Steve Coogan: ‘Come Out, Ye Black and Tans is two fingers to the British’

Steve Coogan: ‘I don’t like doing the easy stuff that just pays well. I like risking failure.’ Photograph: Jason Kempin/Getty
‘The decisions I make on comedy aren’t made on a whim. That whole history between the British and the Irish runs through me,’ says Steve Coogan, as he recalls his rendition of Come Out, Ye Black and Tans on prime time TV, and what his Mayo mother thought of it all

The current incarnation of Steve Coogan looks business-like. Wearing a grey shirt and a smart tie, he positively bustles into the room before casting around for tea things. There’s a tension there too. For much of our conversation, he keeps his arms folded across his chest as he drafts and redrafts answers.

There is plenty to discuss. The creator and corporal manifestation of Alan Partridge turns up this month as a horrendous billionaire in Michael Winterbottom’s Greed. The latest series of The Trip, in which he and Rob Brydon impersonate their way around Greece, is also imminent. But there’s one subject we have to get out of the way first.

Steve looks momentarily suspicious. Have I happened upon a scandal?

A little under a year ago, Coogan appeared as Martin Brennan, Alan’s Irish double, in an episode of This Time with Alan Partridge. There were risks here. The Sligo farmer, all bad teeth and plastered hair, could easily have become an offensive caricature. Steve is of solid Irish stock. But we might still have ended up in “man on ITV calls Saoirse British” territory. Not a bit of it. By midnight, Martin was already an admired social-media icon. His rendition of Come Out, Ye Black and Tans resonates still.

There was a joke there: I wonder if we can get an Irish rebel song on prime time television

“My mother was concerned,” he says. “The decisions I make on comedy aren’t made on a whim. That whole history between the British and the Irish runs through me. I was raised to keep the establishment and the monarchy at arm’s length. With due respect to the Queen of course, but not so much for the others.”

I’ve heard that. Yes, leave her alone. She does a hard job.

“Yes, exactly. Ha ha!” he says. “My mother grew up in Mayo and I spent all my summers there. So, I feel an affinity with the Irish — and my Irish passport will be arriving shortly. That’s not a joke. It really is arriving shortly.”

I get a sense that he still wiping a metaphorical brow at getting away with it.

“My mum was relieved that people thought it was great. And also there was a joke there: I wonder if we can get an Irish rebel song on prime time television.”

Coogan as Sligo farmer Martin Brennan in This Time with Alan Partridge
Coogan as Sligo farmer Martin Brennan in This Time with Alan Partridge

He drifts from the question. Steve does that. Talking quickly, occasionally halting for a stammered take on an important word, he appears to be working through a treatise on the comedy of anti-imperialism. He talks about hearing Irish jokes as a kid and admits to telling a few himself. He gets on to his Oscar-nominated screenplay for Philomena. Judi Dench’s dialogue as a clever, but sometimes befuddled, older Irish lady was delightful.

“All that stuff is important to me,” he says. “You can enjoy the daft things old Irish ladies say and still love them. There is a strange thing going on in Ireland with the younger people saying: this is our country. That has happened in the last 30 or 40 years.”

His arms are unfolded and he’s punctuating the musings with clean hand gestures. I wonder if this is how he develops his comedy. Does he find characters within meandering conversations as a sculptor finds the subject within apparently shapeless stone?

There may be a white liberal Anglo-Saxon out there who might not feel able to tease the Irish. I feel I can because I am half Irish

“Anyway, blah, blah, blah. I am going round the houses here,” he says. “When I was doing Martin Brennan I knew there was a bit of folk wisdom there. Alan is the victim. Martin Brennan gives him the run around. Martin might be rough and ready, but he’s not a fool. I knew people like that. It was super-specific. It’s like writing the dialogue for Philomena. People would come up and say: I know someone just like that.”

I think that’s correct. With all respect to the genius who was David Kelly, I don’t think many Irish people recognised friends and relatives in O’Reilly, the builder from Fawlty Towers.

“You’re right. That was still a generic cliché,” he says. “I grew up knowing a lot of people like Martin Brennan. There is a chirpiness to them that belies a profound understanding of humanity.”

The character comes at a time when more and more comics are getting nervous about what counts as offensive. An admirer of Jeremy Corbyn, Coogan is on the side of the progressives. But even he acknowledges the dangers of too much caution.

“The reverse of prejudice is to be so strangled by your liberalism that you feel you can’t say anything remotely critical of any people – or do anything that’s not a whitewash,” he says. “I remember doing Philomena and thinking that there may be a white liberal Anglo-Saxon out there who might not feel able to tease the Irish. I feel I can because I am half Irish.”

Talking about unease, let’s address his part in the rise and rise of Come Out, Ye Black and Tans. The scene has Alan, now host of a wishy-washy current affairs show, watching in horror as his double segues from When You Were Sweet Sixteen to The Men Behind the Wire, and onwards to the enduring Dominic Behan rebel song. I’m not sure how much Steve knows about recent developments, but I talk him through the song’s arrival at the top of the charts following objections to a proposed commemoration of the Royal Irish Constabulary. I mention the raised eyebrows as Sinn Féin supporters belted it out following the recent general election.

“I think, like all these things, the most important thing is to talk about it,” he says. “There are tenuous connections on one side of my family with IRA sympathisers. Not my family, but people we knew. And on the other side, I knew people who were targets of the IRA. I remember my Dad arguing in the pub: ‘Look we all want a united Ireland, but this is profoundly unchristian.’”

He goes round a few more houses before finding his way back to the core topic.

“Look at punk rock. Come Out, Ye Black and Tans is like that. It’s two fingers to the British,” he says. “It is hard to legislate these things. Violence is wrong. But you have to understand why things happened.”

All of which could be seen a long-winded way of confirming that Steve Coogan is as proud of being Irish as he is of being from Manchester. Raised as one of six children – his parents also fostered many more – he studied at the Manchester Polytechnic School of Drama before moving to London and scoring work as an impressionist on Spitting Image.

We talk about gender. We talk about all these things we haven’t discussed before. But the elephant in the room is the gap between rich and poor

In the early 1990s he became part of the still influential troupe that gathered around Armando Iannucci and Chris Morris for spoof radio-news show On the Hour and its TV successor The Day Today. Alan Partridge, the embodiment of middle-English, furry-dice conservatism, emerged then and he has stayed with us ever since.

Coogan has proved a hard person for the media to read. He is outspoken for left-wing causes, but he also likes driving hugely expensive Ferraris. He was slotted into the “hell-raiser” club during his twenties and thirties, but now seems the most ordered and hard-working of fellows. It only added to the confusion when, 10 years ago, he played “Steve Coogan” opposite “Rob Brydon” in the first series of The Trip. Can we call this a fictional version of the real man? Would anyone reveal such levels of solipsism? We can ponder those questions again when The Trip to Greece arrives on March 3rd.

“It’s me with a little less introspection or self-deprecation,” he says. “The way I portray myself is to be unapologetically sanctimonious. I am more nuanced than that. It is always important to consider that you might be wrong about everything. Nobody has a monopoly on wisdom. In The Trip I portray myself as believing I have that monopoly.”

We also try to find Steve Coogan in Alan Partridge. He admits there are traces of the creator in the creation (car fancying for a start), but they share few political beliefs. Like many, I was waiting in vain for Partridge to pronounce on Brexit. That campaign felt like the victory of the Alans.

“It’s too obvious,” he says. “Also, if I did come down on the remainer side it might look like an attack on Brexit supporters and I don’t want to be that crude. The truth is that Donald Trump is far less sophisticated than Alan Partridge. That’s a plain fact. There is no comedy in someone being unreconstructed and unsophisticated. There is something funny about someone trying to co-opt liberal values.”

We all have to adapt. The younger generation’s values invariably end up as the new orthodoxy.

“I am doing now that with the millennials,” he says. “I am going to be open-minded about their agenda. Even though . . . um . .. it’s hard sometimes.”

We’d better not quote examples.   

“No, no. Don’t do that. Ha, ha! Choose your battles. When you get older you learn to fight your battles.”

Coogan plays a cynical billionaire named Sir Richard McCreadie in Greed
Coogan plays a cynical billionaire named Sir Richard McCreadie in Michael Winterbottom's latest film, Greed

If anyone suspects that Coogan and Winterbottom – who also directed The Trip – have lost any of their political fury then a glance at Greed should set them right. The film centres upon a cynical billionaire named Sir Richard McCreadie as he plans his 60th birthday on a Greek island. The targets for satire are wide-ranging, but, as the title suggests, it is particularly concerned with the increasing wealth divide. Even the most-evil robber barons of the 20th century gave the world something: railways, newspapers, ships. The current breed just find new ways of doing the same things for less.

“There was once a noblesse oblige,” he agrees. “They saw themselves as part of society. Maybe they were just behaving in a more sophisticated way to ensure their survival. Greed is trying to have a conversation about inequality. We talk about the environment. We talk about gender. We talk about all these things we haven’t discussed before. But the elephant in the room is the gap between rich and poor.”

Whereas Coogan has guarded affection for Alan and even for Paul Raymond, the porn baron he played in Winterbottom’s The Look of Love, I sense he really hates the McCreadies of the world.

“It’s as if this conversation about inequality has become jaded. ‘Oh, we talked about that. They tried communism in the Soviet Union. It didn’t work. So fuck it! It’s not worth trying.’ I feel that’s changed. People are now ready to have that conversation again.”

There’s more work where that came from. Steve tells me he’s toiling on a thriller, a “post-Me Too thing” and a film about the woman who discovered Richard III’s remains. There’s little sense that he is relaxing into the role of national institution. Maybe that option isn’t available.

“Like everyone else I have to go out there and convince them to buy the stuff I’ve got,” he says. “Some stuff is easy to sell. Some stuff is tough to sell. I don’t like doing the easy stuff that just pays well. I like risking failure.”

Which brings us full circle.   

Greed is released on February 21st