Steve Coogan discusses buttonholing his illuminati mates at posh parties and quitting the booze
In honour of his widely-acclaimed series The Trip Steve Coogan and I are going on a journey.
But unlike the show – where Coogan and Rob Brydon playing fictionalised versions of themselves tour restaurants – there will be no fancy food, Or wine.
We meet at his pied-a-terre in West London and we are going just up the M40. The interior is designed in a mid-century, modern aesthetic. Danish-style rosewood furniture, West German pottery and sheepskin rugs dotted around.
I tell him it looks lovely, an understatement – it’s pristine, straight out of a magazine shoot.
‘None of it is personal,’ he says. ‘I know a woman, a friend – she did it all for me.’
He likes the company of the opposite sex: ‘I’m a real feminist – my production company is mostly women. I just sit in the corner.’
Today, Coogan is weary, even though it’s early afternoon. The previous night, he partied at the home of businessman and newspaper proprietor Evgeny Lebedev.
A little paler than when we met in Parliament a few days earlier, explaining he’s not on his best form. The dinner at Lebedev’s sounds like a sort of fantasy mover ‘n’ shaker special: Bob Geldof, Vivienne Westwood, George Osborne, Kate Beckinsale, David Walliams, Michael Gambon.
The path of least resistance would have been to chit-chat about safe subjects, like sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll. But the political side of Coogan was on point.
He describes former Chancellor Osborne as ‘personable’ and on his editorship of the Evening Standard: ‘Osborne said he’d moved the paper a little bit more to the centre.’
Even amid the comfortable coterie at Lebedev’s summer summit, there’s part of Coogan who is still the ‘bloody minded Northerner’.
There’s no side to him. He’s not a ‘celebrity’ who acts up. ‘Being a celebrity is just a by-product of what I do for a living. It’s not the aim. I write comedy. I perform comedy. Because I love comedy.
‘When we first wrote Partridge, originally with Armando (Ianucci) and Patrick (Marber), each one of us would put on his voice, and ‘be Alan’.
‘And then, when we went to do it, it was almost like academic, that I would be the one to dress-up and do it.’
We set off by car en route to Oxford, where Coogan is performing later that night. I first saw him live in the mid-nineties, doing stand-up in Manchester.
Coogan performed student-basher Paul Calf, his open-minded sister Pauline Calf and Portuguese crooner Tony Ferrino.
Our paths crossed again a few years later, when I was a showbiz reporter for the tabloids in London.
At this point, Coogan was a real-life 24-Hour-Party-Person. I won’t reveal the conversation we had (in case he sues me for privacy transgressions), but let’s just say, we’d all had a few too many.
These days, even after a late night, he looks in better shape. Helped, in part, he says by giving-up the excesses of that era, defined by the twilight pastimes of the Happy Mondays and so on.
‘All the things you get when you don’t drink outweigh the transient pleasure from getting drunk and going out all the time,’ he says. ‘For me, it’s like I wake up and spring out of bed. I’m a nicer person when I’m not drinking. And I don’t mean being an alcoholic, I mean generally. The other thing is, I can do loads of stuff, I don’t feel overwhelmed. Whereas when I’m drinking, I look at what I have to do, and I can’t cope.
‘And also, I always enjoy that smug feeling of saying, ‘No I don’t drink’.’
But what about on The Trip to Spain, the third series of the high-end TV show directed by Michael Winterbottom? How does he manage not to drink, faced with world-class cuisine and top Riojas to wash it all down with?
‘For the first Trip, (restaurant tour around the Lakes and the North) I drank. Then I stopped. About half-way through the next one (The Trip around the romantic parts of Italy), I started again.
‘So, in the last series (around Spain), I didn’t drink at all. I didn’t want to pretend to drink. Instead we made a virtue of it.’
So what, if any, was the problem of drinking?
‘What happened, in reality, after the Italy series, was I then just went off the deep end. Anyway, the reason I wanted to stop all sort of things, was for my daughter.’ His daughter, Clare Coogan Cole is now 21.
He reflects,: ‘The one thing I did do, for myself, when I was going through a lot of tabloid stuff, about fifteen/twenty years ago, was that I did something very smart.
‘I just went into work every day, and wrote really well. And I remember saying to myself: ‘Just do what you are good at, don’t engage, or start poring over it, go to work and do a good day’s work. It will take time, you won’t fix everything quickly’. And it sort of worked out.’
Where does that come from?
‘It’s partly the dignity of labour, something like that. I like to do things that have a substance, because I feel I have some substance.
‘For example, I’m doing an Alan Partridge series, that I have to write at the end of this year, to go out on BBC2 next spring. That’s going to be tough. It’s always difficult to make good comedy. You always have to work really hard at it. The standard of the comedy on Partridge is so high, that you have to match it, or people go, ‘Oh, they’ve lost it’.
‘So, you are making a rod for your own back. But that’s good, because you have to do good stuff, and people like it, and they go: ‘Oh! That’s brilliant.’
‘But if I’d had a drink, I’d think, ‘I can’t do that, it’s too much … what are you doing it for?’
We are coming off the motorway and we’ve been chatting so much, we haven’t actually done The Trip thing at all. Not even a service station.
Instead the last leg of The New European’s road trip takes place amid the Dreaming Spires.
Which reminds me – what’s Alan up to now?
‘Well, because he has got a show on the BBC, we have a problem, because we have to explain why he’s a failure, but that he has a show. The logic of what he is doing has to make sense.
‘It’s conceivable, because in this age of Brexit, they (the BBC) might think they need to get in touch with the ‘Little Englanders’ they ignore.’
Partridge is written by Coogan, with 40-year-old Cheshire twins Neil and Rob Gibbons. ‘(They are) really good guys, who breathe new life into the character.’
Do you get better at writing Alan?
‘Yes, you get more sophisticated. I could have done lots of different characters in my career. But I thought: ‘I’ll just really, really work on that one, and then I’ll go off and do all my other things like films and drama’.’
The following day, Coogan is due to team-up with another writer Jeff Pope (Little Boy Blue) for a potential film project about an ordinary woman who discovered the body of Richard III hidden under a car-park. ‘Really, that’s about the amateur-versus-The Establishment, and intuition-versus-academia. Partly, she does her research, partly it’s intuitive.’
For his next Hollywood outing, Coogan has just finished working on a Laurel and Hardy film with the American actor John C Reilly. He shows me a video on his phone, of him playing Stan Laurel.
In the vid, Coogan is performing a trick with his Laurel’s trademark hat, in which he appears to launch his bowler hands-free from his head. In character, he looks startlingly similar to Laurel: ‘I’ve got a false chin and ears, false teeth to push my jaw out, blue contact lenses.’
The film focuses on the duo towards the end of their career.
‘It’s funny and sad, set during a tour they did in Britain, in the 1950s. Their films were shown all over the world, on the TV – but they didn’t have a dime, and were just paid a salary. So they had to go on tour in their sixties to make money.’
Even in this, there is evidence of the subtle political thread that runs through Coogan’s work. The outsider struggling to get through. A clear cross-over between his characters and his personal experience.
The show in Oxford is a fundraiser. Backstage, he lies down for a few minutes in the green room only to be interrupted by film crews and the arrival of Labour peer Helena Kennedy QC.
The gig is an unscripted conversation with her, followed by an ask-anything audience Q&A. Before that, members of the audience have paid an extra £25-a-ticket to meet him at a reception.
On stage, he’s funny and engaging on subjects from neo-liberalism to fiscal responsibility. It strikes me, for an anti-establishment figure, he’s had something of his own revolutionary moment.
Enthralling a theatre full of highly-educated, well-heeled Oxford types. More than holding his own with Kennedy – who is the Principal of Oxford College, and is really funny herself. Not bad at all, for a Polytechnic person.