COMEDY / Questions of identity: Where does Alan Partridge end and Steve Coogan begin? It's increasingly difficult to say, as Martin Kelner discovers
Thursday 28 January 1993
The mention of Partridge's name came - as the man himself might have said in his days as anchor of Anglia TV's popular Sportsaround - like a bombshell. He would seem to lack the necessary venerability (previous winners include seasoned performers such as Brian Johnston and Jimmy Young). Talent might be considered a problem area, too, for the East Anglian chat-show host. The awards committee usually look to honour those who display at least a basic competence in their chosen craft (Partridge's idea of a searching question for a French racing driver was: 'What's your favourite road?'). Then there is the question of his non-existence.
Partridge - and this will come as a shock to people who wrote to the BBC complaining about his rudeness and ineptitude - is a fictional character, the creation of the mimic Steve Coogan.
For those of you not familiar with Alan Partridge, it is possible to construct a fairly detailed biography from clues in his recent series of six half-hour chat shows on Radio Four, Knowing Me, Knowing You. He is 37 years old, married to Carol, with teenage children, Fernando and Denise, drives a maroon Ford Granada Scorpio, has a World of Leather sofa, a wide selection of Pringle sweaters and slacks, and was recently refused planning permission for his Tudor garage. Partridge was bullied at school but found solace in his bedroom where he would spend hours moving teams up and down his league ladders. He was the type of teenager sometimes referred to as an anorak, an ideal candidate for an traineeship on his local paper. This was followed by local radio, Anglia TV's Sportsaround, and his first national exposure, as sports reporter on the award- winning Radio Four show On The Hour. Now Knowing Me, Knowing You has, in Partridge-speak, completed a meteoric rise. Among the fans of the programme is the managing director of BBC-TV, Alan Yentob, who wants to bring the unique Alan Partridge style to television.
That's Partridge. Coogan, 10 years younger than his creation, is not so easy to pin down. His press cuttings go back six years detailing stand-up in small venues, triumphs at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, voice-work for Spitting Image and commercials, and appearances on mainstream TV shows such as Live From The Palladium, and the Prince's Trust Gala; he is usually referred to as a 'brilliant young impressionist'.
The view of many of Coogan's peers on the comedy circuit, though, is that there is a great deal more to Coogan than that. Poet and stand-up comedian Henry Normal, already a big name in Manchester's comedy clubs when Coogan joined the scene as a final-year student at Manchester Polytechnic at the age of 21, says: 'Steve has the potential to be another Peter Sellers. He has this tendency, like Sellers, to become his work. He is extraordinarily driven. I know it's a cliche, but when he does a character he really does become the character. I remember compering one of his gigs once and saying to the audience, 'You shouldn't laugh at him. He can't help it.' I wasn't joking.'
At a recording of Knowing Me, Knowing You, Coogan never once steps out of character. Re-takes, fluffs, edits, all the business of recording a radio show, are discussed - as Partridge - with his co-writer Patrick Marber and producer Armando Iannucci, in front of an audience. The whole act lasts nearly two hours. This is clearly more than just a comic character. We are deep in alter ego territory - a little bit spooky, as another noted alter ego might say, although any comparison with Barry Humphries' Dame Edna is immediately rejected. Says Coogan (as Coogan): 'I like Dame Edna, but it works in an entirely different way to Alan Partridge. Because she is interacting with real celebs or members of the audience, they tend to become fodder for Dame Edna and the humour is much more broad. Alan Partridge works with actors, and we try to ensure that they do not just act as his straight man. That way, I like to feel, the humour is a little deeper.'
Being broad is near the top of Coogan's list of comic solecisms. He claims that he and Marber throw out funny lines when they are writing Alan Partridge, on the grounds that they are 'too comedy'. If all this sounds a little precious, it is appreciated by the audience. Radio One's Andy Kershaw, among a number of media types at the recording (radio people are especially keen on Partridge, recognising friends, colleagues, and occasionally themselves in his throwaway inanities), pronounces himself 'staggered by the way the character completely takes over. It wouldn't work with obvious jokes. It also helps that the other actors and actresses have rounded characters too. To all intents and purposes it is a real chat show.'
The TV show Partridge, Marber and Iannucci are piloting for Yentob will be produced and written in the same way. Coogan, who has a tendency to launch into a discussion of his work methods before you have even asked, is very precise about this: 'I pace around the room as Partridge, and we make notes from the top. We then come up with a rough script, around which I improvise. As we come up with a comic bombshell, we adapt the script. We then produce a final script, but some time before the recording we tear it up and throw it away. I am sure it is going to work on TV. As far as the audience is concerned it will be a chat show like any other, but the editing will be a fine art.'
As well as the Partridge pilot, Coogan is playing a variety of characters in The Day to Day, a TV version of On The Hour, currently in production. He is also a regular feature of Jonathan Ross's Saturday Zoo, in which he plays boring student Stuart Mulligan, and appears occasionally as various characters on Wogan's Friday-night show. In stand-up, of which he does little these days, Coogan's characters include Duncan Thickett, another loser, and Ernest, a slightly older anorak. But it is on Partridge that Coogan lavishes time and love, far out of proportion to his earnings from the character on Radio Four.
He even refused to do Partridge on Jonathan Ross's show, in case the humour was too broad. This insistence on the purity of the character is reminiscent of Tony Hancock, who was forever trying to get to the essence of the Lad Himself by ridding East Cheam of Kenneth Williams' funny voices, the Hattie Jacques fat lady jokes, and ultimately Sid James' spiv characters.
It Coogan invites comparison with greats like Hancock and Sellers, it is not just because of his undoubted talent. There are numerous talented performers around, but Coogan seems almost to have chosen comic greatness as a career path. Right from the start, in the 'brilliant young impressionist' stage, he turned down shows fronted by Cannon and Ball and Marti Caine in order to avoid going down the 'Bobby Davro' route, and he still chooses his jobs very carefully. Envious fellow performers stuck in stand-up say it is only Coogan's lucrative voice-over work that allows him the luxury of choosing his work. As it is, he has managed to buy flats in Manchester and at Kensal Rise in London and an expensive sports car, and even fellow comics less confident of his ability than he is admit that Coogan, who won a Perrier award with John Thomson in 1992, will have an even better 1993.
And what of Alan Partridge? How does he feel about the prospect of his own national TV chat show? He wasn't saying. Sometimes a personality gets hot, he told me, and when you are hot you can choose which press you do. And unfortunately, he hasn't forgiven me for describing one of his questions as idiotic - the one where he asked a member of the House of Lords, who was writing his autobiography, 'What's it about?'
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