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Interview: Steve Coogan

It’s a grey Thursday afternoon, and we’re sitting in a private room above a pub in the centre of town. The Alan Partridge’s Radio Norwich van has been circling the market followed by a hoard of enthusiastic fans trying to get a glimpse of the man himself. However, he is in fact sitting across the table from us, clad in Partridge’s beige leather jacket. We’ve managed to secure ten minutes with Steve Coogan in a break in filming, and we intend to get as much as possible out of the man who brought one of the country’s favourite characters to life.

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After first bursting through our airwaves on Radio 4 in the early nineties, the growth of Alan Partridge has been almost unstoppable. The brainchild of Steve Coogan and Armando Ianucci, he has moved from strength to strength through his own sitcom and various spin off shows. It’s almost inevitable that he was set to hit the big screen sooner or later. “It’s an idea we’ve talked about for years and a lot of things have to come together before you can decide to do that. You have to try and get a script together and lots of other things at the same.”

The film is co-written by Ianucci (of The Thick of It fame) and directed by Father Ted and Little Britain’s Declan Lowney. “Eventually we talked about it too much and we thought we ought to get on with it so we committed to a time slot. It makes everyone come together and focus and get the film done.”

Partridge is noted as being one of Norwich’s most famous exports (despite Coogan himself being from Manchester), and the film sees him make a return to Norfolk. There have been rumours of high-speed car chases being filmed through Norwich city centre, and he’s been spotted hanging out on Cromer pier. With such a large fan base, it’s not surprising that they’ve found it hard to keep their locations under wraps: “For the first few days nobody knew we were there so we didn’t have any crowds at all, and then we were in the newspapers and people became aware of it and decided to show up.”

“It actually helps us a lot because we needed crowds for the end game of the film where there’s lots of people supposed to be supporting them, so the people who turned out we’re able to include in the film. It’s all been very positive and supportive, so we’re very pleased with how it turned out.”

After graduating from Manchester Metropolitan School of Theatre, Coogan began his career doing stand up and voice-overs. He hit the mainstream with the creation of Partridge, before moving on to a successful acting career both here and in America. After winning the Perrier Award for best show at the Edinburgh Fringe in 1992, he’s won various awards including British Comedy Awards, BAFTA’s, The South Bank Show award for comedy before being voted second in a list of the Top 100 People In Comedy last year.

“Its not an exact science. I didn’t get it right at first, you have to experiment and try to find your own voice really. Comedy tends to be written best in pairs. You need to find someone that you click with, a symbiotic relationship. But finding that person is the crucial thing, for some people it’s someone slightly different but together you work well.

“In terms of comedy itself, there are no rules. You can do very big comedy, broad comedy, surreal comedy, naturalistic comedy, there’s all kinds of comedy. Trying to avoid clichés is important.”

Having made the progression from comedian through to actor and writer, Coogan forayed into producing after setting up Baby Cow Productions with writing partner Henry Normal in 1999. Together they’ve worked on shows such as The Mighty Boosh and Gavin and Stacey.

“Being a producer means that you understand the process. It needs to be done more efficiently. You pick these things up as you go along. It can all seem very complex when you’re young but you realise that as long as you’re studious and pay attention then you can get to grips with things that seem unattainable.

“I think unless you’re a brilliant actor, just acting is not enough. It’s so hard to make a living in this profession, you have to be able to do something else as well. Writing’s probably a better job than being an actor. You get an understanding, whereas sometimes writers can overwrite and don’t give the actor an opportunity to express themselves. You learn not to overwrite, to be over explicit.”

Coogan himself has moved away from comedy in recent years to focus on his acting career. His first big part came with Michael Winterbottom’s 24 Hour Party People, playing Factory Records’ Tony Wilson. He’s recently teamed up with Winterbottom to play 80s porn king Paul Raymond in a biopic of his life, The Look of Love. He’s enjoyed other successes in The Trip and A Cock and Bull Story, which he starred in with occasional comedy partner Rob Brydon. However, he doesn’t see himself getting back into comedy any time soon.

“I don’t really watch comedy, I watch documentaries. I think there’s a lot of comedy around. There’s a lot of stuff that’s ho-hum. There’s occasional things that are a bit interesting but it’s lost a lot of edge and a lot of spikeyness.

“It’s interesting comparing it to alternative comedy 20 years ago, it was very underground, it had a kind of punk feel to it and now it feels very co-opted by commerce. It gets homogenised into a kind of amorphous, tasteless soup. I don’t think there’s comedy today – most comedy today – that’s any more edgy than comedy was in the 1970’s frankly. I think there’s just a lot of it. Because of the proliferation of channels there a big demand for it so the quality goes down and it’s about quantity.

“Stuart Lee I think is fantastic and I’ll watch his stuff forever because he has a real authentic, strong voice. I like Family Guy, that makes me laugh.

“You get some dirths and then rich periods I suppose. It’s like a career choice now, a lot of people in comedy are interested in just being famous rather than being good at comedy. They don’t really have the opportunity to have any core beliefs, or any kind of real vision; it tends to just be about being on telly. It’s very commercialised now.”

On this rather glum outlook we’re told we have one more question (any future plans for Alan?) to which he assures us that there won’t be anything from Partridge for a while, and we’re rushed off.

19/03/2013

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