and walk the dog on the beach.”

The implication is that he would have split up with Cole anyway.
“Perhaps it accelerated things that were inevitable”.

He denies that it was in any way a pivotal moment in his life, and maintains it was the birth of his daughter that inspired him to change his ways.

“Having a child was a pivotal moment. It (the scandal) made me wake up to the fact that I am accountable to the people around me. I’ve got a daughter and that is important to me. I like families, I grew up in a large family, very traditional, fairly stable. Extended family was very important. I’ve got 14 nephews and nieces. You get used to family being a very strong thing.”

The only thing he regrets is that “I wish I had had children earlier. I met someone the other day, a guy who was my age and he had a 17 year-old daughter. And I thought ‘wow he was really ahead of the game.’”

Instead he spent his 20s obsessed with making his career in comedy.
“When I was a drama student, I didn’t used to go on holiday because something might happen that might further my career. Why spend two weeks walking around India ? That was my attitude. I remember the very crystal clear moment, sitting in sixth form when I was eighteen, thinking ‘well Rik Mayall and Ben Elton can’t be there forever. The law of nature is that a new generation will emerge, that has to happen. Why can’t you be one of those people ? I thought okay, whatever it is that you are supposed to do to make it happen, I will do.”

Coogan was born to a lower middle-class Catholic family in Middleton, Manchester, learning to fight for attention early on as the middle of seven children.

Television was always taken seriously. The family would watch Fawlty Towers and discuss it afterwards.

At school, Coogan would gain popularity by impersonating the teachers, reciting whole episodes of Monty Python or Michael Palin’s Ripping Yarns – learning early on that “I would get a laugh at exactly the same spot as the programme.”

Having been rejected by RADA despite a second audition, he studied drama at Manchester Polytechnic and quickly ended up “drowning in a sea of light entertainment” doing impressions on Sunday Night at the Palladium alongside the likes of Jimmy Tarbuck, Marti Caine and Cannon & Ball when he panicked.

He changed direction, moving into more Alternative Comedy appearing at The Comedy Store and in Spitting Image where he was still known as “a bargain basement Rory Bremner.”

“I did Kinnock (he can’t resist doing a quick Kinnock), and I did Major (“pass the peas Norma”), and I coined the Paxman doing ‘Yeeeesssss.” I used to hate impressions. I thought it was fraudulent because I thought people who are comedians don’t have to rely on a trick. And I think that is what it is, a party trick.”

He has always remained an outsider, using his fiercely competitive nature as his motivation.

“When I started doing the Comedy Store and there was a bit of sniffiness towards me on the circuit because they thought I was a new boy and hadn’t done my time on the circuit, a bit lightweight. I got pissed off with that elitist attitude.”

Coogan’s former writing partner, playwright Patrick Marber once said: “Fame and wealth are not enough for Steve. He wants more than that. He wants to be brilliant, and to be perceived as brilliant.”

Although he even won a BAFTA for two of his other characters – Manchester white trash, Paul and Pauline Calf – the vessel for Coogan’s chance to be brilliant was Alan Partridge, a study in English ambition and embarrassment to rival Basil Fawlty.

He was working on Radio 4’s On The Hour along with
co-writers Marber, Armando Iannucci, Pete Baynham when Iannucci asked him to come up with “a sports reporter who sounds like all the sports reporters you’ve ever heard.”

The voice came out straight away.
“That man’s called Alan,” said someone in the room.
“Alan Partridge,” suggested someone else.

One of the truisms in any piece about Steve Coogan is that, in Alan Partridge, he has created not only his own legendary character (his generation’s equivalent of Dame Edna Everage or Inspector Clouseau) but his Frankenstein’s monster, the albatross that will – like Fawlty did for Cleese – blight his career.

He took the bold step of jettisoning the Knowing Me Knowing You chat-show format to make I’m Alan Partridge, making it “darker, much darker. Deeper into his character. People thought we were mad – doing a sit com. “You’ve got a really good character, what are you doing a sitcom for?”

“When we stop the series, we are literally sick of him.
Spending nine months in an office with him. I start talking like Alan and Armando will shout ‘shut up ! Stop talking like Alan please !’

Several times during his conversation, he remarks, “That’s a very Alan thing to say.”

In his live show, he seemed to be almost visibly wearying of Partridge, encouraging people to buy his “A-ha” t-shirts to stop them from shouting it out at him.

Critics hailed him as everything Coogan (a savvy, left-wing, charmer) wasn’t but even early on Marber disagreed saying that “Alan Partridge is the character most like Steve.”

His love of cars, the ignorance of sport, experience in the “twilight world of voice-overs”, his insecurity and rage were always clear.

Over the years, he has become more and more like him.
“What pisses me off, is if I start saying something as me,
talking about something that’s driving me mad and they start writing it down.”

He talks about the time he was late for a flight and had to change into Alan at the airport.
“I walked in as Steve Coogan and left the VIP lounge and boarded the plane as Alan and Partridge. No-one batted an eyelid.”

Even though he hasn’t “done” Partridge for a couple of years, a definite fondness enters Coogan’s voice when he starts talking about him.
“When people come up to me and say ‘I love that bit where Alan does that. I will say ‘my favourite bit is… and I will do a bit.”

He is building up to a new series next year, in which having “taken him to rock bottom in the last series”,
Partridge will be doing “quite well. In the East Anglia area. Finding his feet. You start to miss that guy. Like having an uncle to stay.”

“It’s very difficult to re-invent something and still have some sort of cache. To retain any kind of edge AND be successful is like alchemy. To have success and catch people’s imagination AND have real edge is very hard.”

It’s also harder because far from deterring them, versions of Alan Partridge are now everywhere – on every news channel or sports report.

“Hearing Richard Madeley saying ‘on that bombshell’ as if he’s being clever, you think ‘don’t dirty my art’. When I did my live tour, because you work late, you lie in. I watched quite a bit of This Morning in bed. I became slightly obsessed with it. You can’t satirise him. He’s so similar. One day, he had to read out a legal retraction at the beginning of the show, and he did it without any loss of face whatsoever. It was exactly the same as something we did on Knowing Me Knowing You where Alan gives a retraction about Roger Moore being a towel thief.”

After I’m Alan Partridge had finished, he admits, he had a kind of crisis, brought on by the sudden realisation he had achieved exactly what he had set out to do.

“When I was young, I thought it would be great to do the kind of thing that made me laugh as a kid. Like Fawlty Towers. And I did it.”

On the set of Terry Jones’ film of Wind In The Willows, in which he starred, alongside most of the Pythons (as Mole), John Cleese had come up to him and started quoting Alan Partridge at him. “Whole chunks of it. Word for word.”

He set up Baby Cow Productions with his new writing partner Henry Normal from The Royal Family and determined to move into producing series for the BBC (Marianne & Geoff) and to movies.

Their first film, The Parole Officer, is a British comedy caper/thriller “with edge” – nothing like the last two big British comedies, Harry Enfield’s Kevin & Perry or Notting Hill.
“I don’t ever want to be like Notting Hill.”

The closest comparison I can think of is, you guessed it, Peter Sellers.

He seems, unusually for him, happy; settled.

His current partner is milliner Caroline Hickman, former girlfriend of billionaire Zac Goldsmith.
He admits he would like to have more children.
“I like their honesty, they have no cynicism, it is just exiting, I get exited about seeing them. I like playing, I like re-living my childhood… I’ll tell you what I like is the idea of me turning up, dancing badly at Clare’s eighteenth birthday party. I like the idea of embarrassing her by being a bit of an arse. I tried my best but I can’t get into Radio One. I just give in to my instinct which its that’s a lot of noise and I’ll tune into Radio Two and listen to golden oldies.”

Like Wings, I suggest – Alan Partridge’s favourites.
“The thing is,” he laughs, “I quite like Wings…. There are lots of things I secretly like. Like a bit of soft rock, that I would only ever play on my own in the car on the M6 maybe something like if I was on my own in the car and Bryan Adams’ Summer of 69 came on the radio I might turn it up really loud, I wouldn’t put a cassette in.
When I lived in London, I had some interior designer who convinced me that because I was at the cutting edge of comedy, I should live in a cutting edge space. And I fell for this hook, line and sinker, and now I have got a house in Brighton, I have no shame in wanting my house to be nice and comfy and if that looks unoriginal, I don’t give a flying fuck, I just want it to be nice and comfortable, nice furniture, and I don’t mind the word nice. I just think, being in my thirties, I am more comfortable with who I am and I don’t care if, I like my antique old floor in my hall that is really hard wearing even though it is not real wood. The thing is that Alan Partridge would probably like that flooring too, but I am happy about that.”

And on that bombshell…