'I'd abolish the royal family' - Steve Coogan on what separates him from Alan Partridge
The man behind Alan Partridge discusses politics, privacy and Irishness – and his new movie, Alpha Papa.
Steve Coogan has to live with an uncomfortable phenomenon. Wherever he goes, whatever he does, observers will wonder how much of Alan Partridge he is carrying round. When he played Tony Wilson in Michael Winterbottom’s fine 24 Hour Party People, critics detected just enough of the East Anglian broadcaster. There was maybe a little too much in his portrayal of Paul Raymond for the same director’s The Look of Love. We even view Steve Coogan’s personal appearances in these terms. Remember when he appeared before the Leveson Inquiry on the UK press? He was more articulate than his greatest creation. But one detected just a smidgeon of Alan’s pomposity.
“Part of the reason that character lasts is because sometimes we secretly agree with him,” Coogan says. “They don’t want to say this thing. But they are glad he’s there to say it. Also, people like to watch him because they are grateful they’re not him. There but for the grace of God . . .”
To be fair, there really isn’t too much Partridge on display today. At a Soho hotel to discuss Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa – his alter-ego’s first foray into film – Coogan turns out to be terribly serious, a little intense and very, very talkative. He doesn’t laugh a lot. And he cracks almost no jokes. Whereas Ricky Gervais really does come across like a cleverer David Brent, Coogan shares little with Alan apart from a 47-year-old Mancunian body (standing in for a 55-year old Norwich man’s body).
Yet he admits that, in the two decades since his first appearance on BBC Radio 4’s The Day Today, Partridge has continued to sit on his creator’s shoulder.
“When things happen, I do wonder what Alan would think,” he says.
We speak the day after a certain royal baby has been born. That’s something that would interest Alan.
“Yes. That’s right. We have some comments we’re going to make tomorrow at the premiere when I am dressed as Alan. He’ll be attacking republicans. Now, there’s an example where I really am the opposite of Alan. I’d abolish the royal family tomorrow if I had any power. But he does sometimes say things that I instinctively think are right.”
Few other characters in British comedy have survived so many iterations with such great success. A deluded little-Englander with a great passion for Abba, Andy McNab and James Bond, Partridge began his virtual life as a sports reporter on the parody news bulletin The Day Today. Knowing Me, Knowing You, a chaotic chat show, later conquered radio and television. He finally appeared in a formal sitcom when I’m Alan Partridge emerged in 1997. Recently, a web-based series of shorts titled Mid-Morning Matters proved there is still much petrol in the tank. Now, we have a movie.
‘You have to risk failure,” Coogan explains. “In America they have these machines that can keep, say, Friends ticking over for ages. We are more like a cottage industry. You have to risk failure. And you do that by changing the format.”
They have also taken chances by allowing Alan himself to change. In his first television incarnation – launched before Coogan hit 30 – he seemed just a little too young for his own Pringle-jumper personality. Partridge was, after all, based on middle-aged presenters such as Elton Welsby and (just compare the names) Alan Titmarsh. Partridge now seems a bit more comfortable in his uncomfortable skin. In Alpha Papa, which finds him held hostage by Colm Meaney’s disgruntled fellow DJ, he also appears a little less cowardly than he once was.