COMEDY / Knowing him, knowing us, ah-haah]: Alan Partridge, smarmy master of the crass interview, is bringing his chat show to television. Ben Thompson meets the gauche celeb's comic creator, Steve Coogan
Sunday 04 September 1994
Knowing Me, Knowing You certainly has high standards to live up to. In its original Radio 4 incarnation, the show - an offshoot of the frontier news exploration On the Hour, wherein Alan Partridge, sports-desk incompetent and all-round loose cannon, is misguidedly given his own chat show - was an instant comedy landmark. As played by Coogan, Alan Partridge went beyond caricature. This was an immortal comic characterisation. Alan Partridge would chase a metaphor until it turned and fought, and in his utter tactlessness there was a form of primal innocence. When he hit a child prodigy, or informed a recently freed hostage that his time in captivity was equivalent to watching 9,000 episodes of Inspector Morse - 'it doesn't sound so bad when you put it that way' - he seemed to strike a blow for freedom.
Part of the fun of Knowing Me, Knowing You was always that it was a radio programme that wanted to be on TV - under hypnosis in the studio Alan Partridge once confessed: 'I want to be on the telly.' When the time came to make the leap for real, Coogan and his co- writers Patrick Marber and Armando Iannucci could have just remade the radio scripts, as happened with (for instance) The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. But they 'would've felt bad' doing that, so they wrote new ones in the two-week interval between filming episodes. 'We didn't see it just as transferring to TV,' says Coogan, 'we saw it as a new thing.'
Watching the dress rehearsal for the first episode, earlier this summer, it was clear just how much of a challenge this new thing was going to be. You could have cut the tension - as Partridge might have it - with a spoon, and the BBC courtyard where Coogan and Marber are gearing themselves up to go on resounds with a nervous belch. When On the Hour made the transition to TV as The Day Today there was a whole ready-made streetmap of new visual avenues to be explored, but with Knowing Me, Knowing You's necessarily static, studio- bound format, it is easier to see what might be lost than gained. As Coogan points out, 'the whole element of imagination is gone'. Alan Partridge's voice, with its false urgency, its ringing declarations, its nasal cadences forever veering between triumph and disaster, demands an equally well-observed visual accompaniment. 'The way we approach it,' says Coogan, 'is that in our fictitious world, Alan is the creative person - he makes the decisions, and he wouldn't want to do things by halves. This is his big break, and he would want a proper show; so he's going to have things on that are big, he's going to have money visible. In one of the early shows he points at an expensive prop and says, 'That's another example of licence-payers' money being spent responsibly on large objects in the studio'.
'It's almost like an experiment,' Coogan continues: 'What would happen if you gave this person a big budget and told them to do what they wanted with no one to say it's a bad idea?' The TV show which results is, Coogan observes with justifiable pride, 'not afraid to use dancers'. Or show-jumpers. Or trios of old women struggling to re-create the Berlin Olympics. Above all the spectacle, though, and the satirical diversions set up by fictitious guests played by Marber and other Day Today veterans such as Rebecca Front and Doon MacKichnan, it is on the expressive ability of Coogan's face that Knowing Me, Knowing You will stand or fall.
It's a heavy burden to place on the shoulders of any 28-year-old, let alone one pretending (as Coogan is as Partridge) to be 37, but on the evidence of last New Year's Day's superb Paul Calf Video Diary, and his showing on The Day Today, Coogan is up to the task. He describes himself, rather modestly, as 'a comic actor who writes some of his own stuff'. In fact, he is unique - no one else has so thoroughly understood that moment when Richard Madeley falls off his stool and tries to make a joke of it.
This is art built out of love, not of contempt. 'Television as I grew up with it - addicted to it,' says Coogan, 'could be a wonderful experience. It sounds pretentious I know, but a really unifying thing.' His eight-strong Mancunian Catholic family would come together from all corners of the house to watch Fawlty Towers: 'Knowing that half the rest of the country was watching just made it all the more enjoyable.' Not for Steve Coogan the dubious pleasures of adolescent exclusivity. He would drag friends in off the bus and force them to enjoy his Monty Python and Not the Nine O'Clock News records. ' 'No Steve,' they would say, 'I don't want to listen to comedy, I want to go home'.'
A young man cannot live by comedy alone. There was room in Coogan's life for cars and James Bond films (still a lifestyle inspiration) too. Boyish things, then. 'Yes, boyish things,' Coogan admits, 'but football only by my brothers' proxy.' He starts to laugh. 'Do you remember those football colouring books? I remember colouring in George Best and Bobby Charlton and then getting to the Manchester City players and putting lipstick and earrings on them to make them look like girls.'
It would not take a psychoanalyst to divine the roots of Paul and Pauline Calf, the meticulously observed brother and sister (he the hard- drinking, student-phobic City fan, she the indomitable slapper) who are Alan Partridge's main rivals in the Coogan character pantheon.
At school, Coogan had no wish to be the class clown, preferring the anonymity of 'a little coterie of mates who indulged themselves at break-time'. A talent for mimicry was soon forced into the open, however, as irresponsible teachers offered a stark choice: ' 'Steve, come up the front and do some impressions, or we'll do some work'.' In this apparently unmotivated atmosphere, ambition flourished. 'I remember thinking very rationally,' Coogan says, ' 'I'm 18 years old now, and all the people in showbusiness who I find entertaining - Rowan Atkinson, John Cleese - they will get older, and there will have to be new people. There are people in sixth forms now who in 10 years' time will be successful and they're just like me, so why can't I be one of them?' '
No one could accuse this man of lacking focus. Diverting from his apparently pre-ordained course to 'an all-right sort of white- collar job', Coogan went to Manchester Poly to do drama (having been rejected by several London drama schools), and launched himself into showbusiness. 'I just thought, 'What can
I do that other people can't?' ' he says, 'and I knew I could do voices.' In his own words, Coogan 'achieved mediocrity very quickly'. He got on to television, did Spitting Image, and even shook hands with Jimmy Tarbuck on Sunday Night at the London Palladium.
Then, in the wake of a humbling 1990 Edinburgh Festival sharing an unequal bill with Frank Skinner ('I had a bad time,' Coogan admits, 'because Frank is brilliant live and I'm not'), he had the second of the blinding flashes of self-awareness that seem to have dictated his career. 'I thought, 'People in the business know who I am, and it's up to me whether I do anything about it'.'
Determined not to spend the rest of his life as a cut-price Rory Bremner, he started work on a character show. Still earning a 'very comfortable living' from advert voice-overs, he polished it up in Northern arts centres, well away from the prying eyes of the media. He held back for another year, not quite ready yet, started collaborating with the On the Hour crowd, and then 'quite cynically' used Edinburgh as a platform to display his wares, winning the 1992 Perrier Award for his pains.
It would not be unreasonable to assume that a good deal of Alan Partridge's intensity comes from Coogan's own pre-Partridge fears that his life might be vanishing down the toilet of middle-rank showbiz. 'It was that,' he admits, suddenly impassioned, 'it was . . . Impressions are just a facility - something I can do . . . I hated being a known quantity. If people really want to annoy me they still say, 'Oh look, it's Steve Coogan - top TV impressionist.' ' There's a telling moment in a radio episode of Knowing Me, Knowing You where Alan encounters top impressionist Steve Thomson (Coogan's partner in Edinburgh was called John Thomson), played by Patrick Marber. 'I want to be funny, but with dignity,' begs Steve. 'Do your Frank Spencer,' Alan whispers malevolently.
Part of what makes Coogan's work special is the precision of its cultural reference points. At a time when many lesser talents are happy to settle for the easy laughs that go with brand recognition, Coogan and his writing partners invest time and trouble in getting details right - from Alan's car (a Ford Scorpio) to Paul Calf's striped duvet / sheet set in Paul Calf's Video Diary. 'It's about fine judgements,' says Coogan, 'making the right choice of a name, a word or a reference without being obvious, but also without disappearing up your own arse.'
In the audience for the filming of the final episode of Knowing Me, Knowing You, it is clear that these efforts are appreciated. In a break in the filming, there is a quiz to win an Alan Partridge tie-and-blazer-crest presentation box, and the man who wins plainly knows more about Partridge than Coogan does himself. The show later cocks a snook at the anal retentive element of its own appeal. Alan proudly brandishes a mask of his own face. 'They are', he understands, 'very popular with students.'
If Steve Coogan is in any danger of getting tangled up in all these different layers of reality, he shows little sign of it in person, though he is understandably upset by the suggestion that Alan's walk - stiff-legged, bandy and wholly in character with his Elephant Man haircut - might be his own. 'I'll tell you something funny,' he continues affably, 'I've got a Gucci watch, right. It was given to me as a present. It's pretty understated I think (he holds out his wrist for confirmation) - it doesn't look too flash, does it? The make-up artist was making me up as Alan a few weeks ago and she said, 'Oh, nice touch. That is perfect. A Gucci watch - that's so tacky.' I said (hurt pause), 'That's my watch.' And she said (dying inside), 'Oh, I didn't think you'd have a watch like that.' I was completely paranoid for the rest of the day.'
Confusion between the opinions (as opposed to the accessories) of the unfailingly articulate Coogan and those of the characters he inhabits, seems, on the face of it, unlikely. 'Paul Calf is a drunken bigot, which I'm not, and Alan Partidge is a small-minded Tory asshole (Coogan, though he 'doesn't go round banging a drum about it', votes Labour). Having said that, I can't deny that there are things I say in character that I do sympathise with.' Given that his favourite targets include the all-pervasiveness of media flavours of the month, it's funny that this is exactly what Coogan is at the moment, and has been for rather more than a month.
'I know,' he laughs. 'We do realise that in the same way that Alan might say 'Actors Gary Oldman, Tim Roth . . . that lot', there are people out there now saying, 'Steve Coogan, Patrick Marber, Armando Iannucci . . . (extra scorn) that lot'. That's one reason why when I've done this I'll go away and be very quiet and get on with my work because I hate that 'Not him again' thing. Imposing your face on people is a rude thing to do, whatever way you do it.'
'Knowing Me, Knowing You with Alan Partridge': BBC2, Fri 16 Sept, 10pm, for six weeks.
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